Kentridge's massive Tiber murals live on in assemble-it-yourself woodcuts

Graham Wood talks to William Kentridge about turning his public art - 90 gigantic murals on the banks of Rome's famous river - into private art

10 September 2017 - 00:00 By Graham Wood

William Kentridge likes Italian food. "And one's early sense of what food one likes sets an agenda for the rest of one's life," he muses. His father spent time in Italy as a soldier and visited as a student, and had "enormous enthusiasm" for the country. "It was the first country outside South Africa I saw, as a six-year-old, when my parents took my sister and myself on a holiday to Italy," he recalls. But then he switches gear.
"There were so many Italian prisoners of war here [in South Africa] during the Second World War, many of whom chose to return, or applied to return when they went back to Italy, so that Italian restaurants were the standard restaurant to go out to in my childhood in Johannesburg."
The connection he makes between something as personal as the taste one has for a certain kind of food, and the broader sweeps of history of the city and even the world, are typical of the man and his work. The personal, political and historical crystallize for a moment in his anecdote.
Kentridge seems to have a lot going on in Italy. "If I count roughly, there's public artwork at a metro station in Naples, there's the big Rome project," he says. "There are some public sculptures that are either at sea or being trans-shipped from the port of Genoa to the city of Turin that will be erected in October. And many different opera projects and exhibition project in cities of Italy."The drawings were made in a sort of reverse stencilling process, a bit like graffiti. Instead of spray-painting around each gigantic stencil, however, the accumulated dirt on the river wall was blasted off with a high-pressure hose, leaving the images.
There is something poetic about the history of a city being expressed in the accumulated residues of its past. "The walls have heard all of this," he says, referring to the political history the walls depict.In time, the images will fade away. "Built into the work itself is its own disappearance; its own destruction," says Kentridge. On one level, allowing the images to fade is a reminder that even the great monuments of Rome "disintegrate year by year, bit by bit".
"It's to say this, for the three or five or seven years, however long the image lasts on the wall, is one version of a way of thinking about Roman and other history," he says.
"But then it will go, and the wall is clear for other histories to emerge ... Certain voices come out, and they'll disappear back into it."
As the images fade, they cross over into the memories of the people who saw them (or photographs on hard drives). Perhaps city guides will point out the spot to tourists. He speculates that they might say: "Those ghosts you see, those different darkenings were images ... So, it turns itself into a story about telling stories."
Traditionally, public sculpture is an attempt to arrest a moment in time, to preserve a memory by erecting a monument in something permanent like bronze or stone. Triumphs and Laments is anti-monumental. "It's about provisionality and impermanence," he says.As the images on the Tiber fade, however, they have found another incarnation. Late last year, Kentridge started a collaboration with printmaker Jillian Ross at David Krut Projects - a series of woodcuts based on images from the wall. Three have been completed, and were exhibited at DKP in Joburg in July and August (and will be at the Joburg Art Fair this weekend), and it's an ongoing project.
This new dimension of the Triumphs and Laments project takes them into the private realm. "The woodcuts, even though they're large scale, are essentially domestic," says Kentridge. "They're for inside on the walls of a room, whereas the Tiber project was a large public work.""The woodcuts ... are minute compared to the 12m images on the wall of the Tiber," Kentridge says. "It means that you approach them much more closely, and you look at them more closely, so texture and surface and the working of the areas becomes the heart of them."
The technical necessity of creating the images from fragments also becomes a crucial dimension of their meaning. The fragmentation says something about history and "the condition of modernity", as Kentridge puts it, but translated for a domestic setting.
"What isn't so obvious is that I suspect this is the way we all have to work anyway," he says. "We take fragments of information, of thoughts, of dreams, of memories, and from these we construct this coherent sense of ourselves in the world every day."
Then he explodes this observation about our private selves into the public realm. The fragmentation of the image is also "an acknowledgement of the fractured nature of our world". But it's not all alienation; there's pleasure in our understanding of fragmentation, too.
He gives an example: "It would be a pleasure in the fact that Johannesburg now is this cosmopolitan city of people from all over different parts of Africa, that different languages are heard, that different traditions, different ways of eating, of dressing come into the city."
He says the stitched-together nature of the woodcuts is about "welcoming that rather than feeling that as a threat".Sometimes when he sees the results, he's pleased, sometimes not. He says, ultimately, he's not sentimental about what happens to artwork in the private domain. "If it's a private work, when people are tired of it, they take it off the wall, they swap it for a different picture, they sell it. They get rid of it one way or another."
Releasing them into private hands is, in a way, about economics. "I'm delighted that some people want the work," he says. "It's essential for me that people who want the work also pay for the work. That's not just how I live, it's also how a lot of the projects are possible - projects that do not have any end point of a picture that sits on a wall that can pay its own way."But it's also about the private uses of art. In this realm, what he calls "art works, or aspects of culture" - novels, film, books, pictures - "are an essential part of how we construct ourselves, and recognise ourselves and affirm ourselves and other elements of the world".
And of course, those private uses can be turned inside out, and like a taste for Italian food, the personal can become political again with a slight shift in focus
• 'Triumphs and Laments Woodcuts' will be on view at the FNB Joburg Art Fair at the Sandton Convention Centre until September 10. Each print is an edition of 12 and comes unassembled.SIX KENTRIDGE WORKS YOU NEED TO KNOW

Johannesburg 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989) was the first of Kentridge’s animated films. It was eventually collected with eight others as 9 Drawings for Projection.
Casspirs Full of Love (1989) An early iconic drypoint image.
Woyzeck on the Highveld (1993) The first of several plays in collaboration with The Handspring Puppet Company.
The Magic Flute (2005) Projections for a large-scale opera production.
The Firewalker (2009) with Gerhard Marx, a public sculpture in Johannesburg.
Second Hand Reading (2013) A flip-book film using drawings on the pages of old books..

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