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William Kentridge versus Soho Eckstein

In my story pictured above for The Sunday Independent (November 12, 2017) I look at the relationship between William Kentridge and money, work, labour an capitalism. I considered the topic with regards to a drawing from his Mine film, Soho with Coffee Plunger, and numerous other works which were up for auction at Aspire Art. This work would sell for a record R4,8 million. Read the unedited, longer version below:

People cling to old-fashioned ideas when it comes to art. It is one of the reasons art is a prized commodity in our contemporary world; artists appear to deliver on what escapes us in ordinary life. We like to believe they exist outside of the capitalist universe. They get to make things that have no function, are handmade, rare one-offs and they get to lead bohemian lives – waking up middle of the day and being creative in between imbibing all sorts of wicked things.

William Kentridge, our most well-known contemporary artist, is popular despite not living up to this fantasy. Probably because he delivers it to us in his seemingly anti-capitalist art. In reality he looks like an office manager, always wearing a uniform outfit consisting of a white shirt and black trousers.

As such he resembles the fictional mining tycoon Soho Eckstein who features in his early films such as Mine (1991). A drawing from this film showing Soho at his desk in front of a coffee plunger will go on the Aspire Summer Auction tomorrow (Sunday November 12) in Joburg along with a number of other works by the artist that reference work and labour – there is a subtle difference. One is more physical, unskilled and underpaid. This form of activity is represented in Double Shift on Weekends Too (1987) and Mrs Beaton’s Household Management, a 2000 work depicting a man carrying a load on his back. In the Mine film there is a clear distinction between the capitalist tycoon and the workers – they are shadowy dark figures trapped in the bowels of the earth, while Eckstein is seen above ground watching coffee percolate and adding up all the money he has made. Unwittingly through his success and status, Kentridge has come to resemble this capitalist figure, though his art has pivoted on challenging capitalism. His constructivist aesthetic is even drawn from communist imagery.