Drawing Languages for Dissent, session four, 4th June 2020
William Kentridge on ‘Peripheral Thinking’
A Richie Lecture for Yale University Art Gallery, 13 November 2015
Available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79FuROwzRvs
What happens at the edges?
Kentridge opens his lecture with the question “what happens at the edges?” and then starts talking about mangos. “I am aware this is of no purpose whatsoever. What I am doing is tracking my thoughts wherever they may go, and also clearly resisting the need to make a coherent argument.” He proceeds to draw pictures in our minds of his studio, of what he can see around him, and the memories that come to mind.
A drawing of an enamel water jug.
Pages of a Chinese dictionary.
Photos of a political rally.
Straight away we are experiencing with him a whole host of peripheral thoughts that circle the primary focus of his talk, which it turns out are also not superfluous at all, indeed these ‘pointless’ thoughts illustrate his assertion that “fixing a thought is impossible.” At face value this statement seems to directly challenge the previous text which claimed “drawing is the form of the thought”. Is it possible that a thought is not singular, but an actively entangled multiplicity of thoughts? A multiple without which a drawing would be just a dot with no form at all?
Kentridge describes drawing a tree. “I try focusing on a tree, but the focus is porous”. He says it is full of memories, details, associations. He describes them all to us and they appear to jostle in as much alive detail as there are strokes of his brush appearing on the page and resembling a tree.
He describes, around his studio in which we imagine standing, a periphery of images on the walls. Cut outs, photos, reminders of what he is not focused on as he works, “the things at the edges”. And this, he says is accompanied by a parallel peripheral thinking: “ideas that are pushed aside by other ideas, ideas that are at the edges but not central to the focus of what I am doing.”
He is drawing a tree.
“That which is extraneous cannot be kept out of the centre…. to remove everything but the tree is to remove the tree itself.” he says, pointing out that every encounter with the world involves “a negotiation between that which comes toward us, and what we project onto it.” Our projections come from our past experiences and interpretations of those experiences.
“The art is not to defend the centre… to be open to what appears to be extraneous” to those ‘invasions’ and so called distractions from the periphery.
The periphery describes a circle.
If you think about it, the edge of the circle and the centre exist simultaneously. They define each other. The centre of a circle does not exist without the circumference line being drawn around it. That which is excluded from the centre defines the centre itself.
Kentridge uses the example of a city centre and the peripheral suburbs. “The truth of the centre is only comprehensible in relation to what is outside of it.” he says. “The meaning of the centre is made of the periphery.”
This can apply to our sense of personal boundaries. My body is in the centre of my personal space. My private thoughts live here with me. My personal boundary defines what is me and what is not me. My sense of identity is created in that lived negotiation between inside and outside. This ‘space between’ is where the negotiation, dialogue, and creativity happens, this ‘edge’ is the terrain where dissenting artists enter a dialogue of questioning.
We ask questions to reveal alternative ways of thinking and seeing. Questions generate a profusion of digressive thoughts that one hopes will eventually lead to a coherent picture.
The practice of dissent is exploring new arrangements, drawing you could say, new lines. New relationships between thought and perception, between inside and outside, between ‘me’ and ‘not me’. It is a negotiation between what is part of me and what could subsume me.
When we engage in a dialogue, that is a consciously participatory encounter, we co-create something. Ideas meld, experiences are shared, new relationships form. This is why I am personally passionate about encouraging dissent as well as consent. What is pushed ‘outside’ is just as important as what is invited ‘inside’. The space between is the bridge where life happens and art is made.
Look around you.
What can you see? What can you sense?
Where does your mind go?
What thoughts arise?