The Pages of a Mind: Interview with William Kentridge


“Second-hand Reading,” William Kentridge’s latest exhibition at New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery, opens tonight. The show (through Oct. 26) features a number of sound-making machines, the artist’s trademark flip-book films and the drawings used to make them.

Kentridge led A.i.A. on a walkthrough of the show last week, while it was being installed. He was wearing his customary dark pants and white dress shirt. “When you’re working with charcoal, you wear a white shirt so you can boil it in the laundry,” he explained. “I’m very bad at shopping,” he added. “This way it’s very easy. You take one decision away.”

The main works in the show, Kentridge said, are a new film and a group of large drawings made of multiple encyclopedia and dictionary pages collaged together, on which the artist has drawn trees indigenous to the Johannesburg area, where he lives.

The film, Second-hand reading (2013), with elegiac music by South African composer Neo Muyanga, shows a book, Cassell’s Cyclopaedia of Mechanics, being opened by the artist’s hands. As the pages flip, animations appear of the artist, pacing, deep in thought, along with giant, bare trees from the Johannesburg area and a black figure waving flags as if communicating in semaphore.

“I see a book as a kind of material depiction of one’s head, of the number of thoughts that can zoom past, like the phrases in a dictionary or encyclopedia,” Kentridge said. The fact that such volumes are obsolete, of course, lends to their appeal. “There’s the sense of the end of an era for these physical repositories of knowledge, and [the book] becomes, now, like mind—completely abstract, immaterial substance.”

But, he added, “There’s something about the physical presence of a book which is very different from just the knowledge inside.”

Does he see this as a sad passing? No, he said, quickly, because “there are so many fantastic books that are now there to be drawn on!” And he goes through a lot of them, he said. Kentridge admits to being a favored customer at used bookstores near him, but also to sourcing volumes from the Internet. “I want the same edition of the book, so you find them in Pennsylvania or Scotland, wherever people still hang on to old dictionaries.”

Finding the right books, he said, “has to do with the quality of the paper from different eras. You need a paper that’s yellow enough for the white pastel of the shirt to read against it.”

Several large works on paper are emblazoned with cryptic phrases, such as “What is of us & what is not”; “meeting the page halfway”; and “performing the meaning’s absence.”

A.i.A. asked about the significance of one text that reads “the man who fled his fate.” None of us can escape our fate, the artist said, and recited the words, “The man who fled his fate—a journey of 60 years. And when he returned, who was waiting for him at the roadside but his fate, who said, ‘Come on, am I not thy fate? Let us go and eat.'”

Kentridge smiled mischievously. “It’s an old Ghanaian aphorism,” he explained.

Fall shows include Kentridge’s first large-scale solo exhibition organized in South America, “Fortuna,” which has been traveling since October 2012 and is now at the Pinacoteca Do Estado De São Paulo, in Brazil (through Nov. 17). “In Praise of Shadows: William Kentridge in the Collection” is at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Feb. 2, 2014). The artist is also directing Shostakovich’s opera The Nose at the New York Metropolitan Opera (Sept. 28-Oct. 26), where it returns after its inaugural run in 2010.