Art

Kentridge, the sculptor: huge exhibit highlights artist's lesser-known talent

William Kentridge is famed primarily for his two-dimensional works and theatre productions. Now an exhibition in Cape Town is putting his sculptures in the spotlight

04 August 2019 - 00:07 By Julia Freemantle and Karel Nel
'Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture' at Cape Town's Norval Foundation will feature a range of William Kentridge's (pictured) sculptural works spanning two decades.
'Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture' at Cape Town's Norval Foundation will feature a range of William Kentridge's (pictured) sculptural works spanning two decades.
Image: Stella Oliver

William Kentridge is one of South Africa's most revered artistic talents. Known primarily for his two-dimensional works and theatre productions, his sculptural work will now be in the spotlight at Norval Foundation's latest exhibition.

Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture will present visitors with a range of work spanning two decades and documents Kentridge's engagement with the three-dimensional.

A combination of new works and pieces that have their origins in his operatic and animated productions, the exhibition will showcase the complexity, humour, kinetic and metaphoric qualities of the internationally awarded artist.

William Kentridge's works have a long tradition of movement and kineticism.
William Kentridge's works have a long tradition of movement and kineticism.
Image: Stella Oliver

From a play on scale — several pieces from Kentridge's visual lexicon have been reworked into scaled-up plaster prototypes from which monumental bronze sculptures have been cast — to an exploration of the everyday, the works present "the space between the personal and the political, the operatic and the mundane, the apparently irrelevant and the socially pertinent".

"Kentridge's sculptures embrace a spontaneous approach and have evolved towards the massive and the monumental. Simultaneously, and in tension to the monumental aspects of his practice, he is revealed to be a choreographer as much as a sculptor," says Karel Nel, senior advising curator at Norval Foundation, of this body of work.

The exhibition will coincide with a complementary show at Zeitz MOCAA entitled Why Should I Hesitate? Putting Drawings To Work, which will focus on Kentridge's drawings.

We sat down with Kentridge to find out more about the creative process behind his sculptural works.

'Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture' is the first exhibition internationally to address your work as a sculptor. What has informed the development of your sculptural output?

A lot of the early work that I did had to do with either silhouettes or shadows. And shadows by their nature are immaterial; simply an absence of light, a blockage of the light. And the sculptures started as a way of making this immaterial substance, or void, into a solid weighty material object.

This was done by taking the shape of a shadow or a silhouette — a silhouette of the shadow, you could say — and extruding it outwards onto paper, into cardboard, into wax on paper, or cloth, so that the image — which had no dimensionality or had only two dimensionality — gets extruded and given a weight in the third dimension.

This was the basis of most of the sculptures, which is to say they're the sculptures of a draftsman rather than a pure sculptor. Three dimensionality is an essential attribute, but they usually start as a drawing. And this has expanded from making the sculptures thicker and heavier to feel the weight of a word and to feel the weight of an image.

William Kentridge's scuptural works play with dramatic scale.
William Kentridge's scuptural works play with dramatic scale.
Image: Stella Oliver

The usual transformation has been from cardboard or cloth or wax into bronze, but there are also steel sculptures, steel cut-outs, welded steel sculptures, some assemblages of wood and twigs — some of which remain as rough assemblages, some of which get cast. There are a number of sculptures made in cardboard, cast in bronze and painted to look like sculptures.

There are also virtual sculptures in which the sculptural three-dimensionality only exists in the viewer's brain. Two flat images which are pushed into a third dimension through various stereoscopic means.

So the push towards sculpture has been both questions of perception, the apparent illusion of three dimensionality in these virtual sculptures, wanting to find a weight of immaterial objects, both a physical weight and, I suppose, a kind of moral of these objects.

Which artists have most profoundly influenced your sculptural output?

It's difficult to say who has influenced me. There are artists whose work I've looked at a huge amount. Of course Picasso's sculptures are central to this, particularly his first painted glasses of absinthe, which are a wonderful mixture of sculpture, painting and assemblage.

The later sculptures of Cy Twombly stay as a very strong thought in my head. Alexander Calder becomes increasingly important as a way of thinking about movement and sculpture. And no-one can think about sculpture without thinking about Alberto Giacometti in the 20th century.

Pablo Picasso created 'The She Goat' largely from found objects. It's a work William Kentridge finds particularly inspiring.
Pablo Picasso created 'The She Goat' largely from found objects. It's a work William Kentridge finds particularly inspiring.
Image: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

But the central sculpture that sits in my head as one of the great works of the last 100 years is Picasso's sculpture of the nanny goat (above) made out of an assemblage of pots and baskets found in the rubbish heap next to his studio.

Your work seems both political and philosophical. How have these two disciplines shaped your vision as an artist and as a sculptor?

As an artist I think one always works in two directions or three directions - the third one being the pressure cooker of the studio in which the first two elements come together.

So the one is the world coming towards you. These are both personal events, political events, social events; everything that happens around you in the world which is invited into the studio. Some are political, some are philosophical. The nature of certainty and uncertainty, marginal thinking, peripheral thinking to go with peripheral vision.

From everyday items to objects with symbolic heft, Kentridge's sculptures have as much weight as his drawing and cinematic practice.
From everyday items to objects with symbolic heft, Kentridge's sculptures have as much weight as his drawing and cinematic practice.
Image: Stella Oliver

The other element is the history of image-making. The way in which one's brain is filled not only with images of the outside world but with ways that they have been represented over the years by artists from different cultures, traditions and histories.

And all of these sit together in one's head and the studio becomes the kitchen in which the different ingredients are cooked.

So some of the sculptures are primarily concerned with natures of perception; what is a two-dimensional image that is hidden inside a three-dimensional unrecognisable object.

In other words, which objects can you only see when you become monocular or when you close one eye. This relates to the single-eyed vision of baroque theatre designs and single-point perspective, which are both questions of philosophical understandings of the world and ways of representing it. 

'Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture' will run at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town from August 24 2019 to March 23 2020. Visit norvalfoundation.org


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