William Kentridge: His stature in SA is unprecedented
William Kentridge: His stature in SA is unprecedented

I interviewed William Kentridge once. Not in a public conversation like the ones Denis Hirson brings together in the new book Footnotes for the Panther, which records 10 interviews between 2010 and 2015. In fact, I didn’t quite do it in person. I sent a list of questions to him, and received audio files in return with his answers.

One Sunday evening before dinner, Kentridge took my questions and went to his studio, read them out, and recorded his responses into his phone.

I saved one slightly cheeky question for last: Why does he do his interviews like this? Why couldn’t I do the interview in person? Surely it would have been easier to chat and allow all the chances and accidents that he embraces in his artworks to come through in the interview format?

He had the good grace to consider my question and give me a number of pretty good answers. First, he works during the day — the time he has available to answer questions is limited, so he tries to fit in his interviews at odd hours, sometimes late at night. He mentioned that he gets two or three interview requests a week. He can’t possibly do them all, but he does find he can do more of them this way. Second, when doing them alone in his studio on a Sunday night, there are no interruptions and disturbances. He can concentrate, focus on the question and think of answers properly. He added that he thinks there’s a kind of intimacy about the quietly spoken answers coming from an empty studio, even if I wasn’t there in person. He was right.

Kentridge is a big deal — probably the SA artist who is the biggest deal of them all. His status and stature is unprecedented. Irma Stern and Pierneef get good prices when they’re auctioned overseas now, but in their lifetimes they had nothing like the international presence he has. Someone suggested maybe Tretchikoff, but he didn’t have the gravitas, despite the undeniable way he made his way into a kind of international cultural consciousness.

The result is that Kentridge is hugely in demand, so there’s a paradoxical situation in which Kentridge interviews are quite common, but quite rare. And as an artist, he is prolific; he seems never to stop working. There are a few occasions when he mentions how he feels overcommitted at times and that he’s stretched too thin. In the last interview in the book, in 2015, on a Sunday in Amsterdam, he says: "There are lists of 40 things to do before I go away at the end of the week, which may be 16 drawings and two interviews and three of those other things, and it becomes too manic at a certain point."

He talks about slowing down to read and think. "It does not mean I’m going to stop working, but I’m not going to work like that."

I’m not sure if he managed to reform his schedule as he intended in 2016, but it was clear by the time I got to interview him last year that he was both busy and still indulging interviews. What this book brings into focus is how seriously he takes this part of his work.

In 2012 he gave a series of prestigious lectures, The Norton Lectures, at Harvard University. In one of the conversations he and Hirson have around that time, Kentridge reflects on what his "basic activity" has become. With all the journalists’ interviews, public conversations and lectures he does, he contemplates what it means for him to spend so much time on these peripheral activities.

"Does it say to me, in fact, the one thing you need to do is to get to your basic activity, charcoal drawings and animated films, and plumb that history further, these other routes are a distraction, get back into that?" he wonders. "Or, if you are going to do things that involve talking in public, what sort of work is that going to become?"

The real question

The Harvard lectures became a book, and now so have his conversations with Hirson. The existence of that question in the book is an answer in itself. Ultimately, the question becomes something more than how the interviews relate to the "real" work. Hirson writes in his introduction: "The more we engaged in these conversations, framed as they were by the intention to record and make something of them, the more we were not so much talking about the creative process as participating in it."

At one point, towards the end of the cycle, Hirson and Kentridge reflect on what they’ve been doing. Hirson refers to one of their early conversations in which they mentioned a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, The Panther, from which the book takes its title. He points out that later "the figure of the panther was used in the Norton Lectures".

There are a few occasions when Kentridge mentions how he feels overcommitted at times and that he’s stretched too thin

It also appeared again in the genre-mixing  performance/projection of Paper Music in 2016.

On one level, it’s a question about inspiration and the origins of ideas — where does Kentridge get his ideas from? But the book isn’t just about how a conversation might provoke something in an artwork, but rather the way in which the conversations are a dimension of the artworks themselves.

The publishers, Fourthwall Books, have always walked the line between a book as an object and an artwork in itself — not a catalogue, or a record, or a secondary supplement to the art, but an idea of the book as a legitimate layer of meaning, an equal participant in the production of the meaning of the artwork.

The line from the poem Hirson and Kentridge dwell on — which describes a panther circling in a small cage — is "Like a dance of strength around a middle / where a mighty will was put to sleep". Kentridge sees this as somehow describing the relationship between the centre of an artwork — the subject, the meaning — and making art itself. "That centre is a gap, terrain that I don’t always try to go through, but the work happens around it. The only way I can talk about it is by circling it," he says.

Kentridge has never been about getting to the centre. "The margins have always been a good place for me to be working in," he says. In the same way as the artworks circle their "middle", so these conversations circle the art. At one point he compares the circling to making candyfloss, gathering sugary fluff from the periphery. In this book, we end up with another layer, concentric ripples around a silent centre: artwork, conversations, the book ...

My own experience of having Kentridge’s disembodied voice apparently speaking inside my own head, teleported from his studio across town, re-energised my engagement with his work. It was a funny, fleeting experience that will permanently colour the way I relate to his work. Perhaps these conversations will do the same for others.

I can’t help suspecting, however, that the "basic activity" of Kentridge’s artworks will always retain their primacy. Though he is a charming, thoughtful, open, intelligent and articulate talker, the pictures come first. Footnotes for the Panther reminds me of a famous Athol Fugard quote: "There are some plays that are shaped like onions: you start peeling them, and remove layer after layer, until you’re left with nothing: but at least you’ve had a good cry." This book undoubtedly adds to the "goodness" of the cry.