William Kentbridge

April 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

I have seen Kentbridge’s work a number of times but saw it again recently on a chance visit to MAC in Niteroi where they have an exhibition of South African Art. Time was short and I was whizzing around the gallery and saw Tom, my then 5 year old sitting on the floor of a video ‘hut’ watching ‘MINE’. Although challenging for a 5 year old and a little confusing I wanted him to stay and watch all the animations – He stayed through MINE and FELIX IN EXILE. He asked a stream of questions – all with difficult answers but perhaps the most difficult to answer was ‘why is there water in the room’, ‘how does the water get there’. I tried to answer him and found myself trying to explain artistic symbolism to him. ‘Imagine you are so sad that you feel like you might drown from sadness’. His eyes went heavy, he thought about it for a long time and then said ‘I am not sure I understand mummy’.

As his mother of course I hope he never does but what it made me realise is that Kentbridge’s work is full of empathy, compassion and are brutally honest. Painstakingly and self consciously hand drawn they take use into a psyche of the witness, the viewer, the Other (in Kentbridge’s case the white South African) who feels guilty, helpless and so sad they could drown if they allowed themselves to think about it too much.

Seeing these videos again and having to try and explain them to Thomas made me think about them very hard and watch more. When I had seen them before I had been more interested in the symbolic use of medical imaging. Seeing the videos again and in the context of the project I feel there is a great great relevance to what I would like to try and do. The scanned body is a site for narrative, the ultrasound shows memories, haunting thoughts. In ‘Weighing and Wanting’ the animation starts with Soho (one of Kentbridge’s reoccurring characters) entering an MRI scanner,  then a a large rock is divided by scan parameters, red marks on the scans (radiotherapy programming?) start to act as cuts (that screech), wounds that gape open. Scans are drawn, erased, smudged – transformed into sites for psychological torment, trauma and sadness.

I am going to collect more information about Kentbridge’s work and perhaps I will work towards an essay about the use of medical imaging in his work for next month but in the meantime here are some quotes/links to Kentbridges work.

‘In the activity of making work there is a sense that if you spend a day or two days drawing an object or an image, there is a sympathy towards that object embodied in the human labour of making the drawing.

….and for me there is something in the dedication to the image whether its Jericho painting guillotined heads, so on the one hand it’s a shocking image, but there’s something about the hours of physically studying those heads and painting them that becomes a compaissionate act for me even though on the one hand you can say that it is  very cold bloodedly and ghoulishly looking at disaster or using other peoples’ pain as raw material for the work.

And that is what every artist does is use other peoples pain as well as their own as raw material  so there is a kind of if not a vampirishness certainly an appropriation of other people’s distress in the activity of being a writer or an artist. But there is also something in the activity of both comtemplating depicting and spending the time with it that I hope as an artist redeem is the activity  from one of simply exploitation and abuse.’

Text transcribed from

William Kentbridge: Pain & Sympathy, Art21


More William Kentbridge animations

‘Felix in Exile’ 1994


I also found this great essay by Arlene Murphy about the use of medical imaging in Kentbridge’s work


MOMA Five Themes




§ One Response to William Kentbridge

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