"Promiscuously Putting Things Together" ~ A Conversation with William Kentridge
“A lot of my recent work is to do with seeing as an activity, rather than a passive reception of the world . . . What clues do you need to make sense of something? Things come together and there is an instant when you recognise, oh yes, a rider on a horse. It’s about acknowledging and celebrating that double nature of seeing, the impurity of seeing: I know that it’s pieces of wire and black paper but I can’t stop myself seeing a face.
An abstract painter might insist their work is just paint but I am saying that’s a complete distortion of what it is to be human. It’s not a mistake to see a shape in the cloud. That’s what it is to be alive with your eyes open: to be constantly, promiscuously putting things together, getting shapes to have a coherence. It’s a kind of act of aggression against the self to try to stop that. A sort of Zen purity. I am so against that!”
From a philosophical point of view this claim deflates criticisms of what has been called the spectator theory of knowledge not by rehabilitating a naive view of disengaged viewing but by insisting that spectatorship itself necessarily is an activity.
Then, speaking of the artistic avant-garde in Russia of the 1920s and 1930s, Kentridge draws an analogy to himself and other post-apartheid South African artists.
“For me, the question was: what was the relationship between that energy and inventiveness and the belief in politics by the artist? There was something about the belief in the possibilities of revolution that was part of the energy inside their work.”A well-stated question and the pretty much the only right answer.
“How do you keep a sense of utopian optimism, but at the same time understand the disastrous history of utopias? I don’t pretend to have an answer, but that is the space in which you work.”