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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.

An industry has been built around Kentridge’s name. His art is not mass produced factory style but much of it is reproduced via editions and every element has been commodified – think of how the charcoal drawings from the films like Mine are sold – Soho with Coffee Plunger is estimated to sell for R2,5 million. In this way he is quite literally selling time – not only his own but the idea of time - a filmic fragment.

A large percentage of his art isn’t produced by his hand, though he may have a hand in it. This isn’t unusual – some of the world’s top selling artists from Jeff Koons to Damian Hirst rely on teams of artists. Kentridge has been transparent about this, advertising the names of his collaborators alongside titles of his filmic, installation or live performance works. However, other works such as the tapestries, prints and bronze sculptures are outsourced to specialists. This has grown the art industry in Joburg. David Krut Projects, which has studios, book-shops-cum galleries near Kentridge’s studio in Maboneng, Parkview and Newlands in Cape Town, owes much of its revenue and growth to Kentridge. The Workhorse Bronze Foundry which occupies a four storey building near Joburg’s Carlton Centre would not exist without Kentridge. Its owner Louis Olivier worked in Kentridge’s studio before the artist encouraged him to establish a bronze casting foundry to help him keep up with the demand for his bronze sculptures.

Like Eckstein Kentridge is becoming a powerful tycoon of sorts. He remains on the list of Art Review’s 100 most powerful people in the art world. Unlike Eckstein he has used his ‘power for good’. He has created many jobs, kept good artists employed and helped them develop their own art and reputation through association with him – think of Deborah Bell or Philip Miller the composer and installation artist, who is emerging as a strong artist in his own right. Krut and the Workhorse had to perfect their particular crafts to deliver the quality Kentridge demanded and were able to offer it to other artists too, thereby improving the quality of art and facilities to produce it that had previously been beyond the means of many. The newly established Centre for the Less Good Idea in Maboneng operates as a platform for art, supports and commissions performers and artists from different disciplines.

You could even say that the whole Maboneng precinct and urban regeneration in the east side of Joburg’s inner city is tied to him. Jonathan Liebmann’s Propertuity development began with the first building, Arts on Main. It would not have got off the ground without Kentridge as an anchor tenant. Kentridge’s international success has translated into a pervasive confidence that abounds in relation to anything his name is attached to. Would the FNB Joburg Art Fair have come into being if the Artlogic director Ross Douglas had not previously staged Kentridge events?

Kentridge has played a major role in turning art in SA into an industry, whether intentionally or not – it may have been inevitable without him. Interestingly, in his art he critiques the wheels of industry. This wasn’t only evident in Mine, which dealt with the way Joburg was built on the backs of miners, but even in later works such as his famous Refusal of Time, a film and installation work, which debuted at Documenta in 2012. The insides of machines, large cogs and levers, evoking the industrial era, were used as props in the barren factory building where the work was installed in Kassel, Germany. It didn’t have quite the same impact in a gallery space at the Joburg Art Gallery or Iziko SA National Gallery.

The silhouetted figures moving in a procession which has become a signature motif in all his various art forms (as represented in the filmic work of his at the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art) not only symbolises displacement and the constant march of time itself, but perhaps the anonymous workers who keep the world turning. Kentridge draws attention to the fact that our lives are governed by work, with our time carved up and segmented between work and leisure. In Double Shift on Weekends Too, a figure carries a box with the word “Sun” written on it, alluding to Sunday. Kentridge’s subjects are so embroiled in work they become fused with machines. Telephone Lady, a 2000 work valued at R600 000, presents a woman (a secretary perhaps) whose head is a telephone.

For Kentridge modern existence is part of a push-pull condition not only between work and leisure but wanting to master and resist the capitalist system. The dark silhouetted figures trapped in procession mode also allude to worker protest marches. This idea is further advanced through the slogan “Resist the Hour” that appears in the 2011 digital print that will also go under the hammer at the Aspire Art Auction. The phrase is one that the protesting marchers live by in their attempt to disentangle themselves from a rat-race engineered to prevent them from escaping work.

Through references to dated imagery, and the use of documents as a backdrop for charcoal drawings, such as pages of old ledger books, his adoption of outmoded mediums, such as the stop-frame animation, Kentridge delivers on the nostalgia we expect art to deliver on and this yearning to escape the demands of the hyper-capitalistic and consumerist world we live in. It helps that his art pivots on exposing the exploitation of industralisation, though at times you can’t help but wonder whether he longs for that early age of innocence when it signified progress.

The anti-capitalist/worker discourse his art advances will always be at odds with how powerful and expansive his brand has become. His well-known benevolence and the Centre for the less Good Idea may off-set this inescapable reality. It is no wonder the Centre has provided artists with a place to ‘fail’ – he probably yearns to do so, be rid of the power and success that threats the authenticity of his art. Would he have ever believed that a 1975 screen-print boasting the phrase “Spend, more, much more”, which will be sold at the Aspire Art auction, would be sellable and would define the consumerist spirit regarding his art?

  • Aspire’s Spring Auction took place on 12 November at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, 26 Melville Road, Sandton. For more information:


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