I want to tell you about one of the most riveting experiences I have had with a piece of art in a while. I was wandering through the Impressionists’ galleries at The MET in New York last spring when I heard what sounded like a circus or some kind of crazy parade, out in full force, marching down one of the halls of the museum. I was intrigued by what could be making so much noise in what is usually a very quiet and contemplative space. The noise, I found, was Philip Miller’s score accompanying the five-channel film installation by South African artist William Kentridge called The Refusal of Time, recently co-acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The experience so mesmerized me that I sat through the entire thirty-minute film (films, really) three times in a row.
The piece comprises a “breathing machine” placed at the center of the room and three “walls” (made of a few roughly painted pieces of wood leaning next to each other), each with its own projected film. Sometimes the projectors are synchronized, sometimes the images move across the room and the walls becomes one large screen. Other times, each wall displays one or more different versions of a similar scene. All the while, the breathing machine churns out a steady rhythm —at once relaxing in its smooth gliding movement and anxiety inducing in its unrelenting progression, mimicking the experience of the passage of time. The machine’s motion provides a stark contrast to the often chaotic visuals of the films and the at times wild music erupting out of a few megaphones stationed around the room.
(The Refusal of Time—installation view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The idea for the piece came from Kentridge’s conversations with science writer and professor of the history of science and physics at Harvard University, Peter Gallison. As Kentridge explains in this short documentary from the Louisianna Channel, The Refusal of Time is about, “the different theories of time from Newtonian simple time to the complicated theories of Einsteinian relativity. But you can also think of it as a story or a parable of trying to escape one’s fate in which the piece goes from the myth of Perseus trying to kill his grandfather to current scientific thinking about what happens in a black hole. Does everything end definitively and irredeemably?”
From the moment I stepped into the dark room, I was sent spiraling down a rabbit hole of thoughts about relativity, the multiverse, and what it would look like if you could step into the landscape of someone else’s mind (Is this what it looks like inside William Kentridge’s mind?) The film brought up so many questions and observations it was hard to keep track of them all. My thoughts ranged from simply noticing and appreciating the remarkably beautiful way fabric can move around a dancing, spinning figure:
to musings about whether the scene depicting a young woman meeting her lover after her husband has left for the day could be an artistic depiction of the multiverse. At first each wall appears to show the same scene. Slowly, the scene on each wall falls further and further out of synch with the others until the audience is watching three distinct outcomes to the fiasco of the husband’s return with no indication that any one outcome is any more real or true than another.
Since last spring, I have been trying to find out as much as I can about William Kentridge. If you cannot manage to see The Refusal of Time, or any other works by Kentridge, I encourage you to watch the video, William Kentridge: How We Make Sense of the World from the Louisiana Channel. It’s wonderful. It gives you a small glimpse into his mind and reveals a bit of this extremely articulate and remarkably insightful artist.
In the video, Kentridge speaks about the importance of uncertainty and openness in the process of creating art:
“…you need to have an open field. If you have a very set plan of where you have to walk, where the drawing is going, it makes it much harder to allow yourself the openness to also see what’s arriving by chance, through fortune, at the edges. And I think that’s a very important category both theoretically but also in terms of a strategy. How does one work in the studio to enable this best to flower? And one of the ways is not to have a script or a storyboard or a clear plan, to not know the answer, and to hang onto as long as possible that provisionality and uncertainty.”
Hanging onto the uncertainty. This is one of the hardest parts of being any kind of artist. The work of an artist is the daily reckoning with the unknown. No one tells you what to do. There is no plan or well worn path to follow. All you can do is search for the elusive and enigmatic creature called inspiration. An idea. Inspiration, in my experience, is a shy creature. In rare moments an idea may reveal itself to you fully formed, fully realized and for the instant, everything seems clear. You feel you know where to go, what you need to do. But then, timid as it is, inspiration retreats—the idea sinks back into vagueness. And maybe then all you see is a shadow and you think: what will I do now? What will show me the next step? It’s infinitely frustrating. Many people give up.
Kentridge explains the difficulty he had coming to terms with himself as an artist:
“I’d been doing it for a long time, drawing, thinking ‘Ok I’ll do this until I find my real job’…. At a certain point a friend of mine said ‘You understand, you’re now 30. You have no work experience. No one will give you a job. You are unemployable. Stop having this illusion that you’ll find another life. Either drown or swim but accept this is what you are doing.’ And I thought ‘Ok, I will say to myself I am an…artist.’ And I’ve been stuck with that label ever since.”
Substitute any words for “drawing” and “artist” and Kentridge’s story becomes one anyone wrestling with a calling can relate to. Sometimes we find it hard to commit to doing what we love to do. We believe we ought to be doing something else, or, we fearfully avoid taking on the responsibility of heeding whatever calls us. But perhaps it is only in following our calling that we can make any difference in this world. I’d like to believe what Joseph Campbell said about following your passion, “the influence of a vital person vitalizes there’s no doubt about it”. I want to believe that’s true. In following what calls us, what vitalizes us, do we give back to the world? I hope so.
As the title of this video suggests, the interview is not simply about William Kentridge as artist. It is about William Kentridge as human being (perhaps they are not such different things in the end) struggling to make sense of the world around him:
“A lot of the work in the studio is demonstrating emblematically how we make sense of the world.”
He gives the example of a collage, an art form in which you combine many different elements together in an attempt to create a unified vision or understanding. And this, Kentridge argues, is exactly how we encounter the world.
“There is no other way of going through the world. We don’t have complete information. We can’t take it in. We take in a fragment, a headline, a memory of a part of a dream, a phone conversation, and through this we construct what feels to us and to others as a coherent being.”
From this array of fragments, moments, and memories we construct, rather artistically, a life, a story, an identity.
“This self is a completely provisional, fragile construction. A walking collage of thoughts and ideas.”
In this way, the studio becomes a metaphor for how we interact with and understand the world.
Whatever we struggle to do, the struggle is the same for everyone. We all face fear and uncertainty. We all struggle to make sense of the world around us, to hold on to something that feels coherent because it is hard to live with a constant awareness of what Kentridge calls “provisionality”. We like the comfort of certainty—certainty about ourselves and about our world. But certainty is dangerous.
“As soon as one gets certain, you can hear it in people’s voices, as they are certain of something their voice gets louder more authoritarian and authoritative . . .They’ll bring an army with guns to stand next to them to hold on to that. So there’s a desperation in all certainty and I think the category of uncertainty—political uncertainty, philosophical uncertainty, uncertainty of images—is much closer to how the world is. You can see the world as a series of facts, or you can see it as a process of unfolding.”
One of the most beautiful things about art is that it places this uncertainty at the forefront of our thoughts. The process of creation brings to the surface the doubts, anxieties, and questions that lurk in all our minds and demands that we reckon with them. Creating something new—whether it be a work of art, a new business, or any kind of life change—forces us look beyond the border of certainty and peer into the face of the unknown. And that, to me, is invaluable.
(If you can’t manage to see the installation but want to learn more about it, you can buy the fancy book version here).