|South African artist William Kentridge is the subject of a PBS documentary titled “Anything Is Possible.’’ (Art21 Inc.)|
His serious play takes hard work
Some artists mumble banalities and change the subject when you ask them about their work. Others start spraying obfuscations — you can’t shut them up. Very seldom do you come across an artist as clear-headed, cogent, and eloquent as William Kentridge.
That makes him a good subject for a film. So good, in fact, that PBS has expanded on an earlier documentary it made about Kentridge — part of its Art21 series profiling contemporary artists — to present this new, longer, more in-depth documentary, which airs tonight. (Kentridge is also the subject of two linked shows at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Bakalar Gallery, which close on Dec. 11.)
For the past decade or more, Kentridge, a 55-year-old South African, has been a star of the international art circuit, the subject of a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and a profile in the New Yorker. He has collaborated with opera companies (his set for the Met’s production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Nose’’ was a hit last year) and starred in biennials around the globe, from Venice to Sydney.
He appears throughout this well-constructed film in his signature open-necked white shirt over white T-shirt, with dark pants and shoes. We see him at home, in his studio, in rehearsal rooms, and on sets. He’s got a hang-dog sort of look — thick lips and thinning hair — and that clipped, well-educated South African accent that makes its speaker’s thoughts seem preternaturally precise. His father, descended from Lithuanian Jews, was one of South Africa’s leading defense lawyers. He worked on prominent cases relating to the Sharpeville Massacre, as well as on the Steve Biko trial and one of the Mandela trials.
You can see that the lawyerly gene has by no means skipped over Kentridge: He has a flick-knife mind and an instinctive thoroughness that would cope more than adequately in a courtroom.
But other ideas — ideas to do with theater and art — evidently got hold of him first. He acknowledges that witnessing his father’s passion and eloquent outrage in the courtroom made a powerful impression on him. And yet, his vision of art-making as “a way of arriving at knowledge that is not subject to cross-examination’’ seems pointedly opposed to judicial and political modes of thought. Indeed, Kentridge’s whole approach to art is posited on flouting the first rule of cross-examination: knowing in advance the answer to every question you ask. Instead, it’s based on instinct, on improvisation.
Kentridge makes animated films through a laborious process of drawing, erasing, and drawing again, working without storyboard or script. He builds sculptures out of improvised kitchen utensils (these, we learn, emerged from a tradition of putting on puppet shows for his children’s birthdays). And, for his work designing sets for operas, he pulls out all the stops, using a mesmerizing — and frequently bewildering — array of visual and auditory effects, all relating to one another.
One part of the interview has him discussing his interest in “machines that make you aware of what it is to see,’’ such as the stereoscope, which relies on the brain’s habit of combining two flat images into an illusion of three-dimensional space. This idea leads him to marvel at the “agency we have — whether we like it or not — to make sense of the world.’’
Too often, perhaps, Kentridge’s art fails to make sense of the world — or at least, to connect with it in ways that do not immediately slip out of reach. One can come, in turn, to suspect that his dazzling eloquence is in some way a cover for art that occasionally fails to match his ambitions. And yet, ambitious it is, and there’s something inherently enlivening about that.
At the start of the film Kentridge talks about the “seriousness of play,’’ claiming that “it’s always been in between the things I thought I was doing that the real work has happened.’’
It’s marvelous to have someone so articulate, so controlled and sharp-minded, espousing the virtues of fumbling in the dark.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.