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27Jun

Column: Kentridge's Drawing Lessons

First appeared
Thursday, 27 June 2013

 

Who is South Africa’s greatest living artist? Most people, if pressed to answer this rather unfair question, would give the name of William Kentridge.

“Greatest” here could mean most famous, most widely recognised, most written about or most frequently awarded. It could mean most highly valued at auctions. It could mean most prolific or most diverse – Kentridge’s oeuvre extends from prints to film, from drawing to sculpture, from tapestry to opera. It could also mean most distinctive: despite this diversity, there is an aesthetic and thematic unity to Kentridge’s work.

For me, it means that he is most able to give arresting forms to complex ideas. You don’t need a background in art history or philosophy to gain pleasure and insight from his work. He is not one for pseudo-academic posturing. Yet there is an intellectual richness to everything he produces, whether in the visual, plastic or performance mode.

He is, moreover, able to articulate this complexity in a more lucid and entertaining way than any other South African artist. Joburgers have an opportunity to hear him talk about his craft in a series of lectures as part of “The Life of Forms”, the 2013 session of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (until 2 July, programme at www.jwtc.org.za).

These “Drawing Lessons” are delivered from the stage of the Wits Theatre, which is only appropriate. Kentridge is not simply addressing an audience; he is performing a role. A Lecoq-trained actor, he uses both body and voice to speak – and he knows how to play the clown, parodying himself as orator right in the middle of an earnest (even profound) observation, or an honest confession about his artistic practice.

Introducing the opening lecture, “In Praise of Shadows”, Wits University Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib described Kentridge as a “chronicler of the South African transition”, using him as an example to demonstrate the importance of “telling our own stories”. Kentridge is, however, an international artist in the fullest sense: his work addresses revolutionary and Soviet Russia no less than it does apartheid and its afterlives.

It was not surprising, then, for this consummate manipulator of shadows to take as his starting point that foundation of Western philosophy, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Plato recounts a parable, told by Socrates, about a group of prisoners who have been chained from birth inside a cave and have never seen “real” life – they have only ever seen the shadows cast on a wall of the cave by people and objects moving in front of a fire.

The allegory has many applications. Most recently it has been used to consider the simulacra that dominate our age of virtual reality, Reality TV and almost-infinite mediation. For Plato, however, the moral of the story is that it is the job of the philosopher to take people out of the darkness of the cave and to show them the world as it is: to save them, forcefully if necessary, from their ignorance.

Kentridge, by contrast, is wary of the “nexus of enlightenment, emancipation and violence” that has, in various corrupted ways, been at the ideological core of Western colonial expansion. The postcolonial is inextricably bound to the postmodern, a contemporary sensibility according to which “all destinations, all bright lights, arouse mistrust”. The authority that Plato claims for philosophers, for those who are “enlightened”, is likely to be abused – which is why we need artists.

As a young man, Kentridge was impressed by argument and debate but found that its logic seemed to operate “over and above” the world, remaining separate from his lived experience. He jokes that, being the son of a lawyer (the celebrated Sir Sydney Kentridge, QC), he found it necessary to make himself “impervious to cross-examination”, to disempower questions like: “Have you got anything to say?”

The process of making and viewing art is, then, a challenge to Plato. We are neither the prisoners in the cave nor the philosophers. We know we are dealing with images and not with the real thing, we know that we are being deceived (we are deceiving ourselves) but doing so offers provocation and satisfaction and amusement. Perhaps that is why those in power – Plato’s philosopher-kings gone wrong – don’t like it.

 

  

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