William Kentridge
Telegrams From the Nose 2008

INTRODUCTION by Bill Gregory

The first thing I notice when the taxi pulls up to the to the house in the well to do suburban neighbourhood of Johannesburg is the cut out iron sculptures of two cats facing each other atop the gates. The sharp metal edges give the cats a mildly menacing look. It?s as if as if their hair is standing on end.

The driver presses the intercom to William Kentridge?s house and studio. A voice answers and the gates swing open.

At first the driveway gives no indication of there being any building on the property at all. The trees and vegetation are quite dense and the land is on a steep hillside punctuated with craggy rock formations. As the car creeps through the gate to a switchback corner, the studio looms into view. It is a contemporary building perched precariously amongst the rock and the trees. I can just make out balconies jutting in several directions. The sun glances off the glass from the windows and the balcony doors. This is where it all happens I always think to myself as the car continues up the hill, leaving the studio behind and to the left.

As we turn another corner the paved driveway rises steeply and widens near the main house and there are a number of cars parked on either side. Later, I give them a quick count and including the open garage there are over a dozen cars parked. There is a rehearsal underway of Woyzek on the Highveld, a play conceived and written by Kentridge. It was first performed in collaboration with The Handspring Puppet Theatre in 1992 and is due to open for the first time in sixteen years in Johannesburg in a fortnight. The international tour will include Brisbane and Perth.

?Come early? Kentridge had told me on the phone the night before. He had hoped we could have a chat about the Annandale Galleries exhibition before the actors and technicians arrive. Presumably I am a little late or perhaps they are early?

After paying the cab, I take in the view of the main house in front of me ? a two-storey sprawling affair surrounded by lawns, hedges and flowerbeds. The early morning light lends clarity to the scene and there is sharpness to the air and African sky - a sky so clear I can imagine cutting slices of blue out of it with a knife. Behind me is a magnificent view of the city of Johannesburg, far below and off in the distance - the skyline punctuating the horizon.

After being greeted by a pair of friendly Labrador retrievers, familiar from past visits, I make my way down the stone path that leads to the studio. William Kentridge has spent his entire life living within about three kilometres of this spot. Most artists of his stature are eventually drawn, often permanently, to one of the world?s great contemporary art centres such as London or New York. Kentridge is the exception, and although he travels frequently to his exhibitions and although I meet him at least as often in Venice or London as I do in Johannesburg, he has understood that much of the power in his art comes through his intimacy with Johannesburg, the city where he was born in 1955. This is a key to understanding both the man and his work.

The title Johannesburg, Second Greatest City After Paris, 1989, is one of Kentridge?s early works from the Nine Films series that helped bring him into the International spotlight. No doubt the title has some ironic intention but there may be more than irony to it when considered in light of the importance of Johannesburg to the artist.

In the studio I am warmly greeted by Anne McIlleron who has been working with Kentridge for over a decade and who I?ve come to know. She introduces me to a new assistant, Linda Leibowitz who I only know from phone conversations. There are perhaps a half a dozen people milling around, talking on mobile phones or sitting in front of computer screens, cups of coffee in hand. Yet, it is remarkably quiet, everyone seems to know what he or she are doing. All are going about their business.

The studio is much different than I remember it due to the rehearsals. The main room of the studio has been turned into the Woyzek set with lighting in place and a large table with soundboards opposite. From beyond the stage and scaffolding the normal studio peeks through; I can make out drawings in progress here, etchings pinned to a wall there. There is a wall next to the upstairs guest bedroom full of yellow post-it notes in a loosely geometric formation with phrase length ideas scribbled on them. Another wall has the limited edition poster advertising a previous Annandale Galleries exhibition in 2004. It is pinned next to a Zeno Writing etching proof. Has it really been four years since our last show of new work?
It is as if, the interior of the studio is still there, as I remember it from my visit some months before, but a layer has been added over the top. There are some maquettes, drawings and set paintings in evidence for The Nose, the Shostakovitch opera, based on a short story by Gogol, for which Kentridge has been commissioned by the Met to direct in NYC in 2010. Large plaster noses in various sizes for use as costumes are in evidence about the studio and give the place a somewhat surreal look. The famous 16 mm camera used to shoot the now historic Nine Films series is just inside the stock area. The fittings for another projector are hanging from the ceiling with a mirror. This, I recall was the set up when, during my last visit in June, Kentridge screened What Will Come (Has Already Come), the film that will be on exhibition in June this year in the Sydney Biennale.

I am told that Kentridge is still up at the main house so I make my way back up the path to see what he is doing. On the left I notice the tree house nestled in the magnificent tree next to the studio where Kentridge used to play when he was a boy. As I noted in my essay in the Annandale catalogue in 2004; ?Now nearly forty years later, he has a new ?tree house? ? the studio where his imagination perhaps works in similar ways but reaches out to the world with his vision.? This thought brings to mind some of the more interesting locations where his work has been shown and we have spent time together; Venice, Kassel, London, Paris, Lille, Johannesburg and of course Sydney. These experiences of bearing witness to what is, after all, an extraordinary progression have left an indelible impression on me both intellectually and emotionally. My own program at Annandale and indeed my life have been influenced by a chance encounter with the work of Kentridge in the early eighties at the house of Vanessa Devereaux in London, at that time a gallery owner and sister of Richard Branson of Virgin fame. I first came to Johannesburg more than a decade later for the funeral, in 1995, of Joe Slovo, the head of the armed faction of the ANC during the dark days of apartheid and the housing Minister in the government of Nelson Mandela as I was close to his daughter Shawn. I took the opportunity to find and introduce myself to William Kentridge.

I enter the main house and pause to glance into the living room. The house is full of art, mostly by Kentridge himself, so for a Kentridge aficionado it is a treasure trove, representing various periods of his career. Bronze Procession sculptures march along shelves. There is a large tapestry and some stereoscopic drawings in the living room and an edition of one of my favourite pieces from my personal collection, the bronze Coffee Pot Lady is in a niche by a window. Some familiar etchings from Zeno Writing II are in the stairwell leading to the bedrooms, mixed on the same wall with some works from the late seventies ? long before Kentridge?s reputation as an artist had soared to the dizzying height it now occupies.

In the kitchen, I find Kentridge chatting with a houseguest over a cup of coffee. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxed as we greet each other. I?m worried about being late but Kentridge assures me there is there is plenty of time for our business. We need to go over the final choice of work coming to Sydney. It feels like only yesterday that I was last here and we can pick up where we left off with the breezy familiarity that comes with repeated encounters over time.

Heading back down to the studio, we start by going over the lists of work and making a rough plan for finalizing Telegrams From The Nose, the exhibition title, with the time at our disposal over the next several days. What is remarkable is the focus of the man. We spend about an hour chatting and taking notes. By the end of our conversation there must be at least a dozen people at work in the studio with others coming and going. There is a lot happening; a query from an actor, an assistant wants to know when someone may come that afternoon; the foundry is on the phone with news of a sculpture in progress. Kentridge treats everyone with equal measure; he manages to change gears from our discussion of the best spot to situate a tapestry (after a number of shows he knows the Annandale space well) to a question from a carpenter. He is able to excuse himself and quietly deal with these myriad interruptions and successfully return to the same spot in our conversation again and again. Later, we will also have some quiet time together but this hustle and bustle is quite invigorating, if a little enervating at the same time. Whenever possible the matter at hand is dealt with, not put off unless there is some missing information that makes an issue temporarily unsolvable.

Kentridge has a talent for bringing out the best in people. Whether it is the photographer doing the stills for the rehearsals, his own assistants or people like myself ? his dealers ? there is something about the man that makes me want to put my best foot forward. The extraordinary success of so many of his projects means that anyone?s involvement with William Kentridge, however small, is somehow part of something larger. I will even go so far as to say that there is a sense of history being made in the studio, and that, as a result, people want to do a good job. He delegates well and encourages people to use their imagination and to solve problems on their own. He does not insist on being in control of every facet of his art production although in the end he is keenly aware of everything going on around him and his approval is always required before anything proceeds - in the end it is a situation where ?all roads lead to Kentridge.?
Another key to the Kentridge story is very simply his memory. At one point during my visit, we were discussing something to do with display furniture for the show (he prefers continuity in presentation props such as plinths, tables, display cases etc) so that the display elements do not hinder the viewer concentration). We were interrupted and one and a half hours later when we re-visited the subject, he manages to return seamlessly, going back through a list of options on that and other subjects verbally almost faster than I can read them from my notes. I realize that his work ? an art practice that includes printmaking, sculpture, artists books, film and theatre ? demands his establishing and nurturing relationships outside the studio: there is so much for him to remember. Still, as focussed as he is, I see that he is perhaps less concerned with precise outcomes than he was in the past. I imagine this to be the result of watching things follow their natural course and come out well. He has learned to ?let go? of things to some degree since my last visit.

Before the morning rehearsal the studio goes relatively quiet and when I inquire where everyone is I am told that the entire crew and actors indulge in a daily ritual of forty-five minutes of Feldenkrais, a kind of exercise similar to Pilates, before rehearsal to mentally and physically focus themselves. Everyone is upstairs doing just that.

Even in so busy a studio, Kentridge has a remarkable ability to block out the surroundings and concentrate on the work at hand. He doesn?t like to waste time or energy. His massive output, produced in tightly knit surroundings with only three full time assistants, makes him seem almost an artistic industry, and his dedication is picked-up by those with whom he works. There is a communal feeling in the studio, and a wish on everyone?s part to make everything work. I can see that even his most recently employed assistants feel almost part of the family.

Today, lunch is called about 1.30 pm and everyone, the actors, carpenter, lighting people, photographer, assistants, and myself amble up to an outside patio at the corner of the house. A generous buffet has been set up inside and there is a long table has been set up outdoors where people are seating themselves. The buffet is groaning with dozens of plates on a serve yourself basis. Natalie, one of the assistants has organized lunch but I learn that William, who loves to cook, has had a hand in the preparations. Where he found the time to do this is entirely beyond me!

Conversation at lunch is easygoing and relaxed. There is plenty of laughter and plenty of food. One of the actors is describing her worst nightmare: forgetting her lines in a play that she herself has written. Another tells of waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming of being naked on the stage. Kentridge is sitting to my left and I notice he is wearing a white shirt open at the neck with khaki trousers, almost a uniform with him, although this varies with dark slacks, a jacket and a panama hat at times. Kentridge listens intently to these anecdotes and appears to be almost studying the speakers with a mixture of focus and bemusement. He turns and asks me what it is that art dealers fear. ?Not being ready for an opening? I reply ? unable to think of anything amusing or entertaining. I study him closely as I respond but there is little reaction.

I excuse myself early from lunch for an appointment in town and later that afternoon there is a complete run through of Woyzek in the studio. I arrive about half way through but it is a fascinating experience. I notice that Kentridge, who is directing the play, mouths the words as the actors speak them ? something, so I discover when I mention this to him later, of which he is unaware.

He is grateful for my observations but has less time for advice. He neither listens closely to it nor gives it out. He has time and enthusiasm for responses but when I start to draw conclusions and offer solutions in a more than practical way his attention drifts.

Watching Kentridge at work in rehearsal is a fascinating opportunity, as I believe that one of the reasons for his artistic success is his theatre background. It is certainly one of his great passions. In contrast to the isolation in which so many visual artists work, theatre work cannot be undertaken in a vacuum or alone. The idea of needing an audience to complete the circle is crucial. In theatre you MUST communicate with your audience, and in order to communicate successfully you must empathize. Theatre forces this disposition as a matter of survival. More and more I am coming to realize that art that is purposely made obscure or opaque is a position, even an idea, but for me at least it is not significant art until it is properly exhibited and seen. Art is a sharing process. With the work of Kentridge, everyone brings something away from the experience ? whether the observer is an art lover, a food critic, an aficionado or even a child. Especially a child, as Kentridge?s work engenders a sense of wonder ? something often lacking in contemporary art.
This growing realization has been further entrenched into my thinking during the Annandale Galleries recent exhibition of Zadok Ben-David?s Blackfield, an exhibition many readers of this essay would have seen. Both artists understand the importance of empathy in successfully communicating a sense of wonder through their art. Both share the rewards of touching so many people in all walks of life.

Kentridge is not entirely unique and would be the first to admit it. He may spend some time blocked. There must be times when he cannot find the key or doesn?t know where to go next and I imagine that he must become grumpy - a handful for himself and perhaps those around him. He is no different from other artists in this regard. But not only have I heard him tell students not to worry about becoming directionless. I have heard him maintain that it is often useful to court zones of uncertainty and even confusion. This is how Kentridge pulls away from so many of his peers. Due to his multi-media capabilities, an explosion of concrete creativity follows the searching periods. Film, drawings, prints, sculpture, theatre, an opera. Kentridge, the artist, has the inspiration, but also the experience and facility to move effectively in many directions.

The current exhibition is entitled Telegrams From The Nose. Fresh from his production of Mozart?s The Magic Flute, which started in Brussels in 2005 and toured to Lille, Naples, Tel-Aviv, New York and South Africa, this is Kentridge?s second major opera. Starting with the equestrian sculptures in the show much of the work in other media outside the opera now either derive from or are an inspiration for further ideas for The Nose. I watched Kentridge at work on some of the horse sculpture maquettes back in June 2007. The pitfall that Kentridge was very much aware of in producing equestrian sculptures is that they become too mannered or clichéd. They all end up looking like Gericault, Michaelangelo, Degas or perhaps Stubbs. The challenge in order to produce something fresh and original, paradoxically, is to become intimate with all aspects of the cliché and then to undermine it while retaining the idea of the equestrian statue. As Kentridge?s puts it, his goal is ?to undermine the usual approach.? The results, in the form of the bronze horses in this exhibition are magnificent. They recall for me responses ranging from a kind of homage to Giacometti to a surreal version of the wounded hussar retreating with his horse in Gericault, to Marcus Aurelius (dressed as a nose) on a strutting horse. The work stems from creating a space for uncertainty and doubt and then filling it from an original angle as the artwork evolves.

The following day, a Saturday, I return to the studio and find Kentridge alone, listening to opera on his beloved portable Bose disc player and working on the drawings/collages for the Art & Australia project. Being watched while he works does not faze him at all and he readily agrees when I ask if I may take some photos of him at work. This is exciting, even spine tingling for me as this work will be on the walls of my gallery in a matter of months. It is as though we have suddenly projected ourselves forward to the show. The challenge he has set for himself has to do with problems of representation. Indeed, ?How People See? could be the sub-title of this show. What do we see and why? The exhibition has a laboratory feel to it from the consistency of the furniture to the emphasis on multiple methods of viewing. There are works like ?Double Vision? that require a 3D handheld antique viewer and the magnificent stereoscopic gravures with a special viewer one looks through from above to encounter a three dimensional space. The two circular anamorphic drawings mounted on specially fabricated steel tables have shiny steel cylinders in the centre, bringing the image into focus. Theses are not works you can pick up out of the corner of your eye. You must participate. Kentridge is inviting us to question the meaning of space for its own sake. On some level there is a playful aspect to this kind of work. On another he is perhaps having us all on ? playing games with our senses and providing us with more questions than answers, leading us up a garden path that even he has no idea where it ends or even why it is there. There is a certain glint in his eye when he shows me some of these works. He is asking us to look and then to look again. Space, after all, he seems to be saying, is a perception that exists inside us as much as in the physical world.

Kentridge takes unmistakable pleasure in the confusion displayed by some of us ? the so-called aficionados ? when we are first exposed to something new. When I saw The Magic Flute in Lille in 2006, I was entirely surprised. It was nothing at all that I imagined it might be. This ability to surprise even his most dedicated followers is critical to understanding Kentridge. As in the case with viewing Picasso, just when you think you have it right, you may be sure that you have it wrong. This amused Picasso and to some degree the same is true of Kentridge. If you think you know where he is going and if you imagine that you can predict his next move you are definitely on the wrong track. He will always pay attention to you, but his work comes from a complex and profound well of creativity. His art never loses its ability to communicate on a wide scale, but even to him its source remains a mystery.

Bill Gregory, May 2008

Director of Annandale Galleries, Sydney


William Kentridge
Telegrams From the Nose 2008
films drawings sculpture tapestry etchings
11 June - 19 July 2008

Exhibition features:

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