Penny Siopis: Material Acts

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Penny Siopis Material Acts

Penny Siopis Material Acts

Penny Siopis Material Acts

Texts Penny Siopis and Sean O’Toole Photographs Mario Todeschini Editor Sophie Perryer


9 ‘I ask myself ’ Penny Siopis in dialogue with herself 40

Glue-and-ink paintings

107 Restless Republic 161 Open Form/Open Studio 203 Studio Encounters Sean O’Toole 225 Biography

Photographs of Penny Siopis’s process were taken during Open Form/Open Studio at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, from April to July 2017.

‘I ask myself ’ Penny Siopis in dialogue with herself

You work with process, change, transformation. You see your materials as vibrant, as having a distinct capacity to act and react with other forces. Wood glue, in particular, has manifest agency, altering as it does when it comes into contact with the air, turning from lively viscous white substance into transparent crystalline surface. But this material change, by its very nature, can’t be reflected in the object that remains, the thing we call a painting. A vital part of your concept is thus lost. Why then do you stick with a practice that can’t hold your thinking? Indeed, why use a canvas at all? Well, to envisage any relationship, especially – and paradoxically – one of openness and change, I need a boundary – a field to flow and overflow. It’s not only an edge to kick against but a microcosmic world in which nonhuman and human can act in immersive and mutual ways. There is so much current talk about posthumanism and the effects of human domination on our planet but the discourse often seems abstract and distant from immediate experience. The bounded field gives a space to experience change as particular, as immediate physical transformation, and through it imagine a relation to change within a wider world. As for the part of the process that is lost – invisible – in the end, that’s a question of temporality, the nature of being … 9

‘I ask myself’

Let’s stick with glue for the moment, and its ability to self-form – to alter its material state and colour. The glue needs other substances and forces to act. Substances are known as actants in certain literature and I saw described somewhere an instance of this acting ability: pour vinegar onto baking soda and you’ll see that both behave in ways they have never behaved before. When the erupted mix comes into contact with another force, another new thing will emerge. And so it goes. Unpredictable. But what is guaranteed is that something will happen. Like all experiments, there are always surprises. You’ve been interested in materiality and change from the beginning. With your early ‘cake paintings’ it was with the excessive build-up of oil paint, how it altered as it dried, forming a skin, but underneath remaining wet. Even now, after thirtysomething years, if you cut through the paint you’ll find that the parts closest to the canvas face are still moist. The concept of change in these paintings is clear – the paint acts like a body, it ages as it loses its juices, wrinkles and cracks over time. What happens under the skin disturbs the surface. You can also see the ‘cake’ morphology as reflecting your feminist concerns, and the excessive materiality of oil paint – notwithstanding your pleasure in its sensual properties – as a comment on the medium’s semiotic freighting. But with the glue, it’s not as easy to see the import of its viscous ways. Glue can become image and metaphor too. It all depends on how you see the life in its flow, its state as both liquid and solid, and how you create the tension between figure and ground in its open form.


Plum (detail), 1982, oil on canvas, 149.5 × 201.5cm

How does this play fit into the bigger picture of the relationship between human and nonhuman? I see it as a way to unsettle conventional dualisms that see the world divided into subject and object – often conceived in terms of lively humans and inert matter. I go with Jane Bennett’s sentiments that conclude her wonderful book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things: ‘I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests.’ * For all this, it is still difficult to perceive nonhuman matter as exhibiting agency when it comes to art, conventionally defined as an exclusively human intentionality. And with painting in particular, the artist’s ‘hand’, however mediated – its ‘mastery’ all too often associated with masculinist inscriptions – is habitually seen as the agent that transforms matter into form. It would be easier to explain if people could see for themselves the way the glue actually behaves once it connects with other forces. It’s true, I have the benefit of witnessing firsthand the changes as they happen. And I see how the material’s self-forming operates as a physical bearing out of the philosophies of vital materialism and becoming that interest you. But the length of time the process takes makes this experience impossible for most potential spectators. So the transformation must live through the things we call paintings, their photographic documentation and your descriptions and reflections on the process, including the generic form of the artist’s statement.

* Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A

Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)


‘I ask myself’

Like this? ‘Experimenting with unorthodox material in painting generates new ideas. More than that, it offers an opportunity to open one’s self to the “life” of non-human matter and to find in this openness an intimate model for relationality in the bigger political picture of the self, of the social body, of ecology: a model that is full of risk and uncertainty.’ * Hmmm. Painting as relationality, as intimate model of openness ... a model you’ve amplified through exposing, demonstrating and sharing your process with others. But since access to the full duration of the material transformation is not possible, most people only see the splash of glue and ink in the beginning, and then, at the end, the residues we call paintings. You’ve drawn an analogy here to performance art – there is a live event and there are residues. It is through what remains that you get a sense of the action. But this doesn’t convey the liveliness of the medium. It’s also hard to see paintings as something other than paintings. And you don’t entirely deny them this identity, even if the vibrant glue strains the category. Let me describe, then, how things become what they become. I set the conditions for something to happen. A primary condition is the horizontal axis of the canvas, and the canvas needs to be stretched, a feature which lifts its face off the floor. The dimensions of the stretcher determine how much ‘give’ there is between the taut fabric and the floor; how much room there is to dip when matter builds up on the fabric and weighs it down under gravity’s sway. I often remove the stretcher’s reinforcing struts at the back to increase the dimensions of the dip. Then I pour the viscous glue and splash, trickle and squirt ink into its spill. Sometimes I start with the ink then swamp the pigment with glue. Colour runs, congeals into veins, then clots. A spray of water, and the veins break. Hues bleed as they’re consumed by glue, and everything curdles into a milky blur. As the air dries the scene, the white cloud lifts, and colour contours emerge. What was opaque has turned transparent. Only now can you see what went on in that white cloud. 12

* Artist statement from press release for Open Form/Open Studio at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, April 2017

You’ve called this process ‘painting blind’ because you can’t see what you’re doing. Colour mixes itself in the milky cloud – there is no external palette, so no telling if your red will come out red. Painting blind is a contradiction. Painting’s premise is visual – the capacity to see your marks as you make them. This is imperative in composing an image. You’ll say that you are not making the marks, that there is no rendering by your hand; that whatever form emerges comes through the interaction of many forces. The painting paints itself. Blindness is often a metaphor for not being able to know. Putting aside the prejudice of the metaphor, you seem to be deliberately undermining your own mastery. Surely then your ‘painting blind’ must be a comment on the ocularcentrism within the logocentrism of the west, the privileging of mind over body, subject over object. Suspend this type of judgment for a while. See the vulnerability that comes from uncertain sight as generative. An opportunity to see things differently. Earlier you lamented that people couldn’t see with their own eyes how glue acts, and therefore couldn’t know that it had acted. Then it was empiricism. Now what – imagination? Listen to what Elizabeth Grosz has to say: ‘We cannot help but view the world in terms of solids, as things. But [then] we leave behind something untapped of the fluidity of the world, the movement, vibrations, transformations that occur below the threshold of perception and calculation and outside the relevance of our practical concerns. [Yet] … we have … access to this profusion of vibration that underlies the solidity of things.’ *

* Elizabeth Grosz, ‘The Thing’, in

Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001)


‘I ask myself’

Transformations below the threshold of perception … Sometimes what can best be felt can least be seen. A way to think about the paintings continuing to change long after they’re dry. Carry on describing your process. I lift and tilt the canvas this way and that in a rhythm that coaxes the stuff to swirl. Flecks float, fall and catch in the weave. I might press my finger down on the fabric, and my dent creates a dam. On the digit’s release, gravity pulls the other way. Back and forth it flows, leaving traces as it goes, like tracks of sand after the tide washes out; that’s how those lines are drawn, particles of pigment clinging to one another. When left to lie level for a while, glutinous pools well up in the deepest dip. Some swell into shapes suggesting eggs. I might raise one end of the canvas and rest it against an object. Everything rushes downwards going over the edge, some escaping onto the floor. The spill hardens when it dries, and becomes an autonomous entity. It’s easy to peel off the floor. But, like a creaturely tail, it is tied to its body. You’ve been moving around the canvas on all fours on the floor. There is no right side up. That comes later, when the glue is dry, when you lean the canvas against the wall. Portrait or landscape? But even then things move around. Now the process becomes imaginative projection – seeing ‘something’ in the tracks, the physical traces of that moment the air snapped flow into arrest, like the way light acts to make a photograph. But here there’s no originary referent, no ‘click’ to pinpoint the instant animation suspended. You can see, though, from the fashioning of the matter, how movement was frozen and that the operation happened on a horizontal plane. In vertical view, this petrification switches into a ‘picture’ of movement. Look at the mass of maroon-tinted glue in World’s Edge.* Its tracks appear to soar upwards because of how we see in vertical relation and 14

* See page 55


‘I ask myself’



‘I ask myself’


because of its positioning in the lower register of the picture plane – it could be larva or turgid mud emanating from below. In fact, the traces were made through the downward motion of gravity pulling the glue towards the dip in the canvas centre as it lay horizontally on the floor. Form petrified in this way becomes a potential image. Petrification. Petra is stone in Greek. So there is the geological association. Reminds me of the logs of the petrified forest I saw in Lesbos. They are twenty million years old, made when a volcano exploded and covered the entire area with ash and lava. You can even see their root systems. Some lie down, others stand up. Deep time fossilised in these forests, and now perhaps the premonition of time plasticised in our anthropocentric epoch. I think of Walter Benjamin’s concept of history as ‘petrified unrest’, and I wonder. Benjamin had something to say about horizontality and verticality too, equating drawing and writing with the former and painting with the latter. His views are of their time, but I find it compelling how he speaks about the two spheres as ‘cuts’ through the ‘substance of the world’, the longitudinal cut being painting, read as representation, and the transversal cut, or cross section, being drawing and writing, read as sign. The cross section – literally going across – feels in tune with the rhizomatic horizontality and tactility you’re interested in. We don’t handwrite much anymore. We tap our liquid crystal screens which oscillate between horizontal and vertical in a flash. But that’s another story. Here, it’s about horizontality in painting; the possibilities it offers of blurring boundaries between subject and object, figure and ground, slanting you sideways toward a greater appreciation of the complex entanglements of the human and nonhuman. But does the horizontal disposition still lay claim, as with field and action painting, to challenge the perspectival economies of the gaze and, by extension, the optical possession of territory?


‘I ask myself’

Wasn’t action painting a form of possession – the dominant subjectivity colonising the canvas taken as ‘other’? The ghost of Jackson Pollock hangs about too much. It’s your actions we’re talking about. I want the gap between my body and the canvas to become small. Better still, not at all. My eyes must brush up against its face. Or live on my fingertips. A haptic way of seeing. But it’s not only your eyes and fingers – your whole body seems to merge with the canvas ground. Or is it the other way around? Something unbounded happens in the downward lean. The visual field becomes immersive. Edges erode. Borders fray. The chance for surprise is infinite in this open orientation. But how to achieve critical distance in this position? You can’t stand back. When you stand up, does something come into focus, a perspective cohere, however perverse? When I stand up the space between me and the canvas is only the distance of my height. To get higher I’d have to climb onto something. That’s why the ladder hangs around the studio. We know that horizontality is more than a technical concern to prevent the medium from running down the canvas! You’d been thinking about this for a while – how horizontality can dislodge those dominant optics that undervalue bodily ways of knowing. But it was only when you started working on the floor on large-scale stretched canvases, inviting the effects of gravity in creating the image, that this consciousness manifested as idea. 20

Something happened with Ambush, after I had sketched in my reference – Hokusai’s famous woodblock print of a woman encountering an octopus. Wanting to make the reference more visceral I poured glue into the part delineated as figure and left it to pool and congeal overnight. The next morning the glue had broken its seal and invaded the surrounding visual field; all the fluidity of the open form I had aimed for in my earlier attempts came to light. An accident brought it on. When accident becomes form! Horizontality is a spatial disorientation of the visual field. So much that’s been written about it in painting comes down to Rosalind Krauss’s take on Pollock.* Sorry to go on about this, but it’s impossible not to see a correlation with his unseating of the canvas and yours. Not the macho aspect, of course!

Ambush, 2008, glue and ink on canvas, 200 × 250cm

* Rosalind Krauss, The Optical

Unconscious (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993) and Formless: A User’s Guide with Yve-Alain Bois, catalogue to the exhibition L’Informe: Mode d’emploi (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1996)


‘I ask myself’

Of course! There are other differences too – his canvas wasn’t stretched and so there was no give as it lay passive on the ground. He wasn’t really into material reciprocity. And the way he dropped cigarette butts and nuts and bolts into his surface – well, that takes some beating. There’s a fly in your glue!* But it didn’t fall from your body. The glue heats up and gives off fumes. Creatures, microbes think it’s food, and dive in. An insect in amber. Immortalised in the sticky substance of time. A creaturely transcendence! You mean immanence. But if you think of the word transcendence as ‘going beyond’, then something happens with the glue, in its multiplicity and self-forming, that exceeds the way we usually see materiality as only having meaning when put in the service of something else – in art, materials are all too often subservient to the imprint of the artist’s hand, her image needs, or alternatively reduced to brute and mute facticity. As Petra Lange-Berndt says, ‘materials are not allowed to be vagabond, dirty and contagious, they are only used to think about or to think with, and again act as the indicator of something else’.† How to talk about materiality as materiality? Lange-Berndt wonders if ‘material complicity’ might be a way. If you take the ideas of new materialisms with more than a pinch of salt, then there might be a way to see material agency as the province of all matter, which, rather than being one thing or the other, is always ‘emergent’. It makes sense to you and me. We go with emergence because we are immersed. Fine! We’re alone together in the studio having encounters with material and things. But when you talk about this in the wider world many people are less than enthusiastic.


* See detail of Gravity’s Sway, page 102 † Petra Lange-Berndt, ‘Introduction:

How to be complicit with materials’, in Materiality, edited by Lange-Berndt (London: Whitechapel Gallery; Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2015)

Some see asserting the nonhuman as detracting from the fight for human agency – there is so much dehumanisation in the world. What’s its politics? Change. To shift the certainty of human notions of agency is not to diminish the effects of social change through language-based discourse, the politics of representation. It is to offer new modalities for conceptualising the self as part of the ‘object world’, the environment, indeed of all matter. Seeing relationships between subjects and objects as fluid and dynamic through the material acts in the bounded field of the canvas. Even when things look stable the ground continues to move. It grows in transparency; as colours fade, new hues emerge. As Gilles Deleuze would say, colour in painting has an indeterminacy that suggests futurity.* Are there times, in the process, when the glue seems less alive to change? When I treat it like oil paint. As with oil paint glue forms a skin, but not the kind you can layer. New glue won’t take on old skin. It needs the canvas tooth to grip, and the fabric’s pale tone to glow. The process is more like watercolour – where surfaces can suffocate from layer overdose and luminosity dulls when the paper can’t breathe. When glue clogs I must wet the affected area, scrub it down and peel away the obdurate bits, and then re-throw the raw spot. The surrounding site must be damp for the new and old glue to meld in sympathetic ways. If things don’t gel then I must repeat the process. But nothing is repeatable. Every throw is an experiment, and everything is contingent on everything else. Look! There is something that seems to be separating from colour and canvas, a physical gap. You can’t put your finger on it. Disruptive. Shouldn’t it come off ?

* Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (London: Continuum, 2003)


‘I ask myself’

That proverbial ‘thing’ that can’t be captured in language? Perhaps if you destroyed the paintings this wouldn’t matter. And your concept of change would be radical. You could give your practice another name. Many paintings end up in the ditch! But I’m hanging onto the potential within the nomenclature of painting for now. And painting’s fate is to wrestle with its image, emergent or imposed. Even when it heads to degree zero, as Yve-Alain Bois observes in the drive towards non-composition in modernist painting, which he sees as a bid to erase subjectivity from painting.* He means human subjectivity. In other words (and his world), white, western, male, heteronormative ... True. But the strategies that he identifies for erasure are still relevant and resonate with your painting – especially chance, the collapse of image and field, the deductive structure, process. I like his articulation of formless matter as pulse. Pulse as the heartbeat continually renewed, inciting ‘an eruption of the carnal’. But with words there is always the urge to pin things down. To analyse you need your object to be fixed. Its terms settled. You can’t build an argument about formal relationships on matter in motion. But even when surfaces are stilled, material presences keep escaping. Yes, so what we know about painting as painting is always partial and belated. Like it or not, it’s invariably from the perspective of ‘the product’, not materiality, that we see and speak about it. * Yve-Alain Bois, ‘The difficult task

of erasing oneself: Non-composition in twentieth-century art’, October 143, Winter 2013



‘I ask myself’


If process is the thing, then what is there to be definitive about? The actual materials? We can talk of them, whether still or moving. Canvas? Glue? Glue is so commonplace! If you worked with your blood, then that would really be saying something! Identity, trauma, the feminine, the maternal. The human stain. Ha! What about ‘the everyday’? That’s a challenge to the master narrative … In truth, glue joins things. It inhabits the in-between space that is both visible and invisible. Your interest in glue began in the late 1980s with your collage history paintings. Practical need – how to attach paper to a support and simultaneously create a barrier between the cutout and the oil paint that I applied on top. Oil paint is toxic; it eats paper. I was told that Alcolin wood glue – that’s its brand name, otherwise known as cold glue – would do the trick. The substance is archive-friendly and environmentally kind. When it dries on your hand it forms a second skin that doesn’t hurt to peel off ! That’s when I discovered that the glue changed colour after exposure to the air, going from white to transparent, and so creating a perfect see-through film on the paper that was wonderfully receptive to oil paint. Now I think of this film like the celluloid in my filmic montage – how it simultaneously holds materiality and narrative, cut and continuity. I’ve often associated it with Roland Barthes’ ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’.* He talks of the ‘gluing and ungluing’ that happens when you’re immersed in the darkened space in a state of makebelieve, and then when you leave and are hit by the outside light. There’s an ideological line that he draws, of course, but it’s his idea of being ‘fascinated twice over’ that connects what’s happening on the screen with the physical space in which it’s happening, the screen itself, being transfixed to the projector light and bonded to ‘the obscure mass of bodies’ around you. All these sensations at once! He mentions ‘bliss’. I think of Susan Sontag now, her essay ‘Against Interpretation’ penned many moons ago. ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’.† That inscrutable glue!

* Roland Barthes, ‘Leaving the Movie

Theater’, in The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986) † Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966)


‘I ask myself’

You’re tying yourself up. That’s why I need a break – from you! What about other viscous materials that also have an in-between state? Jean-Paul Sartre talks about pitch, and also honey! He could be talking about glue. ‘The viscous appears as already the outline of a fusion of the world with myself … it responds with its very being, with its modes of being, with all its matter … A viscous substance like pitch is an aberrant fluid. At first, with the appearance of a fluid it manifests to us a being which is everywhere fleeing and yet everywhere similar to itself … The viscous reveals itself as essentially dubious [louche] because its fluidity exists in slow motions; there is a sticky thickness in its liquidity. This fixed instability in the viscous discourages possession ... Nothing testifies more clearly to the dubious character of a “substance in between two states” than the slowness with which the viscous melts into itself ... The honey which slides off my spoon onto the honey contained in the jar first sculpts the surface by fastening itself onto relief, and its fusion with the whole is presented as a gradual sinking, a collapse which appears at once as a deflation ... and as display …’*

Note 9, 2015, glue and ink on paper, 35 × 37cm

* Jean-Paul Sartre, Being

The unrecoverable strangeness of the glue makes me hopeful! 28

and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology (New York: Citadel Press, 2001)

You’d like what art critic Jan Verwoert has to say with reference to Édouard Glissant’s opacity: ‘Hope lies in the inscrutable. When it doesn’t have to serve as a justification for anything, when it need not apologize for anything or obey any format. But when, instead, it shows itself openly as something that stands between us, even when we’re communicating with one another, in fact especially at those moments.’* You embody Glissant’s term through the thickening of the glue. But Glissant was talking from a particular position that resists colonial power. You’re not in the same situation. True. But his was also a plea for a poetics that resists logocentrism more broadly, that is enabling in many instances; it does this by not being transparent, not being knowable in the expected way. So to be literal, the way the glue actually transforms from opaque to transparent is the wrong way round. You can’t be serious! Well, that’s how some might read it. Listen to what else Verwoert says: ‘Opacity belongs to no one. In fact, it emerges only when left to itself – when those involved in an exchange accept, intuitively, wordlessly and of their own accord, “allant de soi”, not merely to fix the literal meaning of an utterance, but also to pay attention to everything that resonates in the sound of a voice and what a text or art work expresses inexpressibly in all the aspects of the way it is made. The free choice to be attentive to opacity, Glissant writes, generates “une relation de pur partage” – a relationship of pure sharing, a distinct social contract based on silent trust. Glissant’s plea in favour of opacity is thus by no means a gesture of refusal. Instead he calls for an even greater willingness to engage in exchanges using the means of art.’ * Jan Verwoert, ‘Against Interpretations’, Frieze d/e, Issue 7, Winter 2012


‘I ask myself’

A good cue to talk about Open Form/Open Studio. You’ve had a longstanding interest in different kinds of openness over the years, but it’s one thing working with the ‘poetics of vulnerability’, as you call it, and quite another making yourself actually vulnerable by going public with unpredictable processes in a socially engaged project. Especially as your philosophy involves the disposition of a ‘de-mastery’. While we could argue the effects of this de-mastery – you show your skill in other ways, perhaps even more assertively than through the stroke of a paintbrush – the point is that you didn’t display conventional painting prowess as the basis for engagement. What made you do this? Social engagement is not about performing mastery over material. Open Form/Open Studio was not a master class. There was an entirely different dynamic at play – play being a significant part of it. The space was one of potential. Creativity as a social process, where the physical transformation of material, its mobility, can be analogous to individual and social transformation. Laying the self bare was part of the process. The whole event – which took four months – became a way to connect interiority and exteriority, translating what happened inside the studio into the social and political world beyond. You are a teacher too. Open Form/Open Studio happened at a time of decolonising discussions at the University of Cape Town and elsewhere. Maitland ended up providing a ‘space’ to engage some of the issues in a way that didn’t have the burdens or constraints of formal institutions. The physical space was large and airy with high ceilings and huge industrial doors. Working with such a generous scale in such an open way, with all the vulnerabilities at stake, created the ground for intense sharing with many different publics, including schoolchildren. I think people were keen to get away from direct representation; they found it liberating to go with the life of the glue and to think about how materiality and process can speak, 30


‘I ask myself’


be generative. Taking the cue from the molten physicality of the process, the way the glue acts and I act and they act, and imagining this state of porous boundaries in relation to larger social dynamics and ecologies, along with notions of transformation, evolved quite fluidly. The residency did not take the form of an exhibition, even though we did put the paintings on the wall for a celebration at the end of the tenure, along with residues of the workshops, and documentation. It was a place of action and interaction. Exchange. Everything that happened there was the project. Everything, including the photographic documentation, filming, visitors, assistants. This all gets back to the idea of the paintings being a residue of process, and the photographs being a residue of the paintings, and now the documentation being a residue of the project as a whole. The digital nature of this documentation brings another dimension of materiality into the picture, by putting the visceral and the virtual into manifest relation, and in playing out horizontality, multiplicity and subject-object relations in different visual orders. The GoPro and drone held particular sway here. With thoughts of intimacy and distance, rhizomatic horizontality, and multi-sourced digital code constantly multiplying. The GoPro’s single eye was strapped to my chest; a cyclopean optic. It followed my movements, which were mostly looking down, a bodily dynamic reminding me of my earlier interest in Bataille’s formless, the antiidealisation of form. But of course, to see what the GoPro saw, we need to look at a screen, a contained visual field bounded by its scale and format, and conditioned by its smooth material surface, all of which pictorialise and sanitise the visceral spill.


‘I ask myself’

Still, we see your corporeality in an almost grotesquely intimate way. You can imagine the sticky sensation of the whole affair. With the drone it’s about distance, leading us to think about control and surveillance – you in that vulnerable horizontal position and the machine seeing you from above. There’s a lot that I think about when I work but I also try not to think … There are always orders that emerge, and hold, and then fall apart again. Sounds like signal failure, the kind you associated with the rupturing formlessness of your paintings trying to deal with grief. But you can’t deal with grief ! So you point to it in your giant glue and ink collage Late and Soon,* that mass of swarming sentences cut from newspapers and stuck on and into fleshy splashes. You can’t really call them sentences as they truncate and resist making sense in the material mess they’re made from, turning into curlicues all over the place. And the spill of red – you can’t tell if it hovers above or rises from below. Personal body and body politic. Figuring and disfiguring stories, histories, local, global, 34

Stills from (left) GoPro and (right) drone footage from the Maitland Residency, 2017

* See pages 41-46

here, now … Disorganised optics like Skype sessions going on and offline, and us making faces where there is nothing but moving meshes of pixels. Like the primitive dots in the formless glue spills of your Note paintings – those dots that become eyes or mouths. A face on the verge of collapse, or is it becoming? With Open Form/Open Studio, I think there was grief. But also a breaking out. It wasn’t just the expansive scale and the fluid glue that spurred me on. I had just had surgery which made me think a lot about relationality and corporeality. What it is to be a ‘figure’ in a ground in uncertain times, at moments when you’d like to draw a line in the sand – not to secure binaries, entrench borders, stay in, keep things out, no, but to make the situation feel less catastrophic in the storm. I think of my old favourite, Walter Benjamin, and his allegory of the Angel of History and the storm blowing from Paradise – the storm perceived as historical ‘progress’. The beauty of allegory is that its signs are never fixed. They can be blasted, fly all over the place, and land up as signs of new life. And so the restlessness of Restless Republic. 35

‘I ask myself’

On my days off from Open Form/Open Studio, I’d go to my studio at Michaelis. I looked at the things – figurines mostly – perched on my bookshelves and lounging in my storage boxes. Crudely cast minute replicas of classical statuary, religious souvenirs, trophies and other bits and pieces. Affecting little things, the way they wear their aura of mass production on their sleeve! I positioned these in relation to the glue-spill canvases that lay around the space. A kind of free association happened. So this is how the configurations for the installation emerged. Quite playfully. All in the spirit of relationality. Little statues like the discus thrower and other action men on the verge, Michelangelo’s Moses all authoritative and alert, Socrates in deep thought, Lincoln solid in his chair, stricken saints and ecstatic angels, pagans and weird winged creatures in frenzy, soccer players and golfers taking swipes, hands, eyes, nuns, missionaries, wild horses and more philosophers. Ridiculous, these ‘monuments’ in their diminutive scale, trying out their gestures on the borders of the explosive painted fields, the expanded realm and by association the world beyond. But there are other relations that seem more bathetic – broken porcelain bits of head and body salvaged from a Johannesburg cemetery. In their sorry state, they seem more in tune with the inky blue spill that signals their fate. What questions lie in all this array? Venus, looking towards her watery shadow which is not part of her picture – she literally stands outside the painting. The stone under Groundswell and the rose quartz resting on Rock. What are they doing clutching these pictures? And St Martin. His back to us! Staring at his thickened painted world. What does he behold, is it redemptive? Is that the crux around which the show turns? What can exhibitions really do? In the gallery text* we talk of a dissolution between process and image, between the acts of 36

This and facing page Details of Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017, glue and ink on canvas, found objects. Also see pages 107-120

* Press release for Restless Republic at Stevenson, Cape Town, 8 June to 15 July 2017

making and re-making, and the critical distance adopted in the act of viewing; that process speaks of the ‘life’ of the medium, that chance is central, control is a myth, and that authorship belongs to viewer, medium and maker. And there is your quote. ‘Giving over to the fluid process with all its vicissitudes and visceralities brings forth sensations and images that press against my consciousness. Everything happens in the moment; the spills of the moving matter ensnare the events of the day. Older gestalts join the fray in my mind’s eye – Plato’s Republic, clashing orders in the French Revolution, Hobbes’ Leviathan ... Physical objects fall in and out of the painted world. Some press their faces against the painted surface, touching their own reflection. What force pulls here, pushes there? The republic is a particular public in a world of flux.’ Many people commented on the allusions of the work to local politics. Republic is a public matter. I was also interested in the idea of the Republic of Letters, as a way to think about a community of like-minded thoughts, crossing borders, being positively stateless in their mobility. Thoughts that have yet to find words, theories. So when I’m asked about the relationship of the material process – the splash, spills and stains – and the figurines, what can I say? It’s about a disposition – attentiveness to the play of the particular and the mass, the figure and the ground, and the rich instability of it all. Attentiveness to what bodies are made of – mine, the glue’s, the figurines’ ... not because I’m interested in the chemical composition of, say, hard plastic, marble dust, metal, plaster and the like – but because they too are bodies, matter, and we share the material world. The figures hover on the outskirts of the canvases – is it the explosiveness and volatility of the glue and the force of colour that thrust them to the sides? 37

‘I ask myself’

How too to reflect movement within the conventionally fixed format of the exhibition itself – to make it more elastic, less vulnerable to spectator capture, my own included? So I changed the installation many times over the duration of the show. I took to heart the words of my favourite Greek philosopher, the fluxminded Heraclitus: you never step into the same river twice – it is never the same water that flows. And you are never the same person from one instant to the next. And where does that take you to now? To plasticity! Something that stands, philosophically speaking, between hard determinism and soft indeterminacy. Suppleness. Repair. Plasticity, the way new materialist Catherine Malabou proposes it, intrigues me.* While not the plasticity conventionally understood in art, there is a correspondence in thinking about materiality as open, flexible, dynamic. She does compare it to sculpture and performance. Hers is a materiality that is self-generative and which can be regenerative in the face of degeneration. Many of her references are to physiological trauma to the brain, and about the relations between chance, change and thought. She says, ‘plasticity characterizes an explosive transformation of the individual, a pure rupture’. Someone else calls it ‘a kind of transformative event of immanence’.† For Malabou, ‘this means seeing the brain no longer as the “center” and “sovereign power” of the body – as it has been for centuries, at least in the West – but as itself a locus and process of self-sculpting and trans-differentiation’. What she says has relevance to much contemporary practice that works with a particular attitude to process and material complicity in order to look afresh at ‘the body’ and ‘the political’. Our political 38

Note 60, 2015, glue and ink on paper, 30 × 27.5cm

* Catherine Malabou, Ontology of

the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity, translated by Carolyn Shread, (Cambridge: Polity, 2012) and The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, translated by Steven Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012) † Hugh J Silverman, ‘Malabou, Plasticity, and the Sculpturing of the Self’, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 36.2, September 2010

time is as much a biopolitical time, a state some have named a ‘more-than-human world’ where brain and environment actively interact, where forces not bound to a physical trace have effect, and where perhaps the neurological is melding with the geological. A melding that the glue – technically plastic – might give a mobile face to? For me, her plasticity – as the capacity ‘to give and receive form’ – resonates with the viscosity and endless transforming of glue – its self-forming that has no original trace. This absence, as present in the image of digital failure, offered me the chance to drop little specks of ink into a mass of moving glue. A speck became an eye, another speck a mouth. Nothing but specks, but something in my imagination … No claim to trace – the specks can be washed away – but material acts, in play with Malabou’s proposal that plasticity favours acts over discourse. Full of potential and wonder, this plasticity. A model for freedom, resistance, change. What do you think? It’s an open question.

The first part of this text was based on a presentation given in performative mode at a seminar on creative research at Michaelis School of Fine Arts, University of Cape Town, in April 2016. A video showing Siopis’s painting process in glue and ink was projected as she spoke to herself. The latter part arose from reflections on her Open Form/Open Studio residency at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, a year later.


Detail Late and Soon




Detail Late and Soon


Why Do You Spurn the Good Philosopher?, 2015 Newspaper cuttings, glue and ink on paper 66.5 Ă— 50cm



Detail World’s Edge




World’s Edge, 2010/2016 Glue, ink and oil on canvas 150 × 200cm


Flow’s Warm Arrest, 2010 Glue and ink on canvas 81.5 × 81.5cm



Unreasonable Way, 2015 Glue and ink on canvas 200 × 125cm



There She Is, 2015 Glue and ink on canvas 61 × 51cm


I Tell Myself, 2015 Glue and ink on canvas 91 × 61cm



As If Niobe, 2015, glue and ink on canvas, 245 × 170cm



Beside the Flame, 2015, glue and ink on canvas, 200 Ă— 125cm


Untitled, 2015 Glue and ink on canvas Triptych, 91.5 × 76cm each Becomes Restless Republic: History, 2017 See pages 107-117



Detail Gravity’s Wave




Gravity’s Wave, 2016, glue and ink on canvas, 200 × 125cm


‘It is like in the beginning’, 2016 Glue and ink on canvas 105 × 150cm




‘And then a strange thing happened’, 2016 Glue and ink on canvas 100 × 150cm


Gust, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas 40.5 × 60.5cm Included in Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 See page 115


Burst, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas 40.5 Ă— 60.5cm Included in Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 See page 115



‘He studies the colour of my dark eyes and writes down all the details’, 2016, glue and ink on canvas, 198.5 × 303cm


Detail ‘He studies the colour of my dark

eyes and writes down all the details’




Detail ‘He studies the colour of my dark

eyes and writes down all the details’


Persephone’s World, 2016 Glue and ink on canvas 36 × 46cm Included in Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 See pages 108-114


Spirit Matter, 2016 Glue, ink and oil glaze on canvas 76 Ă— 61cm


Things Flare Up, 2016 Glue and ink on canvas 76 × 50.5cm




Warm Open Form, 2016, glue and ink on canvas, 170 Ă— 250cm; included in Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017, see pages 109-114


Material Acts, 2016 Glue and ink on canvas 125 Ă— 180cm Included in Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 See pages 108-117



Detail Material Acts




Matter’s Swerve, 2016, glue and ink on canvas, 180 × 125cm


Matter Flares, 2016 Glue and ink on canvas 120 Ă— 90cm Included in Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 See pages 108-115



Gravity’s Sway, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas 250 × 170cm



Detail Gravity’s Sway




Detail Gravity’s Sway


Restless Republic, 2016 Glue and ink on canvas 90 × 120cm




Restless Republic

A solo exhibition at Stevenson, Cape Town, from 8 June to 15 July 2017, in which found objects from Siopis’s collection were brought into play with her paintings. The wall installation changed over the duration of the show, disrupting the stasis of the conventional exhibition model.


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found objects Installation version 1, 7 June 2017



Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found objects Installation version 2, 20 June 2017



Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found objects Installation version 3, 29 June 2017



Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Concatenation, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found objects Installation version 4, 14 July 2017



Restless Republic



Restless Republic



Restless Republic


Detail Restless Republic: Concatenation


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Mass, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object 25 × 26 × 22cm



Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Groundswell, 2017 Newspaper cuttings, glue and ink on canvas, found object Canvas 300 Ă— 200cm



Restless Republic


Detail Restless Republic: Groundswell


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Witness I, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object Canvas 40 × 105cm



Restless Republic


Restless Republic: Witness II, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object Canvas 40 × 105cm


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Witness IV, 2016-17 Glue and ink on canvas, found object 100.5 × 100.5 × 20cm



Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Witness III, 2016-17 Glue and ink on canvas, found object 260 × 170 × 25cm



Restless Republic


Detail Restless Republic: Witness III


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Witness V, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object Canvas 100.5 × 45.5cm



Restless Republic

Restless Republic: State, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object 59 × 100.5 × 22.5cm



Restless Republic


Detail Restless Republic: State


Restless Republic


Restless Republic: Mediterranean I, 2017, glue and ink on canvas, found objects, diptych, canvases 100 Ă— 100cm each


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Mediterranean II, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found objects Dimensions variable



Restless Republic


Detail Restless Republic: Mediterranean II


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Gem, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found objects 106 × 80 × 12cm


Restless Republic: Rock 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object Canvas 30.5 × 30cm


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Of Stone, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas 100.5 × 45.5cm



Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Rupture, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found objects Diptych, 89.5 × 60 × 8cm



Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Spill I, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object Canvas 80 × 50cm; with spill 102.5 × 54cm


Restless Republic: Spill II, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object Canvas 90 × 120cm; with spill 197 × 128cm


Restless Republic

Restless Republic: Spill III, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas, found object Canvas 100 × 40.5cm; with spill 280 × 45cm




Open Form/Open Studio

A residency at the Maitland Institute in Cape Town, from April to July 2017, in which Siopis worked in-situ on large-scale paintings while the space was open to the public, hosting individual and group visits as well as a programme of public talks.


Open Form/Open Studio



Open Form/Open Studio



Open Form/Open Studio

Transfigure IV, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas 300 × 200cm



Open Form/Open Studio


Transfigure III, 2017, glue and ink on canvas, left panel of diptych, 200 × 400cm


Open Form/Open Studio


Transfigure III, 2017, glue and ink on canvas, right panel of diptych, 200 × 400cm


Open Form/Open Studio



Open Form/Open Studio

Transfigure VI, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas 200 × 200cm


Transfigure VII, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas 200 × 200cm


Open Form/Open Studio

Transfigure I, 2017 Glue and ink on canvas Triptych, 400 × 200cm each


Sean O’Toole

Studio Encounters

It is a broad generalisation, but much writing and thinking about South African painting has focused on its iconicity, on what or who is portrayed, how, and in service of what ends. There are valid reasons underpinning the sustained critical interest in the complexities of representation in figurative painting, especially with regard to land and alterity, but the intensity of this focus has

unwittingly straitened dialogue around painting in South Africa, its complexity as a material act and fullness as a time-based event. The dominant ontological regime, particularly as it is perpetuated in lay criticism, tends to reiterate the modernist schism between figuration and abstraction. Within this regime, painting tends to be engaged as artefact or relic in need of formal exegesis and taxonomic

View of Siopis’s studio at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, 2018


Studio Encounters

ordering. Signification is paramount; paintings are, in effect, representational ciphers that need to be cracked. Process, that messy, indeterminate and often contingent set of procedures out of which many paintings originate, is somehow elided, or conveniently reduced to a category: abstraction. For much of her career, whether through her materially diverse practice as an artist or her energised pronouncements as a teacher and scholar, Penny Siopis has directed her viewers, students and readers’ attention to what she in 2005 described as ‘the essential, slippery shapelessness’ of painting. Over the past two decades, a period characterised by the increasing formlessness of her paintings, Siopis has repeatedly spoken about the role of process in this ‘carnal medium’. ‘I am interested in the stuff that exceeds signification,’ Siopis told me in June 2016, at the start of a sustained conversation about her paintings made using cold glue and ink. Her interest in the material excess and viscerality of process, in the thingness of painting, is


longstanding – it is recognisable in the layered abundance of her ‘cake paintings’ from the early 1980s – but concurs with new materialist cultural theory. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) is an important reference point, in particular Bennett’s thinking around ‘vital materialism’ and focus on ‘an efficacy of objects in excess of the human meanings, designs, or purposes they express or serve’. But Siopis started working on her glue-andink paintings before the emergence of the current theoretical interest in vital materialism. They are not simply visual proxies for new theory, far from it. Whether encountered in her studio or in a public environment, be it a gallery or museum, these paintings – marked by their vivid colouration and haptic densities of formless matter – compel and perplex. Their fundamental strangeness, especially when understood as residue of a defined yet open-ended process, makes them tantalisingly difficult to write about. How does one fix in words the becoming of a painting in a way

Siopis at work in her studio, 2016 Photos: Alexandra Karakashian

that respects its inchoate beginnings? How does one do this without offering a mechanistic description that renders process as mere technique? And, more fundamentally perhaps, how does one convey all this knowing that, as Gilles Deleuze reminds us in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981), ‘painting has neither a model to represent nor a story to narrate’? Narration, adds Deleuze in his book about dissolving certainties at the surface of a canvas, ‘is the correlate of illustration’. Unlike post-figural painting, critical writing is anchored in a need ‘to narrate’, to illustrate, to give an account of. This essay is a set of reflections drawn from discussions with Siopis between 2016 and 2018, and offers a site-based reading of her glue-and-ink paintings. Equal parts history, report and sketch, my narrative repeatedly engages with three leitmotifs relevant to thinking about Siopis’s recent paintings: location (studio), method (process) and axis (horizontality versus verticality). I quote the artist extensively, drawing from conversations held in her private studio and at the Maitland Institute, where, in 2017, Siopis hosted an open studio to expose her visceral process, in which the vibrancy of the medium is paramount, and further to use this openness as an opportunity for social engagement. Quoting the artist as I frequently do is not simply an act of journalistic ventriloquism; it is not about ceding criticality to reported statement. Criticism, argued Harold Rosenberg in 1959, ‘must begin by recognising in the painting the assumptions inherent in its mode

of creation’. Those assumptions are rarely self-evident, which is why I fall back on Siopis’s words extensively. In a 2017 interview, after describing her critical modus operandi as ‘always pro-artist’, critic Lucy Lippard remarked: ‘I was recently accused by a catalogue editor of “kowtowing” because I quoted the artist so often. I’ve always done that. They know more about the work than I do.’ This chimes with my own experience with Siopis, whose ability to speak about her work is enlightening and invigorating, astonishing too. Often in our conversations Siopis would pivot back to speaking about her process, to the contingent forces and flows that contribute towards the production of her glue-and-ink paintings. It was, she insisted, important to foreground this aspect of her practice, to place it at the centre of the narrative. The reason: a viewer’s unawareness of the processes underpinning these works necessarily limits an appreciation of the concept of the medium’s agency. She elaborated on this during a 2016 visit to her studio. A stretched white canvas was laid down horizontally on the floor, its surface dappled with formative pools of white glue and orange and red inks. Negotiating the rectangular edges of the large canvas, Siopis told me: ‘The process is not just about getting a formal effect. The correlations between what I do here physically and my philosophical and political interests in agency, subject/object and figure/ground distinctions, opacity, immanence, viscerality – it all happens experientially in the work.’


Studio Encounters

The interconnectedness of practice and theory, of process and outcome too, was, she conceded, difficult to explain succinctly. Her frustration, though, was not with speaking about process – Siopis is a capable and dextrous interlocutor – but rather with how her glue-and-ink paintings are received when they enter the world, once the horizontal flows have dried and the floor paintings shift their axis to become vertical art objects. ‘As soon as they go out into the world they get a narrative imposed on them, which overlooks how the actual materials change, and what can be associated with their transformation.’ This narrative tends to shut down the works, or reduce them to a set of fixed outcomes. ‘Even if the narrative is about unpredictability and chance, people often read it only as formal effect. For me the experiential work of doing is like practical philosophy.’ I watched Siopis kneel and spray a thin mist of water onto the surface of her painting. While watching the medium move, she added: ‘The life of the work in the world interests me.’ To chronicle this life, to fully expound the biography of a glue-and-ink painting, necessarily requires thinking backwards: from the vestigial object displayed on its vertical axis, back into the artist’s studio where the stretched canvas lying on the floor is ‘not merely a cultural object’, as philosopher JeanFrançois Lyotard reasoned in 1993, but also ‘an excess, a rapture, a potential of associations that overflows all the determinations of its “reception” and “production”’. This process of reversal demands cycling back in time to when – and here again I borrow from Lyotard, from his book Discourse, Figure (1971) – the painting is a ‘becoming-object’, a material thing in a studio.

moving from Johannesburg to Cape Town in late 2010, Siopis’s workspace has been a north-facing studio on the upper floor of the Ritchie Building on the Hiddingh campus of the University of Cape Town. Here both the verb and noun forms of her chief vocation, painting, coexist; it is where the act of painting yields objects called paintings. Fractionally pictured in the artist’s 2014 monograph, Time and Again, this space merits an extended pause. By its nature, Siopis’s studio is a utilitarian space where she enacts the various aspects of her career. Siopis uses her studio to paint, to edit her films, to consult students and to store and prepare the materials for her large-scale installations. Her studio also functions as a library and storeroom, and an office to attend to the administration of a professional career. Notwithstanding its adaptability, Siopis’s studio is not freely accessible to the public; its functions are not verifiable to simply anyone. It is a private space. I want to gently breach this privacy, partly in a bid to animate the quotidian aspects of her professional life and the material culture that characterises it. Siopis’s studio on Orange Street makes no pretension to homeliness. It has no couch,

The studio is a generous – and also generative – place to provoke a conversation about ‘the stuff of painting’, its ontological qualities and its basis in ‘an autographic practice that shapes inanimate pigmented matter’, as Siopis wrote in 2005. Painting, after all, is a material practice that occurs in time and space. Site inflects method. Since


Figurines on Siopis’s studio window sill

no daybed; it also has no kitchen, just a rectangular basin with a tap to wash her hands and refill a cheap kettle. In contrast to her recent canvases, where the ooze and spill of her colours and binding agent are in competition with iconographic certainty, Siopis’s studio is orderly and legible – perhaps more so when she expects visitors. Placed in front of the double studio windows is a fold-up table containing various tools of her craft: inks, differently scaled brushes, sponges and sprayers. The inks, many from English manufacturer Winsor & Newton, are mostly flagrant reds, eruptive oranges and fleshy pinks. Colour is an abundant and vital signifier for Siopis, and also an embedded presence.

Her studio is also littered with containers of Alcolin, a South African brand of cold glue originally licensed from Swiss adhesives entrepreneur and antiquities collector Marcel Ebnöther. Siopis began working with glue as a painting medium in her Shame paintings (2002-05), intimately scaled tonal works on paper. The visceral materiality of the glue in these figure paintings intrigued Siopis, in particular the skin-like quality it produced once set. The glue’s agency in holding and directing her red inks later prompted Siopis to begin using it on canvas. Ambush (2008), which references Hokusai’s woodblock print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814) featuring an octopus, was her first large-scale

View of Siopis’s studio, 2017


Studio Encounters

work on canvas using cold glue and ink and the effects of gravity on the horizontal plane. The work was produced in her Melville studio in Johannesburg. ‘I poured the glue, left it overnight and the next morning I discovered the spill had broken the boundary between the octopus and the surrounding visual field,’ Siopis recalled. The dissolve thrilled her, in particular the way the porous boundaries between subject and object traduced the figureground relationship central to traditional conceptions of painting. In a follow-on work, Migrants (2008), Siopis experimented with the fluidity of her materials. ‘There was no pictorial reference: forms emerged through the process; some suggested figuration, which I asserted, not through imposing depiction but through creating opportunities for material coagulations and incident,’ explained Siopis. This experiential and process-based way of working enabled her to achieve greater formlessness in her subsequent compositions. To be formless is to be without a clear or definite shape or structure, but it is also, as art historians Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss make clear in Formless: A User’s Guide (1997), an ‘operation’ – meaning it is neither a theme, nor a substance, nor a concept. This sense of formlessness as an operation or action is key to understanding Siopis’s glue-and-ink paintings. Siopis has an easel in her studio. It functions as a clotheshorse, though, not as a ledge on which to rest a canvas. Its ledge nonetheless bears traces of use and is splattered with dried paint resembling the colour of a mutating bruise. Evidence of the human figure abounds in Siopis’s studio. I counted two reproductions of the Aphrodite of Milos, also two anatomical models of human torsos stored on top of her bookshelf. A wine rack repurposed as a shelving unit displays some of her vast collection of figurative tchotchke as well as the wood-backed rubber stamps containing idiomatic expressions that appear on her Shame paintings. Scattered across her studio, on bookshelves and among the things gathered in groups on her floor, are various classical, neo-classical and religious figurines.


These figures were an important component of the artist’s 2017 exhibition Restless Republic, some incorporated as figural elements into her glue-and-ink paintings (State and Witness IV), while others hovered as presences, somehow proximate (Rock) and involved (Witness III) in works, yet others unmoored and undone (Mediterranean II). The artist’s library, only a small part of which is housed at her Orange Street studio, could be the subject of its own essay. I’ll limit myself to describing a single shelf. Visible between a Franciscan monk and a brazen nude is Histories of the Hanged, political historian David Anderson’s 2005 account

of Britain’s colonial war in 1950s Kenya; political scientist Eugene Victor Wolfenstein’s Psychoanalytic-Marxism (1993); psychoanalyst Peter Giovacchini’s Tactics and Techniques in Psychoanalytic Therapy (1972); and Olu Oguibe’s The Culture Game (2004). Siopis has two copies of A Colour Atlas of Human Anatomy by RMH McMinn and RT Hutchings, first published in 1977, a year before the release of Life a User’s Manual, novelist Georges Perec’s ambitious attempt to exhaustively describe, in acute detail, a fictitious Parisian apartment block whose inhabitants include a painter named Hutting.

A Pinky Pinky painting in-between anatomical models on top of Siopis’s studio bookshelf Facing page Detail of shelving in Siopis’s studio with wood-backed rubber stamps used in the Shame paintings


Studio Encounters


It is easy to get swept up by the material circumstances of Siopis’s studio, and further to associatively draw connections between her work and the things populating her studio. But for such an exercise to be meaningful, in a discursive sense at least, one would have to exhaustively catalogue all of her things. Cataloguing alone would be insufficient. The process would also require careful explication, something akin to a novelist’s commitment (such as was displayed by Perec) to explore the biography of objects, in effect, to penetrate the opacity of ostensibly visible things. But I am not writing a novel here, merely using an established literary technique to describe aspects of the material culture that surround and (possibly) inform Siopis’s production. This context, which allows a kind of intimacy and offers a partial insight into her professional habitat, however very quickly recedes from view when the artist lays a stretched canvas on the floor and begins pouring glue and ink onto the white substrate. Site, after all, is not process.

My first visit to the artist’s Orange Street studio principally involved witnessing. Siopis allowed me to observe her ‘throwing’ a painting. Her choice of verb perplexed me. ‘Yes, it gets thrown,’ she insisted. I asked if it was legitimate to also speak of her as performing a painting. ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Semantics are important. Siopis’s preferred verbs locate what is particular about her process, its embrace of chance and performance-based modes of practice. Siopis, however, remains a painter, her receptiveness to unpredictability bounded within an arena: the stretched canvas. The process of starting a painting involves pouring glue and ink onto a canvas, and then encouraging their diffusion – by spraying the glue and ink with water, by dripping and directing these materials with her hands, and also by tilting the canvas. She does not meld together the ink and glue as a mixture. While there are few fixed rules governing her process, horizontality is a constant.

If I were to put this canvas up vertically and attempt a throw, the glue and ink wouldn’t collect. You’d just get a movement of drips running down, which I don’t want. What is much more interesting is the collection of incidents that happen because of the way the horizontal canvas dips. That is fascinating for me because it is where the medium shows its aliveness in the most visceral form and in infinite detail. It is also where it takes longest to dry. It needs to be reiterated that these are ambulatory insights, offered as Siopis circled and breached the arena of her canvas, or lifted an edge to provoke a run. ‘If I didn’t work on stretched canvas it would signify differently,’ she conceded at one point. ‘The constraints set the conditions. The stretchers allow opportunity for gravity to act because they lift the canvas off the floor, whereas if it were flat on the floor it wouldn’t have that potential. The gravitational pools are what give the image – literally – a pull.’ Much of what Siopis offered was spontaneously reasoned, which accounted for why her statements sometimes possessed an aphoristic quality. ‘It is not just my hand painting,’ she mused at one point while working. And later on, ‘The process makes the form.’

Studio shelf with Venus Facing page Detail from the artist’s library


Studio Encounters

Even if there are now familiar routines and constants, like the particular ‘language of the body’ involved as Siopis bends and crouches at the edge, or leans (and sometimes tumbles) into the centre, the process remains grounded in chance. Her engagement with a given canvas is still principally directed by the reaction of the ink and glue. Initially cold when she pours it, the glue warms, acquiring a hot-blooded character. For Siopis, acknowledging and recognising the ‘aliveness’ of her medium also infers an awareness of the contingency of the process. ‘Of course, I am setting the conditions all the time,’ Siopis admitted. ‘Chance might be partly directed but the materials are cocreators. There are a whole lot of things that you can’t tell will happen. Stuff always reacts differently. I see each instance as an encounter full of surprises. Every encounter has its own dynamics.’ Jane Bennett describes this as ‘the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle’. After pouring, Siopis lets the glue and ink react and gel, and then she waits for the white glue to cure. Waiting is a subtle but pronounced part of Siopis’s painting process.

Colours will change as the glue becomes transparent. Working in this way means that legibility is forestalled rather than known. ‘It is a strangely delayed process, even though the performance [of painting] is so immediate,’ elaborated Siopis on the material’s shift from opacity and transparency. ‘The actual realisation of what has happened in the transformation is delayed, and mysterious. Even if I think I know how certain pigments will react with the glue, nothing is certain, it all depends – it is so contingent.’ This is another reason Siopis refers to her material as being alive and responsive, not just something to be directed. ‘One usually thinks of a medium as something you master, force to submit to your will through imposing your “master” marks and brushwork. Here there is no brush that shapes the medium, like traditional painting.’ It is possible, I suppose, to view Siopis’s glueand-ink paintings as time-based experiments in formlessness, but – and here I lightly borrow from the charged political theory of Alain Badiou – it is more productive to think of each painting as an ‘event site’ where radical contingency is modulated by painterly intention. Throws are

Siopis at work at the Maitland Institute, 2017


diligently inspected. Risk and intention – those markers of ‘the dialectical tension of a genuine act’ that Harold Rosenberg observed in his euphoric criticism of American action painting – overlap. Opportunities to develop a painting, Siopis explained, are actively sought out: When something suggests itself in a work and I want to strengthen the suggestion, I will have to do another throw, and spill and run around that area. I might also rub and pull away the set glue to allow for some sense of frail figuration to emerge. The figuration is never imposed; it always comes through the process. In past interviews Siopis has appreciatively, albeit not without argument, spoken of her interest in Georges Bataille, notably his idea of l’informe (the formless). ‘Bataille’s informe is an operation, neither theory nor product, and in this I see something of my process,’ Siopis stated in 2009 in an interview with Sarah Nuttall. Her painting practice is in many ways an extended conversation with formlessness, its necessity, but also its inoperability as an end goal. Pinky Pinky (2002-07), a precursor series to her current paintings that is named for an imaginary sexual predator mentioned in interviews the artist did with schoolchildren, was an important bridge to her current formless figuration. The work materialises an urban legend that was shaped and informed by radical social change in post-apartheid South Africa. In 2014 Siopis described these macabre ciphers as constructed entities ‘onto which we can project psychic states of fear and moral panics’. What is most striking about Pinky Pinky, and makes it a useful companion series to consider in relation to the artist’s current ink-and-glue paintings, is the way Siopis has long eroded distinctions between figure and ground as an important destabilising element. The outcome is a generative tension: between material circumstance and projective inference, between formlessness and what the encounter thereof might provoke in the viewer. During our 2016 conversation, which developed in tandem with a painting dominated by a mutant Rorschach inkblot with a muddy

orange pool at the centre, I asked Siopis if her process had disrupted how she now thought about her colours. ‘It has, in a way but in other ways asserted them more.’ The evolving labour pulled Siopis back into the canvas. The viscous quality of her materials causes them to ooze, leak, puddle and coagulate in unspecified ways. ‘I don’t like it when it runs like this,’ she said. ‘It means there is not enough glue, not enough body.’ This unruly process required intervention. Shortly, Siopis returned to my question about colour. Colour is not something you contain or control. It can’t be pinned down in language. You say orange; I say what kind of orange? Maybe red? Colour is sensation. You’re touched by it. It’s not reducible to anything else. She invoked Deleuze on Bacon, as a processed reference that one either got, or didn’t: The sense of sensation interests me, but it is impossible to speak about. What do you do? You either sense it, or you don’t sense it. Maybe that is why I also fancy the significance of the canvas, because painting is the one frame that sees colour – sensation – as within its bounds and at its core.

Pinky Pinky paintings and Cake Box sculptures in a corner of Siopis’s studio, 2018


Studio Encounters

In April 2017, Siopis began a four-month residency at the Maitland Institute, a former meat-storage warehouse on Cape Town’s Voortrekker Road repurposed into a noncommercial art space by collector Tammi Glick and dedicated to the promotion of ‘art and ideas’. Rather than isolate herself in this temporary workspace, Siopis used the residency to engage a willing public in her process of painting on a horizontal canvas with cold glue and inks. For the duration of the residency, which she titled Open Form/ Open Studio, an interested and diverse group of visitors interacted with Siopis, through conversation, observation and, occasionally, direct participation in her process.


A month before her residency, I visited Siopis at her Orange Street studio where she told me: I am hoping something will shift because of the scale and the context, and because I do want to engage with an audience. It is another way of breaking open or un-containing the work. It has always been weird for me being so engaged with process, even through bounded forms, and yet having this engagement not seen as integral to the work. They are not pictures; they are objects that hold experience that continues endlessly.

Siopis, aided by studio assistants Jo Voysey and Alexandra Karakashian, with members of the public during the Open Form/Open Studio residency, 2017 Facing page Siopis with students and schoolchildren during Open Form/Open Studio, 2017 Photos: Alexandra Karakashian

The experience Siopis speaks of occurs within the frame of her canvas, not the larger studio. To this end Siopis did not attempt to recreate her Orange Street studio in Maitland. Siopis was purposefully avoiding theatricality, which an object-based mise en scène would have invited. Siopis was not interested in the simulacrum of a milieu. Instead, she laboured in an impersonal space with undecorated white walls, large windows and tall ceiling. But for her tools (inks, glues, buckets, sponges, sprayers, blank canvases), her studio included no diverting objects and minutiae. For four months Siopis functionally inhabited a frugal verb-space where visitors could experience the aliveness of her medium and her process, and engage in the wider social and philosophical questions informing her process. Conversation was an important aspect of the residency. ‘My way of working with cold glue and ink has involved me in a very open engagement with materiality,’ Siopis told a large audience gathered inside her temporary studio one Saturday afternoon. The first of three critical talks, this particular conversation, in which I was a participant, was framed around ideas of materiality and performance, chance and contingency.

I was always very aware in the process of making, whether it is behind closed doors at my Michaelis studio, or here, that the medium is more than something to use to depict something. The medium is something in and of itself: the medium performs. It actually asks not to have a will imposed on it, but rather to work in relation with me. Freely bearing witness like this raises questions around public engagement and spectatorship. As a seasoned lecturer Siopis is familiar with discussing and demonstrating the essentials of painting as a practice to university students. However, up until her Maitland Institute residency she had never held an open studio showing her glue-and-ink painting process. In my very first conversation with Siopis in 2016, speaking about performance and contingency in her practice, Siopis expressed hesitancy about showcasing her process, ‘because that’s a spectacle’. The programming of her Maitland Institute residency was designed to limit this slide into theatricality, in particular by foregrounding her process and the essential ‘vulnerability and doubt’ that underpin it.


Studio Encounters

Siopis repeatedly spoke about how doubt and uncertainty are implicated in her work. Seated in her studio a month before the residency, she linked it to her ‘fundamental interest in radical unsettlement’. She said opening up her studio process was a natural extension of this interest: What does it mean to open up your physical and mental space? Of course, people always have boundaries of one sort or another. Setting the conditions as I have shows this in an obvious way within a boundedness, but I am really interested in how Open Form/Open Studio relates to our moment in South Africa, and also the world with its conflicts and bounded terrains. Metaphorically, what does it mean to break down your own boundaries, your own mystique of being an artist? And it is not just about me wanting to break the boundary in a performative sense. I want to breach boundaries to do with a larger set of thoughts around contemporary culture. She returned to these ideas in our public talk at the Maitland Institute, which in a rare accession

to theatricality featured a triptych of large-scale residency works latterly titled Transfigure I (2017) propped up vertically behind us. ‘Being an uncertain human being, not knowing what you are doing, vulnerable, open: that is not expected of an artist.’ Uncertainty, offered Siopis, was not just an idea but an operation, something encoded in her self, her body and her work. Siopis was remarkably candid as she spoke. ‘Vulnerability, for me, is an exposure of the self, and a sense of the self as skinless. I am interested in the poetics of vulnerability, a form emerging and spilling out of the subject, and that being an opportunity to think about the surface, about the spill and mess. To think openness means to be open.’ This grappling with unknowns, manifest in particular with the alterity of her materials as they seep, break boundaries and eventually settle, was rich with metaphor – not simply a matter of procedural quirks. ‘You don’t know what it is, so you constantly work with something you don’t know. That “something” then becomes a model for thinking about the uncertainties in the larger world with which we are implicated and engaged, and questions of power.’

Siopis in conversation with Sean O’Toole at the Maitland Institute, 2017


As part of her spirited talk at the Maitland Institute Siopis projected a selection of photos and videos of Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann – avatars of the performative turn in mid-20th-century western painting – at work. Writing about the legacy of Pollock, Allan Kaprow in 1958 remarked: In the last 75 years the random play of the hand upon the canvas or paper has become increasingly important. Strokes, smears, lines, dots, etc became less and less attached to represented objects and existed more and more on their own, self-sufficiency … With Pollock, however, the so-called dance of dripping, slashing, squeezing, daubing, and whatever else went into a work, placed an almost absolute value upon a kind of diaristic gesture. We briefly and inconclusively deliberated on what Kaprow meant by ‘diaristic gesture’ during our talk. Perhaps he viewed the aggregated notational marks left on a Pollock canvas as accumulations of experience. It is possible to view Siopis’s paintings as diaristic in this sense, but such a reading wilfully ignores the agency of her materials and reduces every painting to narrative artefact. It also assumes the marks have been made by hand, however mediated. Siopis prefers to speak of her paintings as ‘residue’, a semantic gesture that nonetheless foregrounds their origin and primacy in process and experience. Pollock is a difficult precedent in all of this. He is an irrefutable ancestor to Siopis’s method of painting, but he is also a cliché entombed in amber by Hans Namuth, who in 1950 photographed Pollock dripping paint onto a horizontal canvas in his East Hampton studio. Namuth’s photographs have come to represent what Siopis has described as representing the ‘performative machismo’ of Pollock’s defining gesture as a painter. Best to move on. Schneemann is a far more useful foil for thinking through Siopis’s work. Like Siopis, who studied at a traditional art school anchored in an expressive tradition,

Schneemann was trained as an easel painter. Her early paintings were plein-airist landscapes in the mode of Cézanne. In the 1960s Schneemann began exploring three dimensions with collage, objects and motorised elements. ‘This was the obvious implication of abstract expressionism,’ wrote Schneemann in 1999. ‘The work of Pollock, de Kooning, could only be viewed with optical muscularity – the entire body was active.’ Her subsequent performances were all grounded in painterly concerns. First performed under the title Trackings in late 1973, Schneemann executed Up To and Including Her Limits on several occasions between 1974 and 1976, in London, New York and Basel, in conditions that – similar to Siopis at the Maitland Institute – approximated a residency rather than a time-based performance. The work marked a shift for Schneemann from choreographed performances towards durational events. Allan Tannenbaum’s 1974 photographs of a naked Schneemann, suspended by a rope and harness at The Kitchen, New York, producing random marks in crayon on horizontal and vertical sheets of paper, are the most widely circulated documentation of Up To and Including Her Limits. Schneemann has described the work as the ‘direct result of Pollock’s physicalized painting process … My entire body becomes the agency of visual traces, vestige of the body’s energy in motion.’ Siopis’s painterly concerns are not as narrowly tied to the legacy of abstract expressionism, much of her painterly practice an exploration of the complementary relationship between figure and non-figure, and the role of material expression in negotiating the porous boundary between the two. But Siopis shares with Schneemann an abiding preoccupation with body politics. The rupture of containment, in all possible senses, proposed by Siopis’s ambulating, crouching, crawling and once briefly floating body as she paints is an expression of a performative provocation that her materials invite. The passage of Transfigure I – and five other studio experiments, a diptych and another triptych, titled Transfigure II and III – produced during the artist’s Maitland Institute residency


Studio Encounters

into named objects for vertical display at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in September 2017 touches on a longstanding argument around the reading of performancebased painting. When does an accumulation of materials become an image? What role does verticality play in prompting legibility? What are the consolations of legibility? Is a figure, however malformed and abject, somehow more reassuring than – in Siopis’s work – a settled liquid haze of ink and glue? At what point as a viewer do we cede ourselves, wholly and completely, to the illegible and inscrutable image, not in exhaustion but delight? Is this ever possible? The unavoidable movement of art objects out of an artist’s studio into consecrated spaces devoted to the viewing of art necessarily complicates the answer. The art-interested poet Charles Bernstein in 2013 characterised abstraction as ‘visual marks unmoored from utility or representation’; he further described abstraction as a ‘recurring impulse in the history of inscription whether we frame it as the unconscious or primitive’. Inscription is an appropriate word when engaging the formless. Among other things, it invokes a far earlier and wholly indigenous tradition of mark-making, one that diverted Walter Battiss as a young man. For much of his early career Battiss devoted himself to the passionate study of rock engravings (or petroglyphs) and rock paintings, two distinctive art forms linked to South Africa’s first people. Petroglyphs are far older and encompass both figurative and nonfigurative subjects. They are widely distributed across southern Africa’s inland plateau. Writing in 1948, around the time Pollock recognised that the axis of the made image had shifted, Battiss noted: ‘We are so accustomed to seeing art on vertical walls that we have never had to consider an art seen below us on the ground or on surfaces at many angles except the vertical.’ The vertical, as Battiss reminds us here, is both axis and visual ideology. It is only latterly that his insight, which is self-evident, has been elucidated, and chiefly in relation to the western tradition of canvas painting that Siopis operates within.


The Renaissance picture plane, noted Leon Steinberg in his influential essay ‘The Flatbed Picture Plane’ (1972), ‘affirms verticality as its essential condition’. This mode endured through countless stylistic movements, and even encompassed Pollock, who in Steinberg’s words relied on the vertical axis to ‘get acquainted’ with his work, ‘to see where it wanted to go’. Steinberg thought Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Dubuffet – not Pollock – broke the hegemony of verticality by proposing a ‘radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes’. I would include Siopis in this tradition, her glue-andink paintings expressions of what Steinberg neatly referred to as a ‘special mode of imaginative confrontation’. That her works are displayed vertically does not negate their origin in a horizontal process. Horizontality remains the founding epistemology of Siopis’s glue-and-ink paintings. Steinberg’s arguments were taken up and also challenged by Rosalind Krauss. Notwithstanding Marcel Duchamp’s experiments with horizontal techniques of making – for example, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) was partly produced by laying a sheet of glass in the studio to gather dust – Krauss proposes Pollock as the éminence grise of horizontality. Pollock’s sustained method of using the base level of the floor decisively subverted the vertical axis of ‘the easel, of the studio, or

Carolee Schneemann photographed by Allan Tannenbaum at The Kitchen, New York, 1974

the wall of the bourgeois apartment, or highcultural ideals of the museum’, writes Krauss in her entry on horizontality in Formless: A User’s Guide. Inspired by Steinberg, but also committed to refuting some of his assertions, Krauss notes: The power of Pollock’s mark as index meant that it continued to bear witness to the horizontal’s resistance to the vertical and that it was the material condition of this testimony – the oily, scabby, shiny, ropey qualities of the self-evidently horizontal mark – that would pit itself against the visual formation of the Gestalt, thus securing the condition of the work as formless. It makes no difference that the

most prestigious reception of Pollock’s work in the years succeeding his death would read past this mark, repressing its implications by a series of complicated recodings that turned the metallic paint into transcendental fields and the ropey networks into hovering, luminous clouds, thereby, attempting to resublimate the mark, to lift it into the field of form. It is a persuasive statement, and useful too. Substitute Pollock’s name with Siopis, change a few descriptive details (oozing for ropey, gooey for oily), and the passage reads as an eloquent rationalisation of Siopis’s process and her long-standing interest in the fluid boundaries between form and formlessness.

Siopis at the Maitland Institute, 2017


Studio Encounters

One afternoon, I visited Siopis’s exhibition Restless Republic at Stevenson. Along with the presentation of some of her Maitland residency works at Zeitz MOCAA this exhibition now reads as a coda to a distinctive way of working, as the artist contemplates making shifts in her practice. Materials and ideas I had seen experimented with at Maitland Institute and Orange Street were held in suspension in variously scaled canvases mounted vertically in Stevenson’s central gallery. The exhibition exuded colour, notably wounded and eruptive concentrations of orange and red, although I gravitated towards the stillness of her blues, first to Mediterranean I (2017), two rectangular canvases evoking arctic cavities, and then to an installation of 14 circular canvases, Mediterranean II, the bubbling forms suggestive of fatal passages across the titular body of water. Perhaps my reading, which was more a kind of imaginative drift prompted by Siopis’s formless paintings, was influenced by the broken figures from her studio incorporated into the installation. ‘Older gestalts join the fray in my mind’s eye – Plato’s Republic, clashing orders in the French Revolution, Hobbes’ Leviathan,’ wrote Siopis in an accompanying text. ‘Physical objects fall in and out of the painted world.’ While an emphatic presence within her exhibition display, the classical bodies had a tenuous agency; they were refugees from an older history whose assertions and certainties are being renegotiated, in South Africa and elsewhere. The figure is a recurring constant in Siopis’s work, sometimes explicitly portrayed but as often inferred. Gravity’s Wave (2016), exhibited as part of Restless Republic, includes three strategically placed black dots in a figurative coalescence of green and blue inks. The intervention, slight as it is, helps suggest a becoming subject. Restless Republic (2016), for which the show was named, is a liquid exuberance of balloon reds and sullied pinks. Just left of the centre of the canvas, where the glue and ink welled and dried, forming a distinctive epidermis, I saw a semblance of a veiled figure. ‘Vertical viewing has a distancing


effect that opens perception for outside eyes,’ wrote Siopis. But, she also noted, ‘Everyone sees according to her own template, yet nothing is settled within the bounds of the picture, or in relation to other pictures or objects in its orbit.’ Siopis’s writings have long served as a reference point for me. In her 2005 essay on contemporary South African painting, written for Art South Africa, which I edited at the time, she wrote: ‘Many artists choosing painting today do so because painting offers the potential for exploring experiences not easily accessed through other media.’ Looking at her blue canvases, their formative unpredictability nominally stilled, I thought about edges and borderless flows, about intention and risk, about doing and its material trace, about the difference between an obstacle and a refusal, about the affective potential of painting in relation to the descriptive capacities of words – lots of undisciplined thoughts that somehow cohered into an ecstatic experience of painting.

Sean O’Toole is a Cape Town-based journalist, editor and writer. He has written widely on visual art and photography; edited two volumes of essays, Über(w)unden: Art in Troubled Times (2012) and African Futures (2016); and published one book of fiction, The Marquis of Mooikloof and Other Stories (2006).

Installation view of Siopis’s Restless Republic exhibition with Mediterranean II in foreground, 2017 Overleaf View of Siopis’s studio with works from Restless Republic, 2017


Studio Encounters





Penny Siopis lives in Cape Town. She is an Honorary Professor at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, and has an Honorary Doctorate from Rhodes University, Grahamstown. Her solo exhibitions include This is a True Story: Six Films (1997-2017), a retrospective of Siopis’s film works at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town (2018); Incarnations at the Institute of Contemporary Art Indian Ocean, Mauritius (2016); Penny Siopis: Films at the Erg Gallery, Brussels (2016); Time and Again: A Retrospective Exhibition at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2014), and Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg (2015); Obscure White Messenger at Brandts Museum, Odense, Denmark (2014); Red: The iconography of colour in the work of Penny Siopis at the KZNSA Gallery, Durban (2009); and Three Essays on Shame at the Freud Museum, London (2005). She has participated in group exhibitions at Tate Modern and the British Museum, London; Kunsthaus Dresden; Beirut Art Centre, Lebanon; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Pérez Art Museum Miami; Jeu de Paume and La Maison Rouge, Paris; Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo; Tennis Palace Art Museum, Helsinki; The Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm/Burlafingen, Germany; and the Hood Museum, New Hampshire, among other institutions; and the biennales of New Orleans, Venice, Taipei, Sydney, Johannesburg, Gwangju, Guangzhou and Havana. Awards include the Alexander S Onassis fellowship for research in Greece, and residencies at Delfina and Gasworks in London, Civitelli Ranieri in Umbria, the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam, and Ampersand in New York. She is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arts and Culture Trust of South Africa. Her work is represented in major public collections in South Africa; international collections include the Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and Tate, London. Recent publications include Grief and Shame (Stevenson, 2016) and Time and Again, edited by Gerrit Olivier (Wits University Press, 2014).


Artist’s acknowledgments

Published by Stevenson

Special thanks to Tammi Glick, founder of the Maitland Institute, and the participants in Open Form/ Open Studio, including Jo Voysey and Alexandra Karakashian; Michaela Limberis, Olga Speakes, Mario Todeschini, Gabrielle Guy, Mark Gevisser, Sean O’Toole and Candice Thikeson; and to all at Stevenson gallery, especially Michael Stevenson, Marc Barben, Sophie Perryer, Sinazo Chiya, Sisipho Ngodwana and Alexander Richards.

© © © ©

2018 2018 2018 2018

Stevenson for this edition Penny Siopis for her artworks Mario Todeschini for his photographs the authors for their texts

ISBN 978-0-620-81473-7 Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Photography Mario Todeschini Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town Binding GraphiCraft, Cape Town

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