CHICAGO — This is how much I admire William Kentridge: doors opened at 5:15 pm on October 3 for his talk at the University of Chicago, but I was standing there much earlier, getting drenched in a fall thunderstorm but determined to be one of the first to enter the auditorium and claim a seat as close to the master as I could get.
I was by no means alone, as hundreds of people packed into Mandel Hall, the university’s small concert hall, to witness Kentridge deliver the inaugural lecture of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. This is a new project designed to foster collaborations across the humanities and social sciences between academics and non-academics. South African William Kentridge seemed the perfect artist to begin the Collegium’s program, given that he works in media as diverse as drawing, printmaking, animation, sculpture, and stage design, with material as ‘close in’ as his own body in motion and as ‘far out’ as the history of racial politics in apartheid South Africa.
For the Chicago event, Kentridge talked about one of his current projects, a commission to pair his animations with a live performance of Winterreise, a song cycle from 1827 by Franz Schubert. The collaboration will be presented at a European music festival next year. On stage, Kentridge first described the process of creating his animations and experimenting with different soundtracks, then discussed how he chose the animations that might match Schubert’s music. For the second half of the talk, he was joined onstage by pianist Craig Terry and tenor John Irvin from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center. They played three songs (superbly, by the way) from Winterreise, while Kentridge’s animations played on a big screen behind them. One of the songs was actually performed three times, each time to a different animation, so the audience could see what the artist called “the work in the studio, which is a process of repetition, of trying out different juxtapositions, looking for the unlikely collisions between film and sound.”
The films were stop-motion animations, some of them quick-moving collages in which dozens of drawings and found images flashed by at high speed, some of them the striking charcoal drawing animations that are probably his signature style. In the last decade, Kentridge has created dazzling and successful stage designs for operas by Monteverdi, Mozart, and Shostakovich and has now tried to adapt some of those ideas to the Schubert music. Occasionally, the meditations on death within the songs found a parallel in animated bodies sprouting from a hanging tree or bodies bleeding on the ground in a bleak African landscape. But very often I found myself pulled back and forth between the singing, which demands a particular kind of focus, and the films, which were largely abstract in nature and somewhat distracting. Some of the quicker-moving films in particular overwhelmed the music, more intimate and private in tone than opera, which more easily accommodates spectacle and busy staging.
This isn’t to say that I was disappointed, or that the project isn’t worth trying. The main point of Kentridge’s lecture was to let us see a work in progress, allowing us a view of how he struggles with what he called “the extraordinary promiscuity of the image.” He has a year to find a combination of sound and image that satisfies, and it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of a great artist making his way through the middle.
William Kentridge lectured at the opening of the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago’s Mandell Hall (1131 East 57th Street, Chicago) on Thursday, October 3, at 6:30 pm.
Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, with stage designs by Kentridge, can be seen in cinemas as part of the Met Opera Live in HD season on Saturday, October 26.