William Kentrdige's largest retrospective yet is opening to the public this weekend. Picture: SCOTT PETER SMITH
William Kentrdige's largest retrospective yet is opening to the public this weekend. Picture: SCOTT PETER SMITH

William Kentridge is taking a nap. He is asleep on a large brown velvet ottoman in a room under construction. In a room within a room that has sprung from his imagination. Around him unfolds a lifetime of work, and he like a palimpsest rests in the snug heart of this labyrinthine progression. A becalmed pilgrim. His own progress marked out by years of work which is being installed, recreated, repurposed and reformed for the largest retrospective he has been offered yet, opening to the public this weekend in Cape Town at not one but two venues — the Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation.

“Don’t wake him,” warns Anne Roberts, the queen of production, who has been installed like the work at the Zeitz for days upon days. Because production, I have now learnt, is in fact a great part of what Kentridge’s work is about. There are troops of collaborators, builders, French people with sexy accents and soothing studio managers also called Anne, guys with tool kits, lighting experts, set designers, graphic video artists, actors, dancers, musicians, electricians — a veritable seraglio of creative endeavour. All married to his vision: recreating an Istanbul hotel lobby from scratch, rolling out the Persian carpets, hammering, cutting, measuring, knocking and splicing together this world. His world.

And at the helm of his own creation, woken now, Kentridge manifests on a ladder. With a large unwieldy brush in hand, and black-sooted chalk — drawing a mural. Naturally. Leading with the nose. A familiar character — this nose, and also Kentridge, in uniform, white shirt, black pants.  

Now he is expansive and quick with the strokes, next erasing and retracing this endless progression of his characters. We, his impromptu audience, find ourselves complicit in his act. He draws us in. Literally. As if we are all sitting on creaky wooden chairs and benches he has placed in a room, around a projector and a screen in his mind — loud hailers hailing, drawings flickering into our collective future, reflecting our very human past.

“The world as process rather than fact,” he says, much like his studio, much like his mind. The retrospective is like a very large welcome mat into this process, permitting us a glimpse behind the scenes at his museum. It is above all a very manual place, where he insists: “There is no huge hidden technology, or techniques — there is a sense of agency.”  

Earlier, on a visit to the real studio as opposed to this representation of the studio, I am struck by the idea that it is very much like Borges’ Library of Babel.  A beautiful towering room, overlooking the stately trees of old Joburg, papered with drawings, adorned with the  props of his oeuvre, little loudhailers and cast-metal noses and a maquette of a theatre on which a tiny video of his work for an upcoming opera in Rome is being projected.

This studio is blasphemously created on the premise that “all men should juggle letters and symbols until they constructed, by an improbable gift of chance, these canonical books”.  Here is a universe in its entirety. Kentridge says the studio is a “self-portrait in the long form”.  He is the raw material.

On a wall as you enter the exhibition space that reflects his studio space is a self-portrait — this now achingly known man, caught in the act of dancing. “We call it Dancing William”, says one of the Annes. If you, like me, have been somehow committed to the idea that Kentridge is a very serious artist bent on the very serious task of making meaning from the random acts and so called progressions of history, look again. Here he is caught dancing. Because?  He answers elliptically: “There is no clear answer, it is a dance about a contradictory centre.”

  • Why Should I Hesitate? Putting Drawings To Work will be running at the Zeitz MOCAA from August 25 2019 to March 23 2020.
  • Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture will be running at the Norval Foundation from August 24 2019 to March 23 2020.