Reflections on William Kentridge



Another noted artist that I only discovered in the last few years, but whose art and ideas have greatly influenced me, is the South African artist William Kentridge.

Renowned for his animated expressionist drawings and films exploring time, the history of colonialism and the aspirations and failures of revolutionary politics, South African artist William Kentridge (b.1955, Johannesburg) featured in two major London exhibitions in the last two years that I was fortunate enough to see in the last couple of years.

The Whitechapel Gallery exhibition showcased six large-scale installations by the artist, where music and drama are ruptured by revolution, exile and scientific advancement.


Highlights included the film work Second-hand Reading (2013), installation O Sentimental Machine (2015) and The Refusal of Time (2012), an immersive work created with composer Philip Miller, projection designer Catherine Meyburgh, choreographer Dada Masilo, scientist Peter Galison and collaborators from around the world.

Marian Goodman presented two multiscreen film installations: More Sweetly Play the Dance, and Notes Toward a Model Opera.



More Sweetly Play the Dance is an eight-screen danse macabre, reminding one of the medieval tradition which summons diverse vestiges of humanity in a paradox of revelry and mourning. Kentridge presents us with part carnival, protest, and exodus: a 45 metre caravan traversing in a sphere around us with figures in procession, a form the artist invoked in his 1999 Shadow Procession.


About the processional form, Kentridge says:

“In some ways we first come across it in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In a prelude to talking about the responsibility of the philosopher king, he describes people walking behind a screen carrying wooden and stone objects in their hands, their shadows thrown onto the wall opposite the prisoners shackled in the cave watching the shadows.”

Kentridge manages to combine traditional media with new media in work that references much of the culture and history of humankind’s interactions with each other – my work does not of course encompass such a vast range of subjects and media, however, I have found him inspiring for what is possible.

As with Mona Hatoum, Do Ho Suh and Tatsuo Miyajima, other artists who have greatly influenced me over these last two years, I dream about the kind of work I might make that goes beyond my previous boundaries of tradition painting and printmaking, of relatively small-scale, framed works, to the ideas of truly multi-media, multi-sensory pieces and installations drawing from a myriad of sources, cultures, languages and peoples.



Links and references



Tatsuo Miyajima from 9 to 1 and zero in the cycle of life and death

In my post about the London-based Korean artist, Do Ho Suh, I talked about the importance of the notion of karma to his work. Karma is also central to the work of the Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima.


Miyajima’s three core concepts are:


  • keep changing
  • connect with everything
  • continue forever

These three symbolise human life and are the basis for his art.

Key to Miyajima’s practice are the numbers nine to one and zero, he says:

“Basically the count goes down from nine to one, then repeats: from 9-8-7, these numbers shine this represents life. The count continues, and as it does this symbolises change.


Then we reach zero In Sanskrit zero was call “sunya”, in Buddhism, in Japanese, this becomes kuu, “the void”.

It is said this idea originated in India in the sixth century but the original meaning  was not only emptiness or nothingness but also  swollenness an explosion.

In other words, ‘zero’ incorporates two diametrically opposed meanings: it indicates that this void is invisible, yet packed with energy.




So when someone dies, it’s like going to sleep: you can’t see anything, but there’s plenty of power there, and if you rest for a while, life reverts as though you were waking up the next morning.


Tatsuo Miyajima: Counter Voice in Wine

This repeating cycle of life and death can be taken as the boundary of what is visible: invisible then visible, the pattern of life and death repeating. For Miyajima, that’s what it’s all about, that’s what life is.”

Miyajima doesn’t include zero in his work because it would signify death. So instead of a zero, it goes black:

“The gap between counting cycles represents a pause or breath, the ‘space of death’ before life begins once more.”

I personally found this exhibition inspiring both for the sheer scale and technical knowledge that must have been behind its staging, but even more because of the conceptual ideas behind Miyajima’s work.

This idea of the cycle of life and death, of karma, being represented by the simple idea of counting between 9 and 1 (to limit the numbers to single digits only) seems to me brilliant in its simplicity, and it can be used in so many ways. This also inspired me to think about the other textual references I could layer over my work, to represent the languages and therefore cultures that have influenced both my personal history, and that of my ancestors, but really of the history of humankind, if I can be so bold!