Public art

William Kentridge’s existential imagery takes over Times Square

The artist sees his midnight billboard installation as “a bit of brain surgery” in “the deep soul of late capitalism”

View of William Kentridge's "To What End?" Image Credit: Ka-Man Tse for Times Square Arts.

The South African artist William Kentridge has taken over dozens of video screens in New York’s Times Square—stretching from 42nd Street to 49th Street—this month with his work To What End? (2019). The piece, shown nightly from 11:57pm to midnight through the end of December, features text and imagery from Kentridge’s chamber opera Waiting for Sibyl, which premiered in Rome earlier this year.

The project, part of Times Square Arts regular Midnight Moments commissions, is not Kentridge’s first foray showing work in one of the city’s biggest tourist destinations, however. “Many years ago, I did a project in Times Square in which artists were given one minute to do a presentation on one electronic billboard, I think it was the Budweiser billboard,” the artist tells The Art Newspaper. “It was pretty astonishing at the time, and so when the request came more than 15 years later to do something on not one but dozens of billboards in Times Square, of course it was irresistible.”

“Times Square is of course both wonderful and a complete nightmare of overload,” Kentridge adds. “It's kind of the deep soul of late capitalism. And it's interesting to do a little bit of brain surgery there.”

As with the opera, the imagery in To What End? deals with themes of fate and the unknown. “There are images of the Sibyl, of the tree without its leaves, of Rorschach ink drawings,” Kentridge says. “It's mainly ink drawings on dictionary pages and this is what gives it coherence as you look between the different screens.”