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Kentridge makes short animation films from large-scale drawings in charcoal and pastel on paper. Each drawing, which contains a single scene, is successively altered through erasing and redrawing and photographed in 16 or 35mm film at each stage of its evolution. Remnants of successive stages remain on the paper, and provide a metaphor for the layering of memory which is one of Kentridge's principal themes. The films in this series, titled Drawings for Projection (see Tate T07482-4 and T07479-81), are set in the devastated landscape south of Johannesburg where derelict mine and factories, mine dumps and slime dams have created a terrain of nostalgia and loss. Kentridge's repeated erasure and redrawing, which leave marks but not complete transformation, together with the jerky movement of the animation, operate in parallel with his depiction of human processes, both physical and political, enacted on the landscape.
Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old is the fourth film in the series. It was made from twenty-five drawings and features Dvorak's String Quartet in F, Opus 96, choral music of South Africa, and the M'appari aria from Martha by Friedrich von Flotow, sung by Enrico Caruso. It picks up the narrative and themes begun in Kentridge's first film, Johannesburg the Second Greatest City after Paris (Tate T07482), and follows the development of the relationships between his cast of invented characters, Soho Eckstein, his wife and her lover, Felix Teitelbaum. These relationships reflect, metaphorically, the changing political situation in South Africa at the time the film was made. Demonstrations and marches in opposition to the apartheid régime together with the governmental relaxation of most of the State of Emergency regulations and restrictions heralded the beginning of a change in the country's power structure (and white attitudes towards black African rights). Soho, a symbol of South African white power, develops the capacity for awareness, longing and love and the potential for guilt and repentance. This is played out through the loss of his wife to Felix (his emotional alter-ego) which climaxes, through the couple making love, in the crumbling of the buildings of Johannesburg as megaphones declare a state of emergency. Soho is left alone with a cat in a vast open landscape and the words 'HER ABSENCE FILLED THE WORLD'. In the final scene of the film Soho has had to recognise the magnitude of his grief and longing, and lies, still wearing the business suit which symbolises his social position, embracing his naked wife in the middle of a field, where they gradually become submerged under rising waters. Crowds of black protestors, who had appeared marching through a 1950s version of Johannesburg earlier in the film, have receded to a respectful distance as Soho has found a connection to his feelings and hence his land.
Dan Cameron, Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, J.M. Coetzee, William Kentridge, London 1999, reproduced (colour) pp. 62-5
Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, William Kentridge, exhibition catalogue, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1998, pp.72-7, reproduced (colour) pp.73-7, (detail) p.71