William Kentridge’s work is both evocative and haunting. He uses charcoal and pastel to create incredible animations in which the drawings are added to and subtracted from. The images are often obliterated in the process, but there is always a trace left of what came before. Born in South Africa, Kentridge’s work deals in both remembering and forgetting, and is often coloured by his experience of apartheid and the contrast between a violent external world and a safe, comfortable inner one (Cameron, 1999, p. 8 – 9).
Your work explores the borders between these states: between memory and amnesia, drawing and erasure. The process of re-drawing and erasure means that each drawing is poised in a state of uncertainty. Each stage of the drawing carries with it the visual memory of its recent past. This suggests a view of knowledge as constantly negotiated between the present and memory, as if forgetting and remembering were not distinct moments, but overlapping. (Christov-Bakargiev as cited in Cameron, 1999, p. 34).
Kentridge re-enacts the memory process through the action of his drawing and erasing, and the viewer is led through their own process of remembering and forgetting through the fluid nature of the animations. The action does not allow for a prolonged encounter with any one part of the drawing, but carries the audience forward through an open ended narrative that allows for a range of interpretations:
The greatest danger is of a completed narrative, as in the dark moral engravings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which the image illustrates a story outside of itself. In these the finality of the story acts to shut the viewer out from it. An incompletion or awkwardness is needed; stories stop where they should continue, gaps are left for the viewer to bridge. This is not a prescription but rather a reflection on what has made certain narrative pictures (not just my own) intrigue me and others die a death…. One is captivated trying to reduce to sense a riddle which has no answer, of joining the play which the artist has offered and in so doing accepting his or her terms. (Kentridge as cited in Cameron, 1999, p. 104-105)
Kentridge is adept at leaving just enough room for the viewer to manoeuvre, and create their own connections and meanings for the action that is being revealed. There is a certain unscripted feel to his work that leaves it open ended, and indeed, Kentridge talks about how his approach to the narrative is undetermined, it is informed by the process of drawing and only becomes clear as it is unfolding (Cameron, 1999, p. 8).
The artist defines that anxiety of not knowing what might emerge as essential to the processes of art making; as a productive anxiety that has to be embraced with confidence and trust (Hoffie, 2009, p.48).
In fact Kentridge notes that it is this ambiguity that attracts him to the work of others and something he is conscious of trying to emulate in his own work, and he believes that this is something that is inherent in the medium and process of drawing:
The ambiguity, contradiction and uncertainty that he has defined in interviews as what interests him most in works of art are there at the ground zero of drawing. For drawing is, in a sense, always unfinished, always capable of being altered, amended, adjusted, erased (Hoffie, 2009, p.47).
In an interview for Art21 Kentridge explains that the labour of drawing creates a sympathy in the object, and that there is compassion in the act of spending time rendering an image (Millar & Ravich, 2010), and this sympathy and compassion is apparent in the viewing of the work also.
The work emerges in the gap between images and words, between process and product. You can never quite grasp it – you can only be immersed in it (Rutherford, 2013, p. 23).
The immersive nature of the work means that the viewer experiences the process of drawing with the artist, so that the mode of making is tied up in the concept and emotion of the work and all aspects work together at once to create the meaning.
Kentridge asks the audience to become complicit in the experience of both the drawing and the narrative, so that the journey taken is, on the one hand, that of the artist’s rendering, and on the other a story that is open enough for the audience to have their own personal encounter.