William Kentridge and his former protégé Mateo López at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, where Kentridge had a major retrospective. ©Rolex/Qilai Shen
William Kentridge: Hello. What we’re going to do this afternoon is to look at our practices in the studio, and talk about the studio as a central place for making meaning. I was invited by the Rolex Protégé and Mentor programme to work with Mateo; one of the reasons I chose him to work with was because a lot of his work was made very carefully in a studio, and I was interested in working together and exploring what the bounds and nature of what that work in a studio could be.
Mateo López: What I think we can start doing with this talk is: I will propose to William a series of questions, one of which I have been continuously thinking about is the kind of routine you can have inside the studio. How you plan your day, and how you organize the time you’re planning to spend in the studio?
WK: So this question is about the daily routine of the studio. I think first, just to describe to you, there are two studios that I work in. The first is a studio in the garden of my house. And the second is a larger industrial studio in the centre of Johannesburg. Both of these are in Johannesburg. Mateo’s studio was in Bogotá, in Colombia; at present his studio is in New York. But the sense of routine for me used to be very simple. When I had children at school, then the routine would be taking them to school and then starting the day’s work. But now it is really quite early in the morning getting into the studio, and I should be getting straight down to work. But what happens with me, and I want to know if it happens with you, is that there’s very often a first hour of wasting time, of putting off having to start work, of procrastination. In this time it’s either looking at yesterday’s emails, what’s happened in the night, or it’s going to make another cup of coffee. So there’s this wandering around the studio before the work begins. I don’t know if it’s similar for you.
William Kentridge in his studio in Johannesburg, South Africa. “The studio is like your brain,” he says. ©Rolex/Marc Shoul
ML: For me it’s not only an hour, it takes the whole morning to prepare and start the whole session. So I spend the whole morning sending e-mails, calling friends, calling people that you’re working with, and then, after lunch, around 2 or 3 pm, I start really getting into the process.
WK: That’s interesting because you’re someone who can start functioning after lunch. For me if I start working sort of at 9 in the morning or 9.30, the morning session is the vital time for me to get a lot of work done. And I’ll often say to Anne McIlleron, my person who runs the studio and is the curator of thinking and mails in the studio that can wait till after lunch and then I’ll do mails. But after lunch, there’s a big dip of energy, and so from 2 to 4, it’s a disaster for working. So there’s often a siesta in the room where all the other work is happening.
For me, it’s that hour of walking around the studio which, maybe it’s an excuse, but I think of it as a productive procrastination. That in fact is the time when a lot of things are bubbling in your head. Because, when you’re walking around the studio, you’re putting off having to start the drawing on the wall or on the table, but in the corner of your eye you’re seeing the day-before’ s work, you’re seeing work from before, you’re seeing postcards pinned to the wall, you’re seeing all the raw material for the project you’re working on. So, even as there’s a kind of peripheral vision of what you’re seeing around the studio, there’s also a kind of peripheral thinking, of allowing ideas to gel and to find their space. So that, even if it seems like a waste of time in fact when the work begins, I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s a clarity that was not there at the start of the morning.
ML: That you’re not trying to finish, you need to continue non-stop. It happens to me that I tend to work until really late at night, that’s why maybe I’m more of an afternoon person.
WK: And you go until early hours of the morning?
ML: No, until midnight.
WK: OK, I can go push myself to work until 2 in the morning if I have to. But my experience is that every time the next day I realize what I was doing really late needs to be thrown away. So I really have a good morning and then a very good late afternoon, and early evening are by far my best times.
ML: I usually don’t only walk inside the studio. I walk around the building, around the neighborhood. Probably because in Colombia, back in Bogotá, I was working with people that use to live or work near my house. So I was going to see the wood shop, the carpenter, the binder, even the stationery store was close by. So I was repeating every day, every week, every month, the same kind of routine around the studio. Which, in New York, now that I moved last October , is a completely different way. It’s like a blank map, the studio is well located, but at this point I’m trying to discover what’s around the studio. So I proposed to myself that I will try to continue this routine of walking to build my own map of the city.
When López lived in Bogotá, Colombia, part of his daily routine included daily walks around his neighbourhood. ©Rolex/Tomas Bertelsen
WK: Sometimes I walk around the garden, and that kind of walking is quite good for general thinking. But the most productive walking absolutely happens inside a space the size of this stage. Walking around a bit like an animal in a cage, going backwards and forward around the small space, circling the table where the work is happening. That’s where ideas really seem to heat. But there’s definitely a relationship between walking and thinking. So we’ve been circling the working in the studio and talking about the preamble to it. Is the nature of the relationship a physical movement, to thinking and making of the art? Because one of the things that I was interested in with your work is that both of us are physical makers. It’s not about digital work, it’s not about conceptual work, it’s about work that always has to be realized in our own hands. In the actual drawing and physical construction. So there’s the relationship. But there’s a big difference between a work that goes all the way from your belly all the way across, a large gesture, to work that can be kept to the movement of a wrist or your knuckles. And to all those different stages.
ML: And you can feel your back doing the same thing.
WK: One of the reasons for wanting to work with you was I couldn’t believe how finely you could control and think in that very precise manner, almost like a jeweller. Whereas I felt more like a woodchopper, trying to make a necklace with an axe rather than with a fine drill. But I’m interested that for you also the physicality of movement is an important part of what happens in the studio.
Kendridge and López during their talk at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing. ©Rolex/Qilai Shen
ML: It is, it is. I feel that when you walk, you breathe, you oxygenate yours lungs and your body and you start thinking. Also you can disconnect from many issues that happen with administrative work at the studio. But there is something that I want to ask you, if this idea of walking is related to the Greek philosophers of the Peripatetic school?
WK: I think there is a connection. There’s a connection somehow to what the activity of falling is, that you’re falling and then you stop yourself from falling. Each step you’re about to fall, so as you walk you’re leaning forward. But you’re also shifting your weight from one side to the other. And I think there is something in what that must to do to one’s brain, which is different from simply sitting. And there’s an interesting history of walking and thinking. After the peripatetic philosophers, the school of Greek philosophy in which philosophy was done while walking, you think of Rousseau and the French philosophers, a lot of whose philosophy was done while walking in the grand ambulatories and promenades of the great aristocratic estates. And then you think of the pleasure of the passeggiata in 19th-century cities, of what it is to go for a walk and have a conversation and reflect. And the activity of walking after a meal in Europe. You think of the cloister in a monastery, in which the monks would circle and circle around as a kind of meditation, and as a way of thinking. And then you think about contemporary form, which is people who are on the treadmill in the gym. Which is a kind of low form of walking, but it gets even worse because often you have a television screen in front of you. So you have the machine walking for you and you have the television set thinking for you. So it’s a kind of double form of idiocy. Let me say that I have a great antagonism to the idea of the gym, because I know I should be there and I really don’t want to be there.
ML: Running on the spot?
WK: It’s not for me, I wish it was, but it’s not.
ML: So, continuing talking about studio practice. We all know that you include this topic in your lectures and in your work, but I wonder when that happened, when was its starting point?
WK: To give you a bit of background, a lot of work in the exhibition here, the work done from the late 1970s up until around the year 2000, was made in the studio, using all the principles I’ve been talking to you about.
William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera in Beijing was Kentridge’s largest retrospective so far. ©Rolex/Qilai Shen
WK: But which never really examined the studio itself, didn’t reflect on the studio. And then, in 2000 or 2001, I was in fact like you in New York for some months, and I was looking at some of the films of [American artist] Bruce Nauman, and thinking about the plays of Samuel Beckett. Which are minimal actions and that happen, in Bruce Nauman’s case, in the studio. I was thinking of the image of the artist in the studio. And you have both the Courbet painting of the artist in the studio with the model, but you also have the extraordinary movies of Pablo Picasso painting filmed in the studio. And of Jackson Pollock making his paintings. And so the idea of the artist in the studio as being either the canvas or the brush became interesting. And then there was a series of works that reflected on what it was to be in the studio. Just in very quick form and summary, one can think of the walk around the studio where you go, and which we spoke about before, this long walk where you see different images and you gather the fragments of ideas to begin the work. One can think of that as a kind of demonstration of what is actually happening in your head. Where you have all these different thoughts and memories of phone calls, something that you’ve read, an image which you’ve seen, which are sitting physically in different fragments and connections, synaptic connections in your brain. And instead of having this 15-metre walk around the studio you have a 3- or 4-centimetre journey from one part of your brain backwards and another to your visual cortex, back to memory and so on. So one can think of the studio as a demonstration of the process of thinking. And so that started and that became a separate kind of investigation, and using the studio as a way to interrogate or to examine or to play with, we’ll come to the question of play in the studio, with the idea of how one makes sense of the world.
ML: So the studio is like your brain, in a way?
WL: The studio is like your brain, but the studio is also like the psychoanalytic room. Where there is this safe space for any kind of free association. The way the patient, if they’re talking to an analyst, can say whatever comes to their mind and it doesn’t get censored before it is said. In the same way the studio needs to be a safe space for any images to be put down, any stupid thing to be started. And then later on you can assess if they make sense, if they should be kept or abandoned. So maybe it’s a good place to talk about play and stupidity in the studio.
ML: Describing what I do, my stupid actions?
WK: Well I think it’s important that there are stupid actions. And each of our activities if you analyse them are ridiculous.
ML: I do, the way I understand this, I have parallel projects that I never show.
WK: Describe some of these parallel invisible projects.
ML: Lists of things, or drawings, or small projects that I’m planning to do, but never realize.
WK: So give us some examples.
ML: Drawing a series of noses, famous noses in the history of art.
WK: I’ve spent many years working on a project on noses, so I know that has a lot of sense.
Kentridge spent many years working on a project on noses. ©Rolex/Marc Shoul
ML: There is another parallel work, or project that I never got to show, which I’m not planning to present. It’s with all the paper that I work with after cutting it to do the drawings that I use. So I collect all this paper and do small bindings, or let’s say a small artist’s books with this kind of material. So it becomes like a parallel work that kind of follows every object, every drawing that you have made.
WK: So it’s not so much what I’ve been working on, or thinking about also has not been realized, with the idea of all the things that are started but which are failures. Objects which one tries to make but which fail. And to have an exhibition or a room of failures. But then I got so excited by the idea of failure that I tried to make failures. And I failed at making failures. So that rooms kind of stayed empty. But in the same way this is like what’s not the work, everything that’s not the work. So it’s like if you took all the scraps from a sculpture that you’ve carved away and kept those.
ML: Yes, like the emptiness.
WK: I know that animation and film-making have in the last few years has become one of the languages that you’re working in. Maybe tell us a little bit about the films that you’ve been working in, have you got a film to show?
WK: Let’s have a look. Because there’s lots of my films that my people can refer to, but let’s look at yours.
ML: So this film is titled El minutero, which means Minute Vendor. The idea came from an encounter I had in Bogotá, where it’s very common to see people selling minutes on the street.
WK: How do you sell a minute?
ML: I mean like cellphones, phone calls, so it’s like a telephone booth, but in this case it’s a cellular phone. So you see these people carrying a jacket with chains attached to cellular phones. So you pick a phone, you make your call, and you pay this guy. The jacket he’s wearing with the chains is called pulpo, an octopus, so this guy can be walking up and down the street and the people follow him talking on the phone. So it’s an interesting, very common situation that you can see downtown in Bogotá. And it actually clicks and transforms into this film. Somehow it’s with this kind of compass that I’m very familiar working with, is one of the tools that I used, and that I’m using at the studio, and then suddenly this figure, this little man, the dancer starts moving and activating a series of events like the voice, the sound, and so on… The music was produced by a friend of mine who is a composer and is based on Cumbia [dance music of Colombian origin] song, you can hear the guaracha which is a common instrument in the Cumbia music from Colombia. So it becomes like a music clip, from this regular idea. Other objects that you see on the film, that start moving and rotating and being animated, are these series of drawings that I have been working on for a couple of years. It’s kind of a tridimensional drawing. So it’s a drawing that at a first stage was flat, then what I do is I draw the flat surface and cut, fold, and suddenly this flat surface, this two-dimensional surface becomes a tridimensional surface. Somehow it’s my background as an architect that led me to imagining drawing as a tridimensional object. Something that happened after spending time with you is that with this series of drawings that I was working with, I decided or I was motivated by you to start moving and playing with stop-motion and frame-by-frame animation. What I’m planning to do is continue making series of films without any script, any purpose at all. So, what I’m thinking that I can do with this is that I can create an archive of different clips, and after some time I can edit another film, to create a story on the edition. Something that is also planned with these films and these rotating and moving objects is that I plan for it to become a performance.
WK: There’s an extraordinary performance you’ve already described. So you described the person walking around, the octopus, with his cellphones. But then if you had to make this series of small films, but they exist on small screens, and then the person is walking, but then to watch the films everybody has to follow him behind, watching the films that are with him so you have those minutes again. And it is a performance for everyone, because then you’re either watching the film, or you’re watching eight people following this person up stairs, down, under a table, all of them having to follow with their films.
ML: I was thinking – what percentage of the work you do is based on the history or the connections to your stories or to your knowledge, and what percentage of it can be your own impulse to say things?
WK: Historical references? I think that in most of the cases, I’m sure you’ll find also, there are two things. So, there’s ideas that float around the studio, and they have to function in two ways. They both have to function as interest in something outside of the studio, but they also have to find some reason in the studio to be made. Whether it’s the pleasure of working with the pair of compasses, in the film you’re making. Or the cutting out of those extraordinarily fine letters and numbers for the playing card and working with that. There’s a meeting of the outside world and the activity inside the studio that has to be there. And, sometimes what comes in from the outside world is very much art historical images, old historical references, things like that. So I can’t give you percentages. But there’s some projects that immediately refer back to other images that one’s seen, to the history of art, to key images in one’s head. And others that don’t start off that way.
ML: But a suggestion or comment for a younger artist could be follow your instinct? Or follow what you have at your back?
During his mentorship, from 2012–2013, López spent several weeks with Kentridge at his Johannesburg studio. ©Rolex/Marc Shoul
WK: You have to find the space between those two. I mean for me it’s never about expressing yourself. When somebody says I just want to express myself, then I say you should not be an artist. It’s rather to say let me rather discover what it is that needs to come out of the sheet of paper when I’m making it rather than knowing in advance what it is. So in the activity of drawing, there’s lots of space for impulse, for your own thoughts, for all of those things to come out. But, for me, that’s a dangerous starting point. It makes small thoughts and impulses much too large, it doesn’t test them against the material you’re using. For me all the best ideas have come halfway through the process of working with bad ideas. So the key thing is not to wait for a good idea to begin, but to be open to the good idea when it arrives not through you, but in spite of yourself in the work.
ML: The first idea is not the good one.
WK: Unfortunately, often one has a really good idea and then think this is a great place to start, but halfway through the project, almost always, I’ve found that the starting idea is abandoned and something else takes its place and you realize what the real interest is. But I think you have to understand that at a certain point, the work will show who you are. It shows who I am, it shows who you are in your work. And so if you are by nature an arrogant person that arrogance will come out in your work. If you’re a self-protective, cautious person, over the years that’s going to be what your work shows. And so that’s kind of frightening, because you discover who you are in the work, and also because you can’t really hide who you are. You know, at a certain point if you think you’re hiding very well, the work will become about elusiveness and hiding. So that for me, it’s quite important to say an impulse, a whim, an inauthentic beginning, a bad idea as a beginning can be fine, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good piece of art. The bad idea is not enough but it’s a help.