The 2015 Design Indaba conference was brought to close by a dramatic lecture on ideas by renowned artist William Kentridge. The presentation followed in the style of the 2012 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures entitled Six Drawing Lessons that he presented at Harvard University in the States. These were a metaphysical meditation on the role of the artist, studio practice, discovering links and slowly drawing a piece of work together. Kentridge’s Design Indaba talk took these abstract principles and applied them to a piece of work he is currently working on – a large-scale work that will be shown in China.
Beginning with the abstract framework, Kentridge had us consider a tree – what it’s made up of literally, and then what it signifies and represents. Based on representation philosophical principles, he had us believe that a tree is the combination of these two aspects. By extension, he drew a circle in his notebook (which is the template for all his presentations) and told us that the truth of the centre is dependent on what is outside, that the periphery informs the centre; in artistic terms: art must embrace what exists outside of the frame.
Using this framework, Kentridge invited us into his current creative thought process to see how he draws together all the pieces, the fragments and ideas, that are his Notes Towards a Model Opera that will eventually become his next major artwork. This involves looking at what exists in the archive – the historical facts of the cultural revolution, what is happening in the present – China’s apparently unchecked investment in Africa, and interpreting this all through his personal biographical filters. This is his process of collecting everything that is on the periphery so that he can begin to slowly define what is in the centre. So, for example, the banging of pots and pans by peasants during the cultural revolution of the 1960s to kill all the swallows becomes the percussion score in his re-imagening of the model operas of the cultural revolution. The political slogans of that era and their clanging optimism become pieces of text and dialogue.
Kentridge then treated Design Indaba to a live performance of all this in action – with musicians, singers and dancers from his Refuse the Hour piece joining him on stage for a live improvisation, or meditation, on a Chinese model opera.