William Kentridge & Mateo LópezOutside the comfort zone

Published in October 2013clockTime to read: 4m40s
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During the mentoring year William Kentridge wanted to show Mateo López how his work could expand and flower. In encounters in the United States and the Netherlands, and, most of all, for several weeks in Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio, the mentor encouraged his protégé to find radically new ways to create art. For López, Kentridge’s willingness to share his work space presented an extraordinary opportunity. “Talk is important, but the possibility of someone to work with is better,” he said.

by Amei Wallach October 2013
  • William Kentridge
    The Mentor
  • Mateo López
    The Protégé

Working side by side with William Kentridge in his studio, protégé Mateo López learns to crash through his training in precision drawing and make art with his hands instead of his head. With help from his mentor, López finds how creativity derives from embracing chaos.

“Mateo comes out of training as an architect, with an architect’s way of drawing. It may be fine to have that very precise, fine instrument, but I think it would be useful to think in a different way, a rough way, to do something that’s messy. In the long term the work has to allow the vulnerability of the self into it. So I’ve encouraged him to draw himself walking, to perform in front of a camera. [The act of drawing] yourself walking through an animated book is a fine start. It gives you all the supplementary images that can amplify who you are, what you are thinking about. From that you’ll build up a rich vocabulary with which to keep working: Here’s something else I haven’t drawn, here’s something else I haven’t thought before. You have to open up the work if you are going to go on working another 30, 40 years.”
William Kentridge

It was February 2012 when Mateo López first met the great South African artist William Kentridge. López was one of three visual arts finalists for the year-long Rolex Arts Initiative programme, and he was five days late for his interview. The other finalists had already come and gone by the time the young Colombian artist arrived at Kentridge’s studio in Johannesburg.

“I was feeling really bad,” López recalls. “There were problems with my visa. There is no South African embassy in Colombia, so they had to send my passport to Venezuela. It was a mess and the visa arrived a week late. But in the end I feel like it was destiny, because I had more time alone with William.”

Kentridge’s studio is set at the edge of the lawns and flowerbeds surrounding the Johannesburg house in which he grew up and raised his own family. In the studio’s high, white central room, where drawings-in-progress, prints and experiments in storytelling are pinned to the wall, he set López the task of drawing some of the objects that function as stock characters in Kentridge’s repertoire: a horse, an old-fashioned dial telephone. López transcribed each with the fastidious line he had learnt in his art and architectural studies in Colombia. “And then William said, ‘Now we are going to tear up the drawings’,” López remembers with undiminished wonder.

Out of the scraps of López’s drawings, as well as his own, Kentridge “collaged” a three-dimensional paper sculpture of a prancing horse. “For me that was radical,” López says. “It was as though a door could open to another way of working.”

That was when Mateo López understood that the Rolex programme was going to challenge his way of looking at art and the world. In life and work, Kentridge and his protégé are a study in contrasts, and that has made all the difference in their dynamic encounter.

“I am very shy,” López says, “like a shell.” Beneath his smiles and polite accommodations, Mateo López hides a diffident reserve.

Drawings of himself drawing are the closest he came to breaking through that shell to make an appearance in the video he submitted when asked to apply for the Rolex Arts Initiative. The drawings were stand-ins for López as he narrated his themes and the succession of exhibitions that mark him as a rising artist of interest on the international scene.

Every tiny splatter

There's a restraint and exactitude to the drawings, which López sometimes cuts out along the outlines. He'll articulate every tiny splatter spreading from the diminutive drawn ink blots that attract the eye amidst the planters made from discarded tin cans, the scale models of railway stations and the cut-out paper vines draped over books and chairs in his installation Travelling without Moving, which spent early 2013 as the centrepiece of an exhibition, A Trip from Here to There, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

“Mateo has this amazing precision,” says William Kentridge. “When he cuts something out, everyone in the studio gathers to watch.”

Kentridge himself has the loose-limbed ebullience and alert presence of a performer. The South African master of drawing, animation, sculpture, performance, video, film, theatre and opera design and direction is an arresting figure on film and onstage, in the black trousers and white shirt he also wears in his Johannesburg studio. With or without his pince-nez, which he wields like a stage prop, his take-it-all-in eyes under shaggy grey brows dart piercing glances or retreat into reflection. He’ll smother a quizzical smile as he grabs pen or charcoal and executes wide gestures with arm and hand.

López, on the other hand, keeps arm and pencil close as he renders his meticulous lines. He hides his eyes behind conservative glasses, quietly observes and thinks things through. Then he makes a drawing. Kentridge’s animated drawings can change direction on an evanescent thought or vagrant emotion. His meandering line doesn’t just accumulate meaning as it curls and unfurls to describe a cat, a typewriter, a pin-suited business man, a telephone, a cat’s cradle of tangled wires. That line creates meaning through the relationships it contrives, the stories that emerge from what Kentridge calls “the activity of making”. The process of catching meaning as it metamorphoses into other meaning, other questions, other recognitions is what interests him about making art.

For López, meaning is the starting point. “I’m an artist from a generation that has a very conceptual approach to art practice,” he says. “Every step you make starts with a concept.” He begins with a big idea, which often has to do with time, memory and the porous boundaries between reality and fiction. From there, he exhaustively plots the drawings and installations through which he will explore it.

Paper shards

When they met in February 2012, Kentridge was working his own way through preparations for the six Norton Lectures he had been invited to present later that northern spring at Harvard University. Kentridge conceived the lectures as Six Drawing Lessons. And torn paper shards that his hands resolve into a variety of collaged silhouettes of a horse in motion would play an essential role in those lectures.

Kentridge bent the Norton Lectures to his own ends, presenting them as a multimedia rumination/performance, complete with orchestra, in which he was part cosmic thinker, part stand-up comic, part questing artist in his studio. The mutating paper shards, projected on a video screen behind him, became a leitmotif throughout.

“This is what the artist does: takes the fragments, the shards and rearranges them,” he said in the last lecture. “The meaning is always a construction, a projection and not an edifice, something to be made, and not found. There is always a radical incoherence and radical instability.”

At the studio that February, López witnessed the rhythms of a multitasking studio, as Kentridge prepared the lectures while juggling collaborations on other projects whose themes, strategies and activities would interact and intersect with the Norton Lectures and one another.

For Documenta 13, in Kassel, Germany, Kentridge had been exchanging stories with the science historian and philosopher Peter Galison on the inventions of modernity, the standardization of time and the effect of both on colonialism. The collaboration grew into The Refusal of Time, a monumental installation that included short films and animations, as well as a Rube Goldberg machine as sound-emitting sculpture.

In turn, Kentridge’s collaborations with Galison, the dancer Dada Masilo, the composer Philip Miller and the video-maker Catherine Meyburgh morphed into the performance piece, Refuse the Hour.

Mateo López saw them all. He travelled to Cambridge in the U.S. to hear two of the Norton Lectures, to Kassel for The Refusal of Time, and to Amsterdam for Refuse the Hour, where Kentridge tried to interest López in performance. Performing in public? It wasn’t in his DNA. Instead, López suggested a dialogue in drawings, in which each artist would make a drawing in response to the other, as he had done with the older, established Colombian artist José Antonio Suárez Londoño. That wasn’t quite what Kentridge had in mind.

“Presumably the interesting thing of being a protégé in this programme is that you want something to expand, want new thoughts and new ways of working,” he says. In the end they agreed that in November López would spend a substantial chunk of time working in Johannesburg.

In the meantime, López, who was accustomed to working alone, pondered the bustle and stimulation of collaboration that he’d witnessed in Kentridge’s studio. For Kentridge, the easy access to provocative artists from different disciplines was a very good reason to remain in Johannesburg, no matter his international demand. In Kentridge’s example, López found verification of his own choice to stay home in Colombia, which shares with South Africa a violent history. “Both William and I are coming from conflicted social situations,” he says. López does not want to confront his history head-on as the generation before him did, but it is there underneath, informing both the subject and the possibilities of his work. In London, he had been unable to find a watchmaker capable of devising a mechanism for his paper watch that would run backwards, touching on his themes of memory and time, of “going backwards”. No problem for watchmakers in Bogotá, where everyone is accustomed to making do, through upheavals and deprivations. “We are very used to improvising,” he notes.

A few months into his mentoring year with Kentridge, López completed Avenida Primavera, Casa No.2, an installation of rooms conceived as a walk-in book of often three-dimensional drawings. Taking a hint from the studio practice of his Rolex mentor, he sought out collaborators for experiments in sound (ambient noise from his current apartment) and smell (the perfume of old paper). “Talking with William influenced the whole exhibition,” he says.

When he sent Kentridge photographs of the installation, he received a poetic critique and also the observation that these rooms suggested the setting for a performance.

A delicate dance

Then, beginning in November, for nearly a month and a half, López moved into Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio. During the first week, Kentridge introduced López to techniques of animation and gave him a stack of pages from an old Oxford English Dictionary to draw on. Kentridge had his own stack of pages from a duplicate dictionary. Each of them would make autobiographical drawings of themselves walking. These might become separate films or a joint project.

“You’re not saying, ‘Here’s a way of making an animated film’, but through the actual making of an animated film you’re thinking about what it is to put yourself in the film,” Kentridge says. “How hard-edged can it be? I think for Mateo it would be useful to do something that’s messy, that’s less precise.”

It is a delicate dance for mentor and protégé to work closely together, but Kentridge and his wife, the rheumatologist Anne Stanwix, have an affable generosity that encompasses a large circle of friends and family. Kentridge went to great lengths to care for his young studio-mate, including a top-speed car ride through Johannesburg in order to make it to the foundry in time for López to witness his first bronze casting.

A week into López’s residency, Kentridge went off on the European tour of his Refuse the Hour performance. López stayed in the studio, making drawing after drawing, filming each version from above. He drew himself walking, but he also drew squares of colour, scientific diagrams of hands, a clock whose numbers fall down into a heap and fly away. He took lunch with Stanwix or the studio staff, at home in the Kentridge kitchen.

On a damp December afternoon after Kentridge’s return, the mentor stopped by the table where López was working yet more charcoal into a cloud of smoke that billowed behind his walking figure.

Kentridge watched for a moment. “I would keep working: erase and add to the meaning. See how far it can go,” he said. “Nothing to lose.”

“If I make it any darker, it disappears,” López protested.

“That’s nothing,” Kentridge urged. “See what happens if it all goes black. You’ve got it in a neat form now. Try a brush, thick charcoal, erasers. Push much, much further.”

Back in his Bogotá studio, with its walled courtyard and the kitchen-in-progress, to which he hopes to lure other kinds of artists and artisans, López sat at his own drawing table, making precise plans and diagrams of the paper combs and dishes, the lounge chairs and lamps with which he will furnish Casa Disorientada, a floating house that is a collaboration with the architect Lucas Oberlaender for Art Basel in 2013.

“I understand what William was suggesting, but it’s more about the process than the final result. It’s about taking me out of my comfort zone,” López said. “I can be messy when I’m working, but it’s not me. What I understand from our conversations is that I could try not to control things too much, try to create something from chaos. That is interesting.”

Messy drawing may not be in the DNA of Mateo López, but it is possible, after all, that performance is. Working with collaborators, he’s been improvising a performance piece. It’s centred on his collection of salsa vinyls, musical evidence of the historical and racial connections between Colombia and South Africa. There’s video in the performance, also animation. Most of all, there’s Mateo López, out there in public, making meaning.

Amei Wallach is a New York-based arts writer and film-maker. She is president emeritus of the U.S. chapter of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art).

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Rolex Mentor and Protégé

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