[00:11] - Denis Hirson
[00:15] - William Kentridge
There always have to be two things that come together. The one is something outside of the studio and something inside the studio. So the thing outside are trees and their associations, from the tree of knowledge, early sense of the danger of trees, to ideas of trees as kind of portraits. So one could also think of these trees as a kind of extended self-portrait. And there's so many associations–trees and their mortality and our mortality, which we can maybe talk about later–that's outside the studio. Inside the studio, these all have to do with a good brush becoming a bad brush. If you paint with Chinese ink or Indian ink and you work with a brush that's either a Japanese or a Chinese brush, it's a long, soft brush that if it's well kept, keeps a very sharp point so you can both make a very broad stroke but you can also find a very fine line. But somehow, I don't know how to look after these brushes, and after a short while, instead of keeping a very neat point, they all just become a series of spikes. However, many times you straighten them, they just go out. And in desperation I thought, what can I do with these bottles and bottles of bad brushes? And then found that there's a kind of random mark-making that comes from these different spikes of the brush that was something akin to the random but shaped form of leaves in a tree. So the bad brush became the origin of all the paintings of trees, of accumulating the foliage on the different. So some sections of the paintings are done with good brushes, but most are done with a range of different. And I have different bad brushes, which I know would do different things with the ink.
[02:09] - Denis Hirson
I have to challenge you on this, William. You've said almost everything except that a tree is a tree. Now, before I want you to answer, I want you to read something. I want to read something to you. This is from Conversation Three on the 14th of December 2011 in this gallery. You say, “There is a sense in which temperamentally in going for a walk in the felt, I always feel I'm walking over the felt rather than in the felt. It does feel distanced and other. It's not like swimming in a swimming pool where you feel you're in the water, which is a very comfortable element to be in. A hike over the South African landscape feels like an unnatural activity to me. If I have an hour to walk, I realize I will be much happier walking in my studio, stalking the studio, then saying, I've got an hour–I'm going for a walk in these woods or I'm going to walk through this park or I'm going to walk through this piece of felt. It's a bit like riding a horse. When I'm on the horse, I know I should not be there. The horse knows it, I know it, and we have a pack to say, all right, let's just get this over with quickly. I feel the same in the felt. I should not be there, but we'll both manage till the end of the walk, as opposed to some people who relax as they start walking in the landscape. They are who they are.”
[03:36] - William Kentridge
There's a difference between the tree one wishes for and the trees you're presented with. So in all my childhood, and still, there's a kind of a wish for the dappled light of a deciduous tree of sunlight coming through leaves and making a partial shade on the ground. The trees around Johannesburg, the indigenous trees in that part, are very spiky and fauny and generally are very bad at giving you a soft, dappled shade. So there's that kind of strange relationship to the trees, and these old trees from around the high felt and the bushveld north of Johannesburg. So I wouldn't say they're trying to take revenge against the trees. There's an intrigue. I'm intrigued by the different shapes and forms and the way the branches make their way out from a central point to different parts of the world. But I'm not a tree hugger. I don't feel like I need to embrace the sense of the tree. I'm intrigued in their growth and in the mortality embedded in a tree.
[04:46] - Denis Hirson
Yes, I should just add for the audience–I don't know whether you're aware– but Johannesburg, there are more trees in Johannesburg than in many other cities in the world. I add that in brackets. But, William, you're not a tree hugger–yet in the beautiful litho that there is across the road in the Goodman Gallery bookshop, you say in French, “Looking at a tree, I become a tree.” You also say in the same litho, “Though a doubt, a shadow of a doubt.” And at the bottom, “Two secure a spirit. Everything that breathes.” Is this an evolution?
[05:39] - William Kentridge
It is an evolution. It is an evolution because the trees also have a–but it's not–I do write “In looking at the tree, one becomes a tree.” In painting a tree, the tree becomes who you are, or you become a different tree. There's an amalgamation of the tree also as a kind of self-portrait. There's a different sense of also the interest in trees. We had a tree in our garden, which was planted when I was nine years old, and after about 55 years of the trees age, life, got struck by lightning and it died and it was chopped down in this huge area which had been shady dappled area in a tendered garden, became an empty space. And there was something shocking, there was something shocking about the death of a tree, because one assumes that a tree is going to live much longer than a human being. The tree should live 2300 years. And if the tree could only manage 55 years, where did that leave me or everyone else? So there was a shock in the finiteness of a tree's life. I mean, in Johannesburg, at the moment we have a huge plague of Bora beetle, which is burrowing into many of the trees on the side of the road. And many, many, hundreds of thousands of trees are going to die in the next couple of years. In Johannesburg, it's like a separate pandemic for trees in many parts of the world. But that sense of the mortality of a tree–and there's another description that was made of a tree, which was to say that obviously, as we're born, we know that from the moment we are born, at some point we are destined also to not be there, to die. And one can think of all the years that you are living, you are also busy growing inside you, a kind of tree of your own death. It gets older as you get taller, so it gets taller and fills all of you. And at a certain point you're going to die. And what will be left will be this image of the tree. And so if you die young or if there's premature death, the shock is also that this death which should be growing to a fullness, has been cut short and the trees now a sapling or truncated. So there is also a sense of a tree growing inside you and the breathing of a tree almost like the breathing of our lungs. I wouldn't push it further than that, but it's definitely there.
[08:15] - Denis Hirson
That’s pushing it pretty far.
[08:16] - William Kentridge
It is further than one.
[08:21] - Denis Hirson
Just before we go on just in brackets. What did it feel like having a litho of yours with the French language printed on it?
[08:31] - William Kentridge
I liked it because it marks it of where it comes from, that it was made here in Paris last week at the Idem studio in Montparnasse relocated here. I like it as a marker, particularly when it's outside of Paris, it will be interesting as a marker of having been here in France. There is also something about the idea of paper pulp, of making an image of a tree on something that was once a tree. In fact, the paper uses probably not so much a tree, but other forms of plant which have been turned into paper, which now hold the tree again.
[09:09] - Denis Hirson
Behind us we have two trees and on this side there is a tree with quotes, some of which you say, I'm quoting you, you have scavenged from various political sources. And on this side we have a tree which is more personal, and it's quite rare in your work to find the use of the word “I” and such a personal reference. Can you tell us how you shifted from the one to the other?
[09:39] - William Kentridge
Well, the texts, as you know, a lot of the texts that appear in the work are not my writing. They are phrases scavenged from different poets, usually not English poets, usually poetry in translation, and there are different lines, and sometimes they get transformed slightly. A phrase gets changed, different things, and they're written down in a kind of a commonplace book. And then when a project happens, in this case, working on the libretto for the chamber opera, Waiting for the Sybil, which is shown in the projection downstairs, sometimes I'll go through these pages and start pulling them out, writing them again and then not taking them at random. It's not about randomly taking them, but about seeing on the table in front of me, the physical activity of moving them around to find the order, the logic, the connections that happen. So in this case, if there are some which have an “I” in them, it comes from that. But it's also the sense that when you've found the text this way, I can't remove myself from responsibility because it still has to be texts that feel right. And if there is an I, is also an I that feels appropriate in the text.
[10:57] - Denis Hirson
But is there something special for you about having produced a tree with a more personal linguistic aspect to it?
[11:05] - William Kentridge
I mean, what happened in this case was that there were two trees and I had a big gathering of that. Oh, in fact, some of these feel much ones that particularly the lines from Mayakovsky, feel much more about the state of the world, and these ones feel much more about the state of the inner being and in itself. So they got sifted out quite simply on those categories. But no, I'm not frightened of the I coming in, because the I when it comes into the picture is always I in the third person, even though it's the word I. It's still used as a self-portrait in the third person, rather than directly, which means it's him calling himself I, the person making it, standing there, sticking that down, who feels sometimes very removed from the person sitting here.
[12:00] - Denis Hirson
You're no longer that person.
[12:02] – William Kentridge
Well, one's never that person, the person, the shift between making the drawing being the person making the drawing dissolves the instant you take one step away from it and look at the drawing, the same way when you're writing as you reread it for the first time. It's a different person who reads it. And usually you think, who is the idiot that wrote that? I didn't do that drawing. I would have done a much better drawing if I'd been asked to do it. But each time you return to it, you disappear. And that fool is there again making the drawing and making the same mistakes. So there is a distance of who one is in the studio and he got to exhibit it, not you. He got to exhibit it and to stay in the studio. And I have to sit here and try to desperately imagine what he was thinking of and speak on his behalf and try to find a logic like that that's not there about what he thought about using the word. I wasn't there. He was the one who did it.
[12:55] - Denis Hirson
William, can you say a few words about the blank spaces in the more personal drawing? This isn't the first time you've had blank spaces. I was remembering the space you had in the Tiber project. One of your wonderful frescoes or stencils along the wall is marked Quello che non ricordo. Does that relate to this?
[13:26] - William Kentridge
It does relate to it. Two things. On the one hand, it's simply a formal question. When looking at it. I had a whole pocket full of phrases and I was pinning them to the–so the tree was sort of first drawn with the gaps, and then I thought I'll be able to, then I'll paint very carefully the text in those gaps. But after doing one or two, I knew that most I would leave blank. Not to say you shouldn't fill me. So it's not quite an Advent calendar. You're waiting to open each one and discover what the text is behind, but it's got some sense of them. What is the memory behind each of those that's gone? So the text of that tree, which is “Finally Memory Yields”, could be also “Finally, Memory Yields”. It unlocks itself and allows new thoughts, old memories to come to the surface that you thought you had forgotten.
[14:16] - Denis Hirson
Well, let's take it from there. Is that the full meaning of the title of this exhibition?
[14:23] - William Kentridge
We'd have to ask him who wrote it…No, I was intrigued by the phrase “Finally Memory Yields” because it has a double sense. Memory yielding can be like your memory giving up when you get old and your memory fails. Even now, I can't remember someone's name. You can't remember a face. You know, the French playwright, the French playwright, not Artaud. The other one. The name’s at the tip of my tongue I can’t–and then an hour later, Genet, the name Genet walks into your head so you know it, but you've forgotten it. So memory can yield in that sense of those numbers and those names have disappeared. But it can also be memory which has locked itself, yields and allows itself to be present again.
[15:12] - Denis Hirson
Don't you prefer the second? You're not really saying finally, we reach oblivion or something like that?
[15:18] - William Kentridge
No, I'm saying that the things which memory has chosen not to let us bring to the surface can be unlocked and they come so you can have your if you want to put it back into the tree metaphor. The tree that is locked there all winter. And then at a certain point, it yields and allows all those leaves that have been waiting inside it to come out in those two weeks of spring.
[15:42] - Denis Hirson
I must admit, I'm intrigued by the word “finally” because this is not, after all, the first time that you've let memory into your work, you've made Other Faces and Tide Tables as wonderful films. Memory has poked its face up in many places. So where does the finally come from?
[16:06] - William Kentridge
I mean, the truth is, it came from my notebook of commonplace words, but it felt right. It did come from there, but it's not good enough to say it just comes from there. But I didn't say “memory yields” no cross that out. “One day memory will yield” no cross that out. “Finally, memory yields.”
[16:23] - Denis Hirson
[16:25] - William Kentridge
The skill was in the poet who wrote it in Finnish, and then the translator who translated into English and then me latching onto that phrase when I read that poem, not knowing what it would be used for, but knowing it should sit in one's pocket somewhere.
[16:41] - Denis Hirson
It also seems to me that in this exhibition there is a new kind of manifestation of memory in those drawings, like those that you've done that are in the bookshop, which are almost like after images or dream remembrances of the processions you've done. Do you see it like that?
[17:06] - William Kentridge
I do. There are those four that make one procession. The four that make a procession are interesting also, just in terms of where do images come from? How do they work? One of the consequences of the pandemic all over the world, but in South Africa as an example, was the desperate circumstances, both of individual artists, but of many arts organizations. And so, as with all artists around the world, there are a huge number of requests for aid in the form of doing benefit additions that could be sold to aid arts organizations. And in a certain week, I think four different requests came to the studio. So I decided, right. Let's do all four as both also as a single work and as four different things. So each of those four images was done. Largely. The bulk of the addition went to a different organization, a dance organization, an artist support scholarship organization, different places like that. But they also then started, well, they'd have a coherence, and the coherence is that together they form a kind of procession. And the images in the procession, you're quite right, are after images of their figures that have appeared in other works. Some are sculptures, some are shadow figures, some from the tapestry, that are rebought into the form of a coffee lift, etching. They're etchings, not lithography. Before you come to the coffee.
[18:35] - Denis Hirson
Before you come to the coffee...so they are, in a way memories of your own work.
[18:42] - William Kentridge
Yes, I mean..they are always. I keep on thinking I'm going to make a new image and I make the image and discover damn, I made that four years ago, two years ago, three weeks ago.
[18:50] - Denis Hirson
Unless it was the other guy, right?
[18:52] - William Kentridge
Unless it was the other guy. Yes, but it feels a bit like kind of comedian they'll have to take characters that are pressed into different service to perform different plays, but doing the same kind of stock rolls. So there are no sorcerous would be one figure that often has to appear a megaphone comes, the telephone gets taken out of the cupboard and put into another image. And I made a list once of everything I've drawn, a list of everything I could ever remember drawing, and then a list of things which I knew I had never drawn. And then I said right, for a year I will only draw things on the list of things that I have never drawn. But after like an hour I realized I was stuck and was never going to draw the things in the list or not out of just that need, but was very happy to draw. So I was happy to draw the 4000th rhinoceros, but not the first hippopotamus.
[19:54] - Denis Hirson
Can you say something about the coffee?
[19:57] - William Kentridge
About the coffee the coffee lift?
[19:58] - Denis Hirson
The coffee you were using to make the images?
[20:01] - William Kentridge
Okay. When I started making etchings–this has been the 1970s–there was no real sense of toxic chemicals, or if there were toxic chemicals, that's just what you worked with. So, we used to wash our plates in pure benzene, which presumably told me that I'm heading towards bladder cancer as the way out, because that's what all this benzene should do after all this. And lacquer thinner, I would go to sleep with silkscreen prints drying on clotheslines above the bed, just breathing in pure lacquer thinner fumes. But in the last years, it's become very...people are much more aware of the toxic nature of a lot of art making materials. And so people have done research and found ways of doing it. So they've discovered that instead of having to use benzene, you can clean an etching plate perfectly well using sunflower cooking oil. And instead of having to use a lacquer-based shellac to put a ground on, you can do it with some mixture of soy sauce. And instead of the sugar lift that used to be done with condensed milk and Indian ink, now you can do very well just using instant coffee. It has to be bad quality instant coffee because of all the extra solubility that needs to be in it to lift through. So there's a kind of cooking of etching now which has been introduced into the studio, and there's a different kind of mark that the coffee gives you, then the sugar gives you from the condensement.
[21:33] - Denis Hirson
Okay. I want to shift this conversation now to the film downstairs Waiting for the Sybil.
[21:40] - William Kentridge
So in 1968, the Rome Opera premiered a piece or showed a piece, made by the American artist Alexander Calder, Caldér, as he's known here in France, which was a 19-minute piece made for by Calder. And it consists of huge mobiles on the stage turning and people on bicycles riding around–very late 1960s piece–recorded pieces of music by Italian contemporary composers. And the Rome Opera wanted to revive this, and asked me to do a second part of the evening. So they would show the Calder first, and then a new piece. And the new piece became a chamber opera called Waiting for the Sybil, which also had to do with things that turn like the Calder, but the things that turn were the pages and the leaves of the Cumean Sybil. And it's a chamber opera which has music written by Nhlanhla Mahlangu, South African singer and choral composer, and Kyle Shepherd, a fantastic jazz pianist from Cape Town. And I think there are two dancers and seven singers, six singers, and that we performed in Rome, and we've performed it in a few other cities, and we do it in Stockholm in a week. And out of that comes this particular section. So what you see downstairs is nine minutes of the forty-five minute opera. And what is seen downstairs is projected on a screen on the stage. And where you see downstairs the images of a woman dancing and turning by and large, those images are made by the dancer and her shadow on the pages of the projections of the book. And there are many other scenes that happen throughout that mimic the structure of the Calder. Of course, like Cockney rhyming slang, where at a certain point you dispense with the rhyme, which gives you the logic of the piece, the Calder is no longer performed. It has to do with the anomalies between the Calder being a piece of stage equipment, which it is for Rome opera, but for the Bella Arte in Italy, it being an expensive piece of artwork valued at $18 million that has to be handled with white gloves and airconditioned crates, and makes it impossible to travel with it. So the Calder, in fact, has disappeared, and we left just with the Sybil.
[24:14] - Denis Hirson
Then there is a first part to Waiting For the Sybil. Did you add that in afterwards?
[24:17] - William Kentridge
The first part was added in... we just had to do a first half thing since we couldn't do the Calder anymore. So we made a new twenty minute piece, which really comes out of a film I already made, which got expanded and we did live music with it with the same singers. But it's an interesting thing because it has to do with processes that start in kind of…I wouldn't say in bad faith, but don't start from a particular burning need to say this is the story we need to tell. The starter point was we need to find something for twenty minutes to put in the first part where the Calder is, that we couldn't do...well, we'll do this piece of the live singing and this animated film and hope that it's sort of okay. But in the end, it became very, very beautiful. The singing was fantastic, and it worked very well with it, and became a very strong piece in itself. So I'm always interested in that, in a way, the kind of the inauthentic or the impure origins, which can nonetheless lead to something that is coherent or stronger, but that's not represented in this exhibition so much.
[25:32] - Denis Hirson
And then you were telling the Marian Goodman team, as we went around the other day, that, in fact, the music to the piece downstairs was taken from rehearsal, not from the recording studio. Can you say something about that?
[25:49] - William Kentridge
Yes. The music is composed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu, but with the particular singers that performed it in the film downstairs, that were part of the workshops..the pieces are always made in the studio as a kind of series of improvisations, almost like the leaves swirling but which then solidify into a final text, final piece of music, final set of movements. And at some point along we did a recording of with the singers in my studio, in the drawing studio, of the music which is in the film down below. And later on we thought, okay, this is going to sustain itself as a film by itself, we better do a proper quality recording. So we hired a very good studio and everybody went and we rehearsed and mic everybody up separately so we could catch all the different channels and get the balance exactly right. And spent a long time doing it. And it sounded great. And we could make this person louder, that person softer at this moment, as opposed to the recording where it's kind of one...There were a few mics, but it's one mix. There's no point, no possibility of changing. But when we came to do the editing, we suddenly discovered that, yes, the great quality recording, technical recording, was not nearly as strong, as interesting, as the first rougher recording we had. So it's the rougher recording that is down here. It's to the credit of the Gallery and the installers and the stuff that it sounds so much better here than I've ever heard it sound anywhere else.
[27:25] - Denis Hirson
It's acoustically a bit like the equivalent, the acoustic equivalent of the bad brush.
[27:30] - William Kentridge
It is, although this is still a very good brush in terms of even that rough recording was well...The real bad brush recordings somehow don't quite make it.
[27:42] - Denis Hirson
What you didn't say when I asked you earlier about having a litho with French written on, it is how special to you the French language and France are.
[27:55] - William Kentridge
Yes. Okay. So Anne and I spent ten months in France 40 years ago. I was studying theater, but I was studying mime, so it didn't matter that I couldn't speak French. But I picked up French to survive with there, which has been the French I have. And because I was happy to speak it fast, but badly, I mistakenly assumed that I could speak it, and it took all my French speaking friends to say to me 'It's fine, really speak in English, we understand you better' to not parade it in public, but I do love it. And it does feel of all of millions of other languages, which I don't have a clue. It's one that is least far away after English.
[28:45] - Denis Hirson
So I'm changing the subject slightly, but not altogether. We were talking the other day and you showed me a quote by your mother. Just before I read it, could you tell us round about which date that was?
[29:02] - William Kentridge
So, my mother was a lawyer and advocate in South Africa, and she had a private practice as an advocate for all the years of my childhood. But in my adolescence, in early adulthood, she stopped that practice and focused all her attention on founding an organization that was going to give not just legal aid to individual cases, but would fight legal cases that needed to be fought in the last years of the Apartheid era. And it's still a very important organization. But in the late 70s and through the 1980s, it was of fundamental importance in South Africa. And then she left South Africa with my father. But those years of founding the Legal Resources Center and its battles were like her prime. That was when she was at her most alive, the most charged by what she was doing every day. And the organization still continues, continues today in South Africa.
[30:06] - Denis Hirson
And the quote that has her name, then Felicia Kentridge. And the quote I'm about to read, do you have any idea what date that might be?
[30:15] - William Kentridge
It would have been from? I think she was given an honorary degree in America…that was probably from a speech she gave there, which would have been in the mid 1990s, but which I came across, which pointed out to me a few weeks ago. This quote from my mother in the early 1990s, in a cooking book, a book of recipes, a book of recipes that was published this year or last year by a series of community organizations in Cape Town that was a mixture of descriptions of these activist organizations and their recipes, how to make a pot-au-feu for 300 people, those kinds of community cooking recipes, activist recipes. And in just on one of the pages, they had some different quotes by different political figures on it, and this is one of the pages.
[31:07] - Denis Hirson
So here's the quote: “There is an adrenaline in being South African that is highly volatile. It pulses with outrage and incredulity as yet another incident of cruelty, bigotry and stupidity, unfolds. It is miraculous to have this erratic energy, these sparks in the abyss of rage harnessed into practical action. And this has been my good fortune.”
[31:48] - Denis Hirson
Your mother gets two rounds of applause, William.
[31:50] - William Kentridge
I'm so pleased with that. She was so underrecognized during her lifetime, and in the years since she's died, she gets more and more recognition for what she did. So it's very moving for me to have you read that.
[32:06] - Denis Hirson
And do you think we could still apply it now to South Africa?
[32:11] - William Kentridge
We could, but it's more difficult. I mean, in the sense that the bigotry, cruelty and stupidity is still there, that we know as well, we're still living in. It gets harder to…it was clearer how to harness it during the apartheid, to know what the clear battles were. Now the battles are less. They're still there, but they're less clearly defined. Is it simply this part of the bureaucracy that is corrupt? Does it go further than that where actions are being stopped? Are these little people who you can find as your allies in this corner of the world? It's much more complex…It's much more intermingled the venality and good and good effort, are much closer connected now. So within an organization you have some people are in it for the privileges that come with it, and some people are in it still desperately trying to transform that corner of the world.
[33:15] - Denis Hirson
I feel like asking a sort of clichéd question. Like...are the changes coming into the studio to affect you in any way that you can palpably put your finger on?
[33:29] - William Kentridge
Explain that more, which changes?
[33:32] - Denis Hirson
The changes in the country.
[33:34] - William Kentridge
They certainly come in as part of the atmosphere of what it is to be in the country. So there's a collapse of a lot of public institutions. So the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the art gallery of my childhood, is in a state of collapse in a multiplied now because of having to close for the pandemic. But even before that, it was in a state of kind of terminal collapse. So that is one of the reasons why we started the Center for the Less Good Idea and small art center we have in Johannesburg some ways to do the work that public institutions ought to be doing, but aren't certainly in the city of Johannesburg. So it does, it definitely does come in that way. But I think in many places around the world, public initiatives have collapsed and different private ones have tried to fill the gap, sometimes successfully, sometimes less successfully. But it's not an ideal situation that things that should be there as a public could get fewer and fewer.
[34:35] - Denis Hirson
Whatever the case, you persist in living in Johannesburg in the same house where you once grew up.
[34:45] - William Kentridge
There's an energy to quote my mother, there's an energy that comes from living in there, both from the distress and the encouragement, and the energy of the people working with. I mean, there are a lot of…in the studio there are many, many collaborators, not so much on this floor, which is just essentially me and the pot of ink. But downstairs, certainly the singers, the composer, the editors, the people involved with the film, in the other room, the different print Studios that I work with, tapestry weavers, the sculpture foundry. There's a whole village of people around Johannesburg that are essential for me in the studio.
[35:23] - Denis Hirson
That was my 13th question. You've been given seat number 13 in the Académie des Beaux-Arts. That's what's been allocated to you, you told us last night. Are you in any way superstitious?
[35:39] - William Kentridge
About fauteuil et treize? No, I was more superstitious. There's an award I got in Japan, and it's usually given to people, let me say, a lot older than myself. But there's something like a 70% mortality of people dying within two years of getting the award. And in some cases, like two weeks before they get it. But I've outlived that, I'm past that, I'm in safe terrain since then.
[36:09] - Denis Hirson
Glad to hear it.