William Kentridge, a well-known South African artist, reveals to the Design Indaba Conference audience how his creative process is sparked by spontaneous notions.
He talks on the power of association and creative thinking while also demonstrating it live on stage. It offers a rich and intricate look into his creative process. The video of the discussion provides a unique opportunity to analyze what Kentridge is saying and offers a window into how he conceptualizes and creates all of his artistic output. When you first hear Kentridge’s speech, it could sound like a surrealist word association game. It’s so complex and multilayered that you get the feeling the message is there somewhere—you just have to find it. However, if you pay close attention and pause, rewind, and listen again, his insights become startlingly evident.
“I am trying to follow the thoughts wherever they go and resist the attempts to make an argument”, Kentridge says.
He talks about the environment and atmosphere of his Johannesburg studio, which impacts his working process. A variety of recollections and experiences overwhelm his thoughts when he sees drawings of peonies in a vase, paintings of birds, or a tree in the garden. They are “reminders of the things you are not focussed on”.
Paying attention to these is what ignites his creative process. “Let it be said that focussing on a single thought is not something I am very good at but I have to try to rescue this shifting of attention,” he admits. “I latch onto any stray thought that can put off the idea of having to think coherently about what must be said today,” he says in reference to the lecture he is giving. “A kind of procrastination but a productive procrastination I hope nonetheless.” He traces his associations of looking at a tree – a white stinkwood in his garden – to illustrate “the porousness of focus”.
Every interaction with the outside world combines what the environment delivers to us—the tree—and what we project onto it. “A tree is never just itself”. Then, Kentridge demonstrates how his upcoming installation in Beijing, Notes Towards a Model Opera, included this associative method of working. His inspiration came from proletariat slogans on Chinese revolutionary banners and propaganda operas created during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Improvisations with longstanding partner and dancer Dada Masilo that fused African performance with Chinese dance styles were performed. The musicians from Kentridge’s opera Refuse the Hour were invited onto the stage for a massive rehearsal session where they test out several concepts for his Notes Towards a Model Opera production in Beijing, including projections of Masilo dancing and animated drawings by Kentridge.