On Politics

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    William Kentridge. Art in a State of Siege, 1988. Silkscreen on Velin Arches 300 grams per square meter and brown paper, 63 x 39 37/100 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "Can one find an art which relates to politics, in which the same ambiguities and uncertainties that one finds when describing the rest of the world also exist in the political and social questions that one is depicting? That's not the norm in political art." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Art in a State of Grace, 1988. Silkscreen on Velin Arches 300 grams per square meter and brown paper, 63 x 39 37/100 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "My grandfather was a member of Parliament for 40 years. Obviously we're talking here South Africa, a whites only parliament. I grew up in a family that was very involved with the legal battles against apartheid—the great treason trials in the 1950s and early '60s, and later with the legal resources center that my mother founded. My father was involved with a number of very prominent cases that had political aspects to them, whether it was the inquest into the Sharpeville Massacre, the death of Steve Biko, or one of the trials of Nelson Mandela." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Art in a State of Hope, 1988. Silkscreen on Velin Arches 300 grams per square meter and brown paper, 63 x 39 37/100 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "It was very much a house in which a kind of incandescent rage against what was happening would emerge. One of the reasons for my father's extraordinary skill as an advocate was that there was a real sense of outrage, not a performance of outrage, a real sense of outrage which was then enacted on the courtroom. It was a very powerful thing to see in my childhood." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Casspirs Full of Love, 1989–2000. Copper drypoint and engraving on Velin Arches Créme paper, 65 3/4 x 37 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "It was very much a family in which one was aware of the anomaly of what South Africa was. So instead of it being natural (as it was to most young white South Africans in my classes) that whites had all the rights and black people didn't, I was fortunate growing up in a domestic situation in which it was made very clear that it was a completely unnatural as well as immoral and unjust circumstance." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Blue Head, 1993–1998. Etching and aquatint with two hand-painted plates on Velin Arches Blanc paper, 47 1/4 x 36 11/50 in. Edition of 35. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "I suppose the first promptings or proddings to work as an artist are still there and the questions haven't changed. One does the work and then tries to formulate a series of questions which one could possibly ask as a reason for the work. So it's always reverse engineering in terms of the ideas." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. The Magic Flute, 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

    "The Magic Flute looks at the Enlightenment in Germany in its most optimistic moment. When Mozart writes the opera in 1791, it looks as if the world is going to be subject to human agency and rationality will prevail and human brotherhood will triumph. These are all the things Mozart hoped for in The Magic Flute. But the 200 years of history since Mozart's opera has been one of...not the folly, and not even necessarily the impossibility of those dreams, but of how far we are from them." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. The Magic Flute, 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

    "I wanted to see if there's a way one could do a colonial production of The Magic Flute. We have to understand that the corollary of the Enlightenment is what happened under colonialism. That's not to say that because of the excesses of colonialism one has to then discount the larger project of the Enlightenment of bringing rationality and knowledge to the world rather than superstition and darkness. But they're not separate and the one is not a mistake of the other: the one is built into the other. By bringing Enlightenment to the 'dark continent' you have the disasters of colonialism." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. The Magic Flute, 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

    "In my production of The Magic Flute, one understands the character of Sarastro as the colonial overlord and the chorus as colonial subjects. In the original production, Sarastro embodies both rational benevolence and total power. And in Mozart's view (and in terms of the needs of the story) that was what was required for the brotherhood of man to triumph, for rationality to prevail, for darkness to be swept away, and for the kingdom of lightness to come ahead. But what history has shown is that the one thing that is completely toxic—the most toxic combination in the world—is the combination of certainty, of being right, and a monopoly of power." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. The Magic Flute, 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

    "Around the time of the start of the French Revolution, before the excesses of it had become clear, it seemed possible to have a benevolent dictator like Sarastro: someone who combined wisdom with authority and wisdom with violence. But what a toxic mixture it is to combine a belief in one's own wisdom with the monopoly of violence. Every tyrant in the world since then would have described themselves as a Sarastro. I wanted to explore the political underbelly of The Magic Flute further. Not to say that this was a secret message that Mozart had—because he didn't—but it's something which we can't not see when we look at history since 1791." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. The Magic Flute, 2005. Performance at Le Théatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. Opera with back and front projection. Photo by and © Johan Jacobs.

    "Whether it's Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot, each of them have believed they have been Sarastros in their own way. They know what's best for everyone and they have the power to act accordingly. And so the character of Sarastro is kind of this benevolent figure that hides a series of monsters and calamities. It's not to say the Enlightenment project itself is necessarily false or doomed, but there are disasters that come through the Enlightenment." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Procession, detail, 1999–2000. Set of 26 bronze figures, dimensions variable between 15 3/4 x 11 x 10 3/5 in. and 13 x 10 x 6 7/10 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "There have been many iterations of porters and processions in my work. I suppose it's a response to physical labor being very much a part of who we still are. But it is also about processions that don't have endpoints. In other words, they start and the journey is to get from one side to the other." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Procession, 1999–2000. Set of 26 bronze figures, dimensions variable between 15 3/4 x 11 x 10 3/5 in. and 13 x 10 x 6 7/10 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "I think what's important for me is that uncertain ending. They're not definitely walking towards utopia at the other end, nor are there necessarily killing fields at the other end." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Porter Series: Amerique septentrionale (Bundle on Back), 2007. Tapestry weave with embroidery, Warp: polyester, Weft and embroidery: mohair, acrylic, silk, and polyester, 122 7/16 x 90 15/16 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "There's a sense of journeying, not knowing what's going to be at the other end, which seems to be an important part of where we are in the world now. Whether it's a diaspora, whether it's refugees, whether it's voluntary migrations—that sense of shifting across to an uncertain end in which there may be hope. This is not to say that there isn't hope; as a political category hope still exists and is very important. But the certainties of ending certainly don't seem possible." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. A Lifetime of Enthusiasm from I am not me, the horse is not mine, production stills, 2008. Installation of eight film fragments; DVCAM and HDV transferred to video, 6:01 min. Photography John Hodgkiss. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "The video installation I am not me, the horse is not mine is a series of eight projections in one space running at the same time. It has to do with the chaos of eight films happening at once; you see all the projections at the same time. The soundtrack goes with the procession of people marching across the screen." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Prayers of Apology from I am not me, the horse is not mine, production stills, 2008. Installation of eight film fragments; DVCAM and HDV transferred to video, 6:01 min. Photography John Hodgkiss. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "Great Soviet political art at its key moment was complete optimism and certainty. So this work is about kind of a heightened energy that one has a sense of in that early period of Soviet art making. But it also treats this society as one that's tearing itself apart, of the communist party ripping itself up during the purges and the great terror of 1937 and '38. It's really about comedy and tragedy." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Commissariat for Enlightenment from I am not me, the horse is not mine, production stills, 2008. Installation of eight film fragments; DVCAM and HDV transferred to video, 6:01 min. Photography John Hodgkiss. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "The political slogan—as something that in a few words could encompass a huge program, a huge human desire, a huge human sense of agency—becomes impossible. So, in light of the impossibility of that kind of certainty and optimism, what is the work that can be done that doesn't simply pretend that part of the world doesn't exist—that doesn't follow Clement Greenberg and say that the world is the canvas and that nothing exists beyond the canvas? It's not that I have found an answer, but it's a question that still intrigues me." —William Kentridge

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    William Kentridge. Performance of I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008. Lecture/performance with front projection, DVCAM and HDV transferred to DVD, live performance, duration of 45 minutes. Photography John Hodgkiss. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

    "The history of the twentieth century is that many people's downfall does not have to do with their own weaknesses but through being completely smashed by huge forces around them. And sometimes the universality of laughter rather than the particularity of tears is a better way of approaching these huge social shifts and changes." —William Kentridge