William Kentridge’s Universal Archive is made up of almost fifty individual images printed onto non-archival 1950s dictionary and encyclopaedia paper. They depict everyday images, such as coffee pots, trees, cats, female nudes, typewriters, horses and birds. These objects are recurring throughout Kentridge’s work, from ink drawings to video installations.
Kentridge is known for pushing the boundaries of printmaking, particularly linocut - the medium in which the Universal Archive is produced, wherein gestural marks are achieved with an astounding likeness to an ink drawing.
In fact, the prints began as simple Indian ink drawings, for which Kentridge used what he calls a “good brush” and a “bad brush”. The former refers to the pristine new brush, which gives perfectly intentional lines. The latter has damaged, splayed bristles which gives a less certain mark. It is the worn, mistreated brush that artists tend to discard but Kentridge embraces for its individual qualities. The drawings were initially converted to linocut prints through meticulous hand-carving methods, requiring a dedicated team over a four-year period with each print taking 20-30 hours. When the series expanded, a photo-transfer process was adopted. Jillian Ross – Master Printer at David Krut Projects – describes the painstaking process as “completely epic” and very demanding, requiring a team of ten to carve at once, and even then she recalls that the coffee pots in themselves took two years.
The Universal Archive has opened up possibilities for the linocut medium, which is rarely manipulated to achieve such delicate effects. The near-identical replication of Kentridge’s free-hand brush strokes makes for unexpected nuance at the level of technical achievement.
The decision to use non-archival paper is a radical one in printmaking as dictionary paper is thin and discolours over time, contrary to thick and porous archival paper which is typically used. The dictionary paper also resists the ink, which creates a glossy glow on the surface of the paper.
It is interesting that Kentridge layers familiar objects in uncertain formations onto supposedly certain and immovable terms and definitions. The dictionary paper also serves as a reference, a tribute even, to a forgotten, “old-world” method of accessing information now that the internet has superseded dictionaries and encyclopaedias as a means of accessing information.
The images in the Universal Archive are familiar but abstracted in form – resembling a person and a coffee pot simultaneously, for example. This merging of objects relates to the artist’s skepticism towards certainty in creative processes. In the Universal Archive, as in works such as Rebus (optical illusion sculptures, 2013), Kentridge draws attention to ideas around knowledge production and the construction of meaning.
This interest in image mis/identification is core to Kentridge’s practice and is richly explored in the Universal Archive. If the printed image is not rendered overtly ambiguous, like the coffee pot man, varying depictions (or deconstructions) of one image, such as a typewriter, are grouped together. In this instance, the recurring image moves from an unquestionable portrayal of the object to a collection of loose lines, which merely suggest the original form. The process by which the viewer projects meaning is sincerely rattled.
Jillian Ross, who has worked with Kentridge since the early 2000s, headed up the printing process for the Universal Archive. She stresses that an in-depth understanding of the Universal Archive requires engaging Kentridge’s work in different mediums where the same objects occur in varying forms: “because he often works on a number of projects at once, his ideas for one project tend to fuel another. Images that you see in the Universal Archive overlap considerably across the many mediums that he works in”. She adds that she sees the title, Universal Archive as “a reference to his personal ‘universal archive’ – as in the themes and images that he repeatedly draws on and animates in his work.”
Ross also points out the influence of Japanese art in the Universal Archive in terms of the quality of the line, which is made to look like a Japanese-style brush-stroke. She adds that “most artists approach printmaking as a secondary medium but Kentridge sees the challenges of printmaking so he keeps developing and improving his practice”.