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Death, Time, Soup: A Conversation with William Kentridge and Peter Galison
Margaret K. Koerner

Hatje Cantz

Pages from William Kentridge’s notebooks for The Refusal of Time

Earlier this month, the South African artist William Kentridge and the American historian of science Peter Galison were on hand in Kassel, Germany to install and introduce The Refusal of Time, the work Kentridge created for the international exhibition dOCUMENTA (13). The work is, in part, the result of an extended series of discussions between Kentridge and Galison about the history of the control of world time, relativity, black holes, and string theory. In the installation, five films are projected on three walls of an industrial space near the Kassel train station. A large wooden structure with moving parts—it resembles something like an accordion and an oil rig combined— occupies the center of the room; this is the “breathing machine (elephant).” Intermittent sounds of Kentridge speaking and music (most memorably tubas and singing) are transmitted through silver megaphones, one at each corner, each with a different soundtrack. The projections

© John Hodgkiss

William Kentridge and Peter Galison

vignettes set in Dakar (1916) and the clock room in Greenwich (1894) end in an explosion and a climactic serpentine dance. across the three walls.” wearing a bouncy inflated suit. One of the things that has made working together so appealing has been that we were both interested in this notion of embodied ideas. so to speak. more torn black paper. maps of Africa flip past in an old atlas. I met with Galison and Kentridge at the Mercure hotel in Kassel to talk about the ideas and themes that inspired the work. stagger.are sometimes in sync. In the coda. A few days before the opening. inspired by the view from Plato’s cave—but with a new ending: silhouetted figures dance. a torn-paper figure performs arabesques. Duchamp’s inverted bicycle wheels spin in negative like an animated Rayograph. they hadn’t sunk their structure into chips and black boxes. How did The Refusal of Time come about? Peter Galison: We were both fascinated by this late nineteenth-century moment when technologies wore their functions on their sleeve. strings and stars animate a charcoal sky. but usually they run contrapuntally: a row of metronomes mark time at different speeds. twin Kentridges move almost in unison. or march relentlessly left to right. leaving the door open for a more hopeful verdict. becomes a coffee pot again. blown by a current of air. before they are finally consumed by a black hole. a “pneumatic man. For the dramatic finale. Meg Koerner: Can you tell me what an “embodied idea” would be in your case? . 404 Error loading Vimeo video ↵ Use original player The Room of Failures Meg Koerner: You had both been working on the subject of time for many years. gathers to form a coffee pot. Kentridge repeatedly walks over a chair. Kentridge has created one of his signature shadow processions. is blown away. of very abstract things worked out in the material world. playfully dances with a woman.

If you were 500 light years away. mechanical switchboard telephones. you could see Dürer making his Melancholia print. which we still could have done. Felix Eberty. in a way in which an electronic era is not. which was all the things that didn’t work. . but that it was still such a “visible” era. I thought of that in terms of a ceiling projection with all these images…[But] it was jettisoned because it was very complicated in terms of the physical projection. and he worked out that everything that had been seen on earth was moving out from earth at the speed of light. But more than that. manual. If you think of a switchboard. of drawing and animation. Even if one is talking about contemporary phenomena. had come to understand that the speed of light had a fixed speed and wasn’t instantaneous. something that is now perhaps invisible— connecting people across phone lines across continents— is rendered in a very visible way. which is 500 years old now. its blackness is already half way to being a charcoal drawing. and may even be a description of an obsolete process.William Kentridge: There are certain objects which I have come to as someone making drawings. objects that meet the drawing half way. A German scientist. in his terms you could see the crucifixion. It is not so much Hatje Cantz being fascinated with the ideas of the late nineteenth A page from William Kentridge’s notebooks for The Refusal of Time century. once you are drawing it. and the representation of it looks like a black line drawn across the holes of the switchboard. very often an older representation is a better way of drawing it. there is a cord that would connect the caller and the receiver. In my case. You would just have to be at the right distance from earth to be at the right moment to see what had happened in the archive—to see anything that had happened—so if you had to start 2000 light years away. If you take an old Bakelite telephone. he described it as suffused with images of everything that had happened on earth. MK: How did your collaboration work? PG: We would trade stories back and forth. I was intrigued with the idea of space full of this archive of images that was spreading out. so instead of having space as a vacuum. WK: I’ll tell you a story. there is a set of associations that come from old. How would you see it? Would everybody have mirrors to look at the ceiling to look from down below (which I had done before)? At one stage we had a whole Room of Failures.

WK: So Peter tells me that story and I think. Documenta 6. This idea of pumping time. the embouchure. Vienna and Paris had similar systems. right. in Kassel. there was the famous Joseph Beuys honey pump. and I found a map of where the pipes went. but each time we just got a terrible loud fart from the tuba. Slought Foundation Joseph Beuys: Honey Pump in the Workplace. And we spent months trying to make an artificial embouchure. because we think of time as the most abstract thing that is connected to mortality and fate and the very predicate of history and yet here it is being pumped underneath the streets of Paris. to set it. but the tubas remained as a basis of an important part of the musical vocabulary of the piece. and that . One of them is being used by the tuba player at the live performance in Amsterdam. Kassel. Sending air through a copper pipe was a way to jar a clock at a distance. and nothing more controllable than that. let’s have a literal pump. even the idea of it is funny. 1977 I bought two beautiful tubas which would have been in the room of failures had we done that. where he pumps honey around Kassel as a kind of social cohesion idea —I think that was his metaphor—so I thought. What remains of that is the tuba in the music. with compressed air and rubber lips and controlling valves. and we are going to send it into two tubas. That went into the Room of Failures.Henrik Stromberg From the installation The Refusal of Time by William Kentridge Dickens’s Elephant PG: I went to the archives in Paris and I found that there was a system of pumping time pneumatically under the streets of Paris. We’ll have a compressor and we are going to pump compressed air.

They were cutting the French cables and reading the messages so that they would be able to anticipate them in conflict. The machine actually did have a head. The British were using their cables to direct their armies and move their ships and to direct anti-colonial wars.another terrorist.big machine in the installation. that who controls the zero of longitude. just moving up and down. 404 Error loading Vimeo video The guy who tried to attack the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 was Martial Bourdin. . a French anarchist. as well as the practical aspects of using admiralty maps to run the world’s shipping.” as a kind of generator of the energy of the piece. But the French understood perfectly well. to a short story. There was something tremendously moving and disturbing about this. It has to do with the relentless nature of industrial society. obsessively read Conrad. So you have this movement from an attack in history. that went across the oceans and up into the mountains. He talks about them “moving up and down. like the movement of the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. the zero point of time.” Endlessly. Drawing Time PG: One theme we were very determined to do while working together was the imperialism of the late nineteenth century. WK: For me it was also a question of what is it in us that so naturalizes—as if they had always been there—a hundred-year history of coordinated time zones and the division of the world into segments? PG: “Greenwich Mean Time” rolls off the tongue. Ted Kaczynski. The “elephant” comes from Dickens’s Hard Times. while they were creating a machine that literally encircled the earth. The ↵ Use original player bomb went off prematurely and he was killed. then back to…. Then the Unabomber. This formed the basis for The Secret Agent by Conrad. to try to send these signals to coordinate clocks. controls something about the mapping of the world and its symbolic ownership. Even the idea of the colonial powers stringing these cables across the globe at a moment when they didn’t have electric lights. for example. the “elephant. where he talks about the industrial machines in the factory in the nineteenth century. but it became a bit too literal. They wanted it somewhere else. he wrote in the midst of his bombing campaign that he read it twelve times. This back and forth between fiction and history is very intense. and there were big battles. It seems natural: of course Greenwich is the center.

How are they connected? WK: The sixth Norton lecture took the process of making The Refusal of Time as an example of what the lectures had been talking about: of thinking through material. erase. given by the material itself rather than an affect added. MK: Your drawings themselves. The lectures. you see that passage of the movement of the hand. is he going to tell us the meaning of life? . that it used to be here and now it is over here. It is both music and information. those white holes going down and down. why become an artist? And by the end of the lecture. There is nothing. Live music was allowed to come into the lecture form at the end of the sixth lecture. you have to take on trust its temporal existence. MK: At one point in the final Norton lecture. that there is a ghost trace left. It means that all of the information that falls into that hole would leave something on the surface—a kind of holographic image of the thing that had fallen into it. and it also ends with a black hole…. and draw on top of repaint and put on a different clock. Will there be something left?… The side that wants to believe there is something left behind seems to have won. when you look at it. which started with Plato. there is a way of erasing and drawing and erasing and drawing. amazed. In the paper. PG: One of the debates of modern physics is whether information disappears in a black hole…. and eventually everything will end up in it. you asked the great question. WK: The drawings have a sense of time spent on them.WK: The history of this attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory turned into the five short silent films that you saw. the shadow procession came back as well. redraw. then some trace of memory remains.The image you see at the end.There is a giant black hole in the middle of our galaxy. But with animation. the way we see them going through stages that leave a trace behind. If that is so. thinking. of the erase. embody some of the ideas in The Refusal of Time. made with time constraints: three hours to draw a set and then film for two hours. we were sitting there. because of the development of string theory. Even though we weren’t starting with Plato in The Refusal of Time. redraw. which is one of the ways of the actual material manifesting the idea. which is of course also the passage of time. of allowing the impulses of an image or a piece of work to hold sway and see where they led. and then redraw the next one and film for two hours. In the process of moving your hand from one side of the table to the other. They were paper sets. that’s the roll from a player piano. that says it was there. The Meaning of Life MK: Some of the material in The Refusal of Time installation appeared in your Norton Lectures at Harvard this spring. end with a black hole.

It is about this black darkness descending. as it were.WK: The main thing I have always thought about that I forgot to talk about in the lectures was Freudian repression. that is one of the questions that physicists consider. to be working and making? This is always what it used to be about and I had forgotten about it. but there nonetheless. Is any trace left when you are gone? Is there any information. 404 Error loading Vimeo video ↵ Use original player A Black Hole MK: Is The Refusal of Time about avoiding death? WK: It ends up there. right. or the lived sense of. but we can hope that some small trace of our existence might somehow survive. MK: What was it — what repressed idea did you forget to talk about? WK: About what is this manic need to circle round and round the studio forever. that one of the elements of the project was black holes. there is something that struck me as so evocative that I hoped it could be wound into our story. WK: So that became clear. attributes of you that still float around the edge? So it is both from the psychological. That can’t have been just by chance. a portent of the final stage of the universe. let’s start having things disappear into a black hole. what is the balance between the finality of death and the continuation of attributes of people afterward? PG: We can’t live forever. The other desperately wanted to prove that somehow all the information swallowed up would survive—coded far beyond easy recognition to be sure. and . It is about trying to keep this massive depression away. In the black hole debate one side contended that it truly was an end to all things. it is an immediate jump to that being. in this ultimate refusal of the end of time. a metaphorical description of death. But as soon as you say. And in the black hole battle. It starts with: Is a black hole the end of time? As Peter was saying.

“100 Notes . is available in the dOCUMENTA (13) series. Galison. 11:45 a. William Kentridge & Peter L. 2012. Inc.100 Thoughts. MK: You’re in it. An illustrated essay about the work.” published by Hatje Cantz. eating soup. The Refusal of Time. All rights reserved.m.there was a procession going into the black hole. right? WK: I am in it. . June 30. Copyright © 1963-2013 NYREV.

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