Sassen on , 'William Kentridge'

Robyn Sassen

William Kentridge. David Krut Publishing. .

Reviewed by Robyn Sassen Published on H-SAfrica (October, 1999)

William Kentridge--a South African in Full Colour

William Kentridge, is at the moment, one of the most famous living South African artists. He has recently launched his career internationally and is quickly becoming known for printmaking and drawings, as well as his characteristic hand-made films, theatre and operatic productions. His work is about making sense of the ambiguous, ludicrous and ironic sets of realities which are presented to the South African in the street. <p> In 1997, the staff and students of the MultiMedia Department of CityVarsity, in Cape Town, designed and had this CD-Rom cut. It came about through the work of professionals in the industry, including the research and input of David Krut, the publisher of Kentridge's work. <p> As an introduction to Kentridge's prolific output and the body of criticism and commentary that has been written on him, this is an excellent resource. By its nature, the CD-ROM is obviously restricted--Kentridge continues to be extremely prolific and has since already produced a full-scale opera (amongst other projects). But this criticism can be tilted at a monograph of any living practitioner. <p> Working with Windows 98, the disk unfortunately had to be opened manually, but the workings of the programme are fairly smooth once it has been accessed. <p> The first image presented to the viewer contains a video-clip from a sequence of events in Kentridge's film <cite>Felix in Exile</cite>. This extract is potent and significant, and in many respects sums up Kentridge's telling of extremely dramatic, sometimes idiosyncratic, and typically South African narratives. It straddles a lot of the issues with which Kentridge has worked, ranging from the classically South African landscape, to the integration of music and image, to the overt presence of the technical logistics of making a film by hand, which he has worked on for a number of years. This reference may be a little misleading, however, as it is shown with no bibliographic detail nor an introduction. But, by the same token, the drama of the image carries its own and should be seen as such. <p> The quality of reproduction of the video clip does reflects the kind of quality that one will be able to see in a video of Kentridge's hand-made films fairly; flow of image and music is slightly more erratic than the original films, but this doesn't hurt them as artworks or as film. <p> The background of this screen-image is unfortunately not the work of Kentridge, and has been handled fairly amateurly with computer spray paint techniques. This is a little jarring, taking into consideration the sophistication and recognisable qualities of Kentridge's means of handling his medium. This screen-image crosses to another which has the same technical problems as the background of the first. When one exits the programme, the credits for the makers of the CD appear on a page which has been constructed over a background of a reversed-out drawing by Kentridge. This has been very successfully handled and it is questionable why this understated and sophisticated approach was not adopted for the first two pages. <p> This said, the remainder of the CD is of a very well thought out and of a good quality. It would be an indispensable research tool for anyone involved with a study of Kentridge, as well as an extraordinary introduction to his work for buyers not yet familiar with the type of work he produces. <p> The third image presents the menu for the programme which conducts navigation through the extensive capacity of the CD. Here the viewer can see an image by Kentridge wherein the links are interwoven in the form of "quotes" from other works by him. The viewer is given a choice of the six broad categories in which Kentridge has produced work, as well as a means to access instructions for navigation, a link to references and an exit key. <p> Each link presents a fair sample of Kentridge's works, together with a means to access information on a particular work, or body of works. The "Special Projects" link, in particular, is very interesting as it enables the viewer to enjoy a small taste of the theatre productions, in video clips. These clips demonstrate the characteristic music for each production, as well as clips from each, showing their singularity and specific aspects of them which make them unique. For instance, in the <cite>Ubu</cite> production, the viewer can see interaction of actor with actor; actor with puppet; animated drawing with actor; as well as animated drawing with music. This gives a fair overview of Kentridge's competence with his chosen selection of multi-media, without hurting the narratives of the plays and without becoming pedantic. <p> An added feature which gives resonance and life to the CD production is the inclusion of a voice-over facility, giving the viewer the option of either reading Kentridge's words on his work, or of listening to him read them in sound clips. <p> In some of the links, there appear to be oversights or areas which have not been addressed to full capacity. This is present, for instance, in the "Theatre" links of "Special Projects," which contains an option for "Stills." Here there are only stills from the Ubu production. This is not specifically indicated and it would have done all three pieces justice to have them all represented here. <p> I came across another apparent lack of material in the link "Drawings for Projection," which lists Kentridge's films to date, as clickable links, but no information is forthcoming on each of these film titles, which is disappointing, as each, while working with the established sets of motifs that have become typical of Kentridge's works, work within a logistic and a practical framework which has developed quite clearly and very excitingly, both visually and in terms of the expression of content, over the last few years. <p> There are also a couple of instances where the prolific nature of Kentridge's work has not been exploited to its fullest potential. This involves sections such as "Landscapes of Memory," as well as a couple of the sub-sections of "Drawings" and "Prints," where there is a discrepancy in the quantity of work presented. <p> In "Landscapes of Memory," Kentridge is present in a voice-over, describing why landscape is such an important element to his work. While one is listening to this, small clips from his filmmaking and drawings appear. There are unfortunately only about three of these, which appear in a loop: this body of his work could have been handled much more evocatively, meaningfully and with more images. <p> The final section of "References" can be accessed beyond the performative and visual aspects of the work. This contains all the biographical information critiques, reviews and academic commentaries written on Kentridge's work up until the publication of the CD and is thus a useful art historical piece. It also contains writing by Kentridge on his works, with particular reference to the complex techniques involved in making them, and in working out how ideas could be put into practice, a section which could be of value to practitioners and teachers alike. <p> Overall, this is a successful piece of work, given that it has been produced by people not yet fully in the industry of making CDs. In spite of its limitations, it has a depth and breadth which are to be highly commended and presents a South African artist in a way which is generally palatable and extremely accessible From this screen-image, the viewer is presented with a second, which has the same technical problems as the background of the first. The credits for the makers of the CD only appear on exiting the programme.

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Citation: Robyn Sassen. Review of , William Kentridge. H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews. October, 1999. URL:

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