Penny Siopis: Never the Same Water Twice - On Film and Painting

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Celluloid Body,



Bed sheet hangs in the drawing room. It’s night. Mother’s films beam bright. Projector runs. Gran goes glum. Remember the old bioscope? Strife? Grandfather’s life? Now she’s on a roll. Greek chorus in full flight. The curtains that she sews! Sweat and blood in every fold. The piano that she plays! Without her hand no voice will come. Silent movies in those days. On she goes. Recitation prose. At home the drill. At noon the drapes must pull. Keep out the sweltering heat. Light too bright. She’s not Greek! Music leaps through every door. Mother sings. Bakelite rings. Records swing. Go gramophone! Stylus grooves shellac into song. Samba. Banjo. Bouzouki. Drum. And war – “Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye”. At crack of dawn. Hark! A hum. The bakery workers sing. Handel’s Hallelujah. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika! Daytime comes. Movies on the lawn. Curtain over the washing line. Neighbours come. And boo. Sell them sweets from the bakery store. Father says, “Take their dough”.

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Thoughts mass in circles round. Bubble at the brim. Heraclitus knows – you never step in the same water twice.

Bioscope down the road. World in a beam. African Mirror and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Leo the MGM lion roars in trademark ring. The screen a stage. Red velvet curtain fringe. Voices leap from its frame. Some scream. Go through the ceiling painted midnight blue with stars of gold. There’s chirping in the dark. From Mars. A spark! Now what? A nature show. Everything in snow. Baby seals. A screech. A thud. Clubbed! A bloody screen. What fears to haunt the child at night? Mother rolls her eyes. All stand. Sing “God Save the Queen”.

If filmic montage is, as someone said, easy movement from ear to eye, this is how it comes to my child brain, with a welter of words in cahoots.

My Lovely Day is my first montage. I cut sequences of my mother’s home movies, shot in the 1950s and 60s, combine these with a song she recorded in 1955 and mix in text, my maternal words, as I remember them. I craft these to appear as if spoken in a single day. Writing is a form of being foreign to myself. Every reader is the reader of themselves, the voice in their head, perpetual subjectivity every time the words are read. The words mimic subtitles translating foreignlanguage films. Home movies are essentially foreign to documentary film. They have no obligation to objective truth. They are true only to their eccentric selves. Their own truth. Chronological time is out of joint. Space is skew.

My Lovely Day becomes the mode of all my films to follow, especially in how text hooks contingency into narrative. It sparks my interest in the home movies of strangers. My search for these chance finds often takes me to the rubbish dumps of history, literally and metaphorically. The physicality of the celluloid feels like lives dispersed, skins etched with refrains crisscrossing endless psychic realms and spatio-temporal planes.

My Lovely Day is made for the second Johannesburg Biennale, Trade Routes: History and Geography. The biennale, curated by Okwui

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Enwezor, happens in 1997. It is a critical moment in South Africa, in the wake of the 1994 transition from white minority rule to democracy. The hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have just begun; they cover human rights violations from 1960 on. History and memory are everywhere. The radio transmits events live. Voices and testimonies bleed into every consciousness. Simultaneous translating of local languages doubles the effect and affect.

I screen My Lovely Day in a little cinema I craft myself. Red cotton clads the walls. Red velvet for the curtains. Cinema seats loaned from the Market Theatre downtown. They look like the chair in the illustration on the letterhead of my grandfather’s film distribution business with its offices in Smyrna, Athens, Constantinople, London. It’s the 1920s. I imagine My Lovely Day in his Metro Theatre in Umtata in the 1930s. He’d show a glass slide with his picture, certifying his qualification as a projectionist. 96%. From Feldors Moving Picture School in America. Now the glass is cracked. There is a hole in its middle.


Could the join be the splash? The rupture in the line? The productive tension between reference and materiality as I see it, the fluid ground from which potential images emerge. Or what Zygmunt Bauman might call “liquid modernity”, a constant flow of new beginnings. Practically speaking, it is a way to engage the perennial question posed to me: how do your films and paintings relate?

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Light hits quiet water and mirrors the scene around, turning it upside down. If water is disturbed, light fractures and the double blurs. Whatever happens, the two are joined at the hip.

Film, so it goes, is temporal, lens-based, indexical. Painting is not. Your films are montages using found footage. Your paintings are not. Your films have a story, no matter how disjointed. Sequential. Your paintings are non-narrative. Spatial. You use other people’s random shots and their materiality to shape your stories. Your paintings are events emerging from the material medium itself, glue acting and interacting with ink and gravity, air and your bodily gestures, and then responses in oil. Film is seamless surface, image in and through light. Ethereal. Its haptic is the illusion of physical rupture. Painting is physical rupture of surface. It sits in space and catches the light. Your films, being 8mm and 16mm celluloid at source, bear the imprint of earlier times, mostly the 1960s, thick with history and representation. Politics. Your paintings have no external visual pictorial sources, no historical specificity – other than painting. The politics of instability. And then what of scale? And, and…

Reflect. There is indexicality in painting, the painter leaves her trace, there is temporality, narrative potential, random chancedriven process, relays of “found” images from the imaginary of the unconscious. There are endless reverberations of non-human operations. What painting is not is conventionally reprographic.

Why ponder this? It is the pebble in the water that starts the ripple effect of thought. On how, paradoxically, it is the very particularity of a form, like the shape and force of the pebble, that gives character to the disturbance of edges and boundaries and opens a space for relational thinking. To what films and paintings do besides what they come to mean.


One doesn’t usually think of painting as montage if it is not collage –an image combining visuals from different sources and modes in the same frame. In filmic montage, it is often the edges of shots that mark images as collisions, and lay bare the instability of representation. It is as much this collision multiplied that creates movement as the

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dynamics of the moving image itself. Atlas adopts something of this montage state, with its materiality perhaps leaning more to the concept of assemblage.

Atlas comprises hundreds of individual images of the same size. Each is discrete, yet part of a larger painting and assembled in a way that includes the breaks between them, the physical wall space that separates each unit and on which they’re pinned. This echoes the cuts of filmic montage. But with Atlas there is no single line to suggest sequence. There is a grid. Movement becomes as much across the visual field and along. In the viewer’s physical world, looking requires the whole body to move.

There are no external pictorial referents for Atlas. What emerges comes from the residues of the material process itself, the visual ambiguities of its deposits that I see as gestures and which then spark associations and sensations tapping deep within the image reservoir of the unconscious. But Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas holds sway. Warburg, an art historian practising in 1920s Germany, evolved a theory of visual forms he called “Pathosformeln” in which he creatively explored how certain figurative gestures and expressions of particular images (often from antiquity and the Renaissance) repeat over time to the point that they appear to trace memory of a collective, often traumatic kind. He was speaking from his western perspective.

Warburg’s project was to collect images from different histories and aesthetic experiences, and juxtapose these by pinning each picture to large noticeboards covered in black cloth. It is said that he constantly revised their placement within the constellation, a method of movement that pre-empted the montage effect of much memory-work that was to follow, and from which I draw in making my films using found footage. Warburg saw his found images as cutting across time, both within their bounded depiction and beyond; the cut separating each image, each bit of paper (all are reproductions), in physical reality simultaneously becoming the bridge to imagined connections across the wider visual field.

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Warburg’s time was also one of precarity – war, if not planetary catastrophe. What seemed certain however in the images he chose was the contour of the “figure”. It marked a content, however fragmented, described in distinct figure-ground relationships where, even with non-mimetic forms such as diagrams and maps, the centrality of the human is assumed.

This sense no longer resonates in quite the same way in our post or more than human time. But Warburg’s principle pertains – some forms feel primary, perhaps a kind of body knowledge, embodied perception. For me they are bits of matter, not yet born into the image but holding its gestures the way they fall, float, fold, surge, crust, shrivel, cover, break out, rise up, feel like yearning, suffering, dying, being ecstatic, giving birth. Being vulnerable.

Celluloid film is plastic skin cut into strips with holes down the side.

These holes are designed to hook onto the sprockets of the reels as they turn in the projector. You must always run your fingers over the celluloid before projecting. Check for frays of the sprocket holes. They can catch fire when the projector heats up. That’s when things stutter and jump and break down, and you watch yourselves bubble, burn and burst on screen. Damage is magnified through projector light, each spot of dust, scratch of skin coming alive as the reels turn. Each an intense encounter with, if not a rupture in, the image in which it coexists. It feels like touching with your eyes, your retina. Haptic visuality. Laura U Marks calls it “the skin of the film” in her writing on the senses, embodiment and intercultural cinema – cinema as “portable sensorium”. Yet, in reality, celluloid is a surface full of microholes. Grainy. Imperceptible. Beckett calls cinema a hole in the world. His only film, made in 1965 and named Film, is in existential frame. Georges Didi-Huberman refers to montage cuts as the tear in the world. Now everything is fertile ground for thinking about extinction.

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A hole needs a material host to be a hole, like a figure needs a ground. Even the black hole has a fringe to its infinity. A hole is cavity. A cell where you’re holed up. Cell, a unit of life. Absence is hole’s metaphor –a broken heart, an open wound, a tear in the social fabric. Everywhere in language the hole marks the cut, pre-linguistic, unspeakable, aporia, gap...

The hole in Celluloid Body openly vies with its host – call it representation. The rupture races through it, mutating. Sometimes it’s a gleam of light. Other times a tumbleweed tearing itself from its landscape whole. A woman struts on edgy earth. She doesn’t see the hole coming. Dives into water. The hole follows, battling to keep its shape in the liquid gape. She is in her element in the chaos of the water hole. A man skis on water. He tries to steady his ropey line. The hole stalks. He falls. Up. Down. A family sits at table feasting with hole as host.

How did the hole enter the host? I find the reel in this condition in a flea market in Mexico City. A hole bored in its side, large at the outer rim, smaller towards the core. An accident. Projected and animated, the rupture seems everywhere. Impossible to detect the “ontology of the accident”, to borrow Catherine Malabou’s resonant words about the plasticity of the brain, its potential for repair after damage.

The reel is larger than most home movies of its type. Probably a cluster of smaller reels stuck together in a prior amateur edit. How mother would cut and paste with her splicer and glue. Precarious mend isn’t hard to do.

The hole invades the substance of which it’s born. It makes its own mimesis. Now a burning bush! The bible says a bush on fire is a

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mystery because the fire never consumes the bush. God speaking? Psychoanalysis says it’s the royal road to the unconscious. Freud’s famous dream puts up its hand – “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?” A candle has caught alight and the child’s arm burns. He cries out. The child is already dead. It is a dream. The messenger from Obscure White Messenger responds to the disembodied voice of a psychiatrist who asks, “Does God speak to you?” “Not personally,” he replies. This messenger is Demitrios Tsafendas, the legendary host of the parasitic tapeworm, which appears in the film as an off-white octopus. The messenger is hospitable, recognizing that the worm is both him and not him, the stranger within. At one point the worm is poisoned and a segment exits the host’s body but does not die. It migrates to the messenger’s childhood home, an old house in Lourenço Marques, to live there in the subterranean sewers.

Celluloid Body is born during plague.

A microbe jumps species and bores into human hosts. In science and popular imagination it is round with spiky edge, looking like a frayed sprocket hole. It travels in droplets in the air. Contagious. Interspecies lovers in double take. Enemy now. Unfriendly green. Red is too corporeal. Humans struggle to name it. Not because it’s so complicated – like the Real of Lacan – but because infection nomenclature in real geography and history casts stigmas and shame all over the place. Greek alphabet, it is said, escapes this fate. Living Greek language speakers at stake.

I think of another round entity, host in name. Off-white, crisp of edge and wafer-thin, it enters humans at their will. Holy Communion. Transubstantiation to be precise. Christ says, “This is my body and this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me”. Aristotle’s thought on transformation of substance (essence) and accident is often invoked, for understanding. The philosophical question still

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hangs. And so remains open. I like to think of transubstantiation as an emblem for the creative act, what makes its process believable beyond your own desire. When you give over to the irrational, submit to the impossible as that which is not yet thought, through material. The “something” that happens in a moment which changes the object, and yourself, such that it can never be what it once was. It is a kind of Dionysian event of making something new of a corpus, regeneration, a becoming process that requires ingestion and being ingested, that makes it possible to extend beyond yourself. To be a distributed, dispersed self. A manifestation of unsettling transfiguration of once-familiar ground. I have powerful memories of Catholic mass. Of the ritual, the smell of incense and the bells that ring – literally – the moment the priest lifts the host for all to see and proclaims it consecrated, changed through his word.

A nun is an impossible figure. Transfigured. She is married to Christ and wears his ring. God is their Father and the Holy Ghost. There is a particular nun in Communion, Sister Aidan, who is also a doctor, Dr Quinlan. In the early 1950s she was attacked by a crowd in a moment of extremis. A crowd is an impossible figure too, a mass of individuals that is also a host. The spontaneous crowd flares up in response to another crowd, the brutal crowd of colonialism and apartheid, official and rigid, regulated, regimented. The sister is stoned, knifed and burned. Parts of her body go missing, allegedly eaten. The encounter of the event occurs beneath representation with a shock to thought which shatters self-coherence. In official history it reads as horror. It is covered up. How else to read it? Communion? Community? Certainly there is sacrifice, memory, transformation. Everyone knows that resurrection has a mythical dimension.

Film is uncanny. A moving picture that doubles as life. Celluloid, analogue trace, says “I was there”. Originary. Singularity in the doubling effect. Everything now has a digital double as data. What of the algorithm? Still, I put my analogue reels through the digital mill.

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Uncanny is unhomely, yet strangely familiar. The sense that you’ve been here/there before. Freud predictably suggests the only place you could have been before is the womb. Déjà vu. It is said the ultimate uncanny is the proverbial grave.

Sister Aidan speaks from the grave. She is witness to her own death. She is economical with words. Bald facts from legal transcripts of the trial investigating her murder. I examine these in the Cape Town archives. I’m struck by the cross-examination mode, text that looks like the script of a theatrical play. Characters to be imagined from words alone. A word is nothing but a sign of a sign. I read how pathologists puzzle over the behaviour of sister’s arm after death and their tentative suggestion that the limb moves in mysterious ways because of science, and I wonder. Her other arm has gone, bar a few finger bones melted into her charred rosary beads.

In Communion a young girlchild dances as if practising for an event. Her arm is raised in the air. The gesture holds for a few seconds longer than usual. “Was I dead?” it says.

Sister Aidan is buried near Duncan Village, her community. On the 50th anniversary of her death in 2012 writer Njabulo Ndebele makes a speech. He pleads for all to see what has happened in history as a chance to love. Uncover shame, transfigure, become whole again. Time gives distance.

In conversation with me about Communion Ndebele reflects on the distance of my film from the real of history. “With every story, we struggle with how it wishes to be told… Do you want us to see Sister Quinlan as a victim of history or as a character with tragic self-knowledge?”

There is vulnerability in this event. Vulnerability is an ethical object.

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Communion is to have something in common. Be a community. Love.

Perceptually we don’t experience the world as having an edge. We make edges to suggest consciousness through constantly shaping figures and grounds. Consciousness as time. Memory. Art makes edges. It is its own time. If art has become a privileged site for telling and re-telling stories, and archive and obsolescence a favoured form, it must say something beyond nostalgia and commodity. Many argue that it’s because history is being forgotten in our internet hyperimage hyper-information age of rapid change. I see it – hopefully –as a symptom of history expanding to include non-human history, planetary ethics. Materiality is key. In film, it’s not only its physical history – film itself, time exposed in celluloid wear and tear, the cut of montage – but time itself. Duration. The time-image Deleuze speaks of, the flicker of “crystal-image” time, which makes visible the “hidden ground of time”, the flow we are in, of “presents which pass and pasts which are preserved”. Memory is present time.


randomness. Chaos.

My Lovely Day opens with grandmother standing on her verandah, looking out. How did she end up here, in this “God-forsaken place”? Later, as the camera covers a huge cavity in the earth, half full of green liquid, we learn that “this place” is the spot in South Africa where diamonds are discovered in 1871, the Big Hole of Kimberley. A town near the desert district in which we live. Diamonds and later gold change foreign interest in the country and tragically alter the land, lives and history of its people. “This is a dangerous place,” she

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compose with
You make patterns. The act of composing is itself a story. A shelter, as John Berger proposes, an in-between where thoughts, images and sounds have their way.

muses. “A place of ruin. Know it in my bones.” Everything lurks in her premonition of her personal past of European wars, GrecoTurkish clashes and more, bypassing the tragedies at her door, the lives that stare her in the face. “Your father… Never became a citizen of this country. Never willing to settle.” Relating to an actual place, this sequence is truer as documentary than most others, which are extremely elastic – “leaving Smyrna in a hurry” is set against the rocky face of Table Mountain in Cape Town. Of course celluloid film is indexical and documentary in itself, and what is caught in the sweep of the camera is history. And of course it records the fact that mostly white people owned cine cameras and documented their privileged lives. And so, the “innocence” of my mother’s films is shattered into the wider real in the film that follows, Verwoerd Speaks: 1966, with its soundtrack of the domineering voice of Prime Minister HF Verwoerd, “architect of apartheid”, a live recording of a speech delivered in the Voortrekker Monument in May 1966 to celebrate the first five years of the white minority republic. Verwoerd speaks in Afrikaans. English translations run as subtitles. There is some projector sound and intervals of applause from his admiring crowd. Throughout there is a beat, some undertow, a rhythm that haunts the master tone.


In 1960 the Sharpeville massacre happens. The ANC and PAC banned. A month later, on the eve of South Africa becoming a republic, Verwoerd delivers a speech in Johannesburg. It is the annual agricultural show and he is there to award trophies for the best beasts. A wealthy white farmer, David Beresford Pratt, steps up to the podium and shoots Verwoerd in the face. Miraculously Verwoerd survives, securing his divine status in the eyes of his flock.

“If only someone had booed his speech”, says Pratt in his own speech at his trial, the shooting might never have happened. He doesn’t want to kill Verwoerd. Just lay him down for a while. Give him time to think. He wants to give the prime minister a message, to shoot “the stinking monster of apartheid”.

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Not long after the attempted assassination Verwoerd fondles the stigmata on his cheek and makes a speech. In Bloemfontein. He is to release a white dove as the crescendo. The bird drops to the ground. His grip takes the bird’s breath away.

In September 1966 Verwoerd waits in his seat in the National Assembly in parliament in Cape Town. He is about to deliver a speech. A messenger approaches him and then plunges a knife right into the heart of the prime minster. It’s an accident of history that the messenger gets to be in striking distance of Verwoerd because, in apartheid South Africa, the job of parliamentary messenger is reserved for whites. The messenger is not white.


An accident is an unintended event that often causes harm. It’s unpredictable. An accident sometimes happens when someone tries to do something else.

There are accidents of history. Pratt has lots of accidents arising from his epileptic seizures. The moment he is born, Tsafendas is an accident, so-called illegitimate, and from then on that’s it. He feels a hole early in life. Something is “eating him away”. The tapeworm! Some claim Tsafendas invented the parasite, making it into the madness he needed to dodge unjust laws, and the gallows. Whatever the case, there is no mistake, the story is so much more.

It is an accident of history that my father comes to South Africa. He is a soldier in the Greek army in World War II, in Egypt. Greece is occupied by the Nazis and loses sovereignty. The Greek forces come under British rule. It is not his anti-imperialist politics that send my father to the other end of Africa, but illness, infectious tuberculosis. He is dispatched, along with other sick and injured soldiers, for isolation and treatment. Part of his convalescence was at Baragwanath hospital, then a military hospital set up by the British in their dominion and since the main hospital in Soweto.

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Accidents are often the unforeseen result of human error. Official documents are full of mistakes, as I discover in my research for Obscure White Messenger. Especially the “Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Death of the Late Dr The Honourable Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd”. So too the transcript of the hearings at Tsafendas’s trial in the Supreme Court (for which he is deemed unfit to stand). It is full of psychiatrists’ accounts trying to pin down his mental state. And then there are the many newspaper reports, full of mistakes. A riot to read in embodied form. Housed in the National Library, the material comes on microfiche. Light boxes into which you must put your whole head. The text is white on blue plastic sheets. It’s hard to physically navigate the contraption – you must scroll the texts by turning a big reel. The mechanism emits a grating sound. You order the physical print and must read it standing at a dedicated desk, turning each page with a big wooden stick. Then there are myriad other modes of search. Liza Key’s documentary on Tsafendas, A Question of Madness. The rock song – “I’ll Tsafendas you”. The police museum in Pretoria – a lady shows me the knife! Endless books on Verwoerd. A seminar paper on Tsafendas and the construction of madness and race by Zuleiga Adams. And Henk van Woerden’s biography, A Mouthful of Glass. I have already met the Dutch author, who is also a painter, when he visits Johannesburg.

On 2 November 1963 the passport control officer in Lourenço Marques, Mr JJ van der Berg, issues Tsafendas a permit for temporary sojourn in the Republic of South Africa despite Tsafendas being a listed person. Apologizing to the commission Mr van der Berg says, “In regard to the checking of the ‘Stop List’ the only explanation I can think of is the possibility that I looked up the name under the index letter ‘S’ [Stafendas], as a result of the sound associated with the pronunciation of the surname.” It was a big mistake. “The disastrous consequences of the man’s admission affect me deeply, however, and will not be easy to get over.” Tsafendas applies for permanent residence. On 23 December it is granted after a host of mistakes, misplacements and misnaming of files.

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Tsafendas gets the parliamentary messenger job. The Chief Messenger, tasked with interviewing candidates and employing them, records him as white. There is no official identity card but there is a “w” on his unemployment card as well as a number which is mistaken for his ID. The Chief Messenger pleads for understanding – Tsafendas performs well in the interview. He speaks many languages. He has worked as a court interpreter. He says he is white. He takes Tsafendas at his word. He adds, “If you saw what I had to choose from…”

Nelson Mandela, on Robben Island, misidentifies Tsafendas when he gets word of the assassination. He calls Tsafendas that “obscure white messenger”.


Madness is being on edge. “Watch how the children play”, says a line in My Lovely Day. Forget for a moment the tone and what it smacks of in a colonial milieu. Madness is in all the films. In The New Parthenon, in a bird’s eye shot of someone running distracted in a mass of sand, the protagonist feels unstable. He is contagious. Delirious. He passes out and en route to the other side he finds a madder world. Two men beat each other with pillows balancing on a rod over a swimming pool on a boat and they fall. The words “woke up in an unreal place” couple with a scene at a cliff edge of a blonde woman playfully throwing a black child into the air.

Madness is formally diagnosed in Obscure White Messenger and The Master is Drowning – schizophrenia and epilepsy. Word and world disorder converge as a sign of schizophrenia. A clinical condition that modern-life philosophers transform, creating the “figure” into

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There are so many coincidences in found film. Such serendipity, you could go mad.

a symptom of alienation under capitalism. Schizoanalysis (Deleuze and Guattari) goes further and sees the schizophrenic less as a neurotic condition and more as a delirium whereby being lost in themselves makes them surprisingly tuned in to the world around them. A complexification of the world. In schizoanalysis, the delirium of the schizophrenic is desire, the disrupting capacity of emancipatory potential.

There is madness in the raw footage itself; the liberties taken by so-called normal people to go mad in front of the camera. The substitution that happens in the octopus being the worm… And, in She Breathes Water, the octopus as writer of the history of the future.


Life starts with a splash. Water is first form. She Breathes Water begins like this. It is the flash of time that breaks the horizon line. I set out to make a film for a project about rising seas and global warming in the Indian Ocean region. I am reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. A true story about the loss of life in the tsunami. Waves are protean. I read now for information on the topic – facts on geo-engineering, octopus fishing in Tanzania, the news on cyclone Idai… At the same time I let my digital footage drive run. I know there are already scenes of catastrophe living there. I put these on the timeline, and begin. There is a story I want someone to speak. And the octopus fits the bill. She has featured before. And she is now a public emblem of ecology. And imagination. I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable – how climate crisis as also a crisis of the imagination in the contemporary novel – and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History, heeding the postcolonial sway, why he invokes Alan Weisman’s thought experiment – “imagine the world without us”.

I’m painting and I see my glue medium, its viscosity, as having some metaphorical association with the “hyperobject” of Timothy Morton, his conceptualization of global warming as an object that is part of us but exists beyond us. Sticky elasticity springs to mind.

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A sticky splash is like blood not water. Splash is an impossible image because its identity is movement. Wetness is part of it. The disturbance of liquid chaos freezes into form on a dry surface, crystalizing into image that traces its fall. It is forensic.

No splash is exactly the same even when you set the very same conditions for it to occur. Could the splash be considered as metaphysical presence as is often thought of the spoken word? – as opposed to reading which is uncanny.


When a splash is on a page it is often read as a blot. Some blots can’t escape the Rorschach test. In my brain it’s one used on Tsafendas by psychiatrists. Tsafendas doesn’t perform well according to official court transcripts. One psychiatrist records “his inability to see something in the ink blot which could be evaluated reasonably accurately with something commonly known to all of us”. Here is a fragment.

You mean if most of us sitting here saw that ink blot we’d see some resemblance to some ordinary object which we know, and he failed to do so? – Yes. ...

6. What is the next observation? – (Witness reads R.S.C.’D’).

“Bizarre and unusual detail”.

7. What do you mean by “Bizarre and unusual detail”? –May I give you an example?

Certainly, give the Court an example. – One of the ink blots that I showed him, he said: “I see a leg, but there has been a considerable amount of atrophy. It may be a rat’s leg or a rabbit’s leg, but I am not quite sure what species it belongs to, but there has been a considerable amount of atrophy”, so really, a jumbled lot of nonsense.

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Blotting your copybook means transgressing the border of ink and paper. Sometimes a cause of shame. I learn to write with ink, dip pen and inkwell. Splash pertains. In my first year at university I create my first splash artwork, by mistake. The brief is to make an imagined composition. Mine is an elaborate play of figure and ground. The lecturer does his rounds. “That’s a great cat,” he says, pointing to my blot. “An accident,” says me, stupidly.

For film subtitles it is white – this, to be seen in spite of the image. In She Breathes Water the octopus offers her ink. You never know what colour her ink is in this scenario. Octopuses are shapeshifters. Protean. She is said to frighten off predators with a cloud of black ink. Maybe, since she is rendered in black and white in She Breathes Water, there is something to this. Non-chrome challenges the image of body-brain divide if we think in colour. Another set of thoughts come with how she acts in The New Parthenon where she “represents” global politics. In She Breathes Water she offers her ink to write a history of “mankind” sans his might. Her life, human life, all life, starts with a splash. Eons ago, in the same water.

Colour is sensation, a conceptualization of an aesthetic dimension, one that co-exists with but is distinguishable from perception. Another kind of relation like hole and host.

Ink is pigment in water. Pigment once covered the marbles of the Parthenon. Residues still show the colour of classical for all the scrubbing down by colonials.

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Where most people see a butterfly, Tsafendas sees only red!
In official documents black is the preferred colour for fact.

Ink in the skin. Now I think of Pratt’s tattoo inscribed by a fellow inmate in their awaiting trial cell. The entangled letters “P” and “V” mark Pratt’s arm. He has the last word.


It’s not for nothing that Tsafendas has a word disorder. His psychiatrist refers to Tsafendas’s time in hospital in Lisbon where Tsafendas says nuns were trying to give him shocks on the head to change him.

“Are you going so far”, reports the psychiatrist of the conversation to the court, “as to say that they tried to ruin you because you weren’t a Roman Catholic?” He said: “Maybe they were trying to change me”. ”Do something to my brain”. ... The doctor reflects, “the mechanism which they were using he said was a transformed radio, and then he revealed what I regard as another symptom of schizophrenia, delusional perception, which means that an innocent visual image, something which one may see, like this microphone, takes on a sinister meaning to a patient. He said he had passed an old radio on one of the tables and immediately he knew that this was the instrument being used to act on his brain. He called it a ‘graphanola’. I said: ‘What is a graphanola? Is that a word?’ He said: ‘It is a radio’. I said: ‘Is it a Portuguese word?’ He said: ‘Portuguese, yes’. I have looked up this word in seven PortugueseEnglish dictionaries, and it doesn’t exist. I can only conclude that this is what we in psychiatry call a neologism.”

1. What is a neologism? – It is a word which is manufactured by a patient with one of the major mental disorders, chiefly schizophrenia. :

2. BY THE COURT: Is it one of the symptoms of schizophrenic persons that they manufacture words? – Yes.

2023 On Film and Painting 19

3. Is that what you are telling us? – Some schizophrenics manufacture words. This was the only neologism I enlisted.

4. The graphanola? – Graphanola.

5. Did you look up a Greek dictionary? – No I didn’t.

6. It starts with a Greek word? – It may exist in Greek.

7. And he also speaks Greek, I believe? –Yes, he speaks a number of languages. I didn’t look up the Arabic one either.

The psychiatrist is mistaken. There is such a word. It describes an old Columbia phonograph. It was just misspelt, in transcription.

Word twists. The Surrealists tapped into messing with words to get to the unconscious, making the most paradoxical confrontations between elements of speech. They derail human communication and liberate it from logic. Open a way to wonder through disorientation and displacement.


There is a Greek word for remedy that is also the word for poison. Pharmakon. Like pharmacy. Plato used it first it seems. Someone added scapegoat in-between. Derrida reads Pharmakon as indeterminacy.

Tsafendas is in-between. Stateless. In Obscure White Messenger, his stepmother hands a tray of watermelon to someone in a doorway.

“A powerful poison” reads the line. There is a “Portuguese chemist” with pencil in hand. He seems to be counting fish on the seashore. He is not a chemist after all.

My English great-grandfather was a chemist. He owned Tothills pharmacy in Cape Town in the 1920s. It still exists. Apart from medicine it sells analogue film and does chemical processing. My maternal grandfather ran the Globe and the Gem bioscopes nearby. They both deal in scripts, chemical, cinematic.

20 Penny Siopis Never the Same Water Twice

All creatures play. In Greek there is a word, “Kefi”. Untranslatable. It is the overwhelming feeling expressed through laughing, dancing and singing. Also the way to communicate with other people. Kefi is being so on edge – it could be the madness of joy, the moment of feeling creative. The high spirits and exuberance of Kefi is responsible for breaking plates. Kefi has no script or score.

I think of jazz. Of Skokiaan. And how, as a broken record, it gets to catch the ear of the Americans. Through its crack – an accident that happened on its journey across the Atlantic – they hear the sound of home on the other side. This is the late 1940s. There are scenes of Zulu ricksha. Like the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. There is Kefi, joyful with a dose of melancholy. A note is a note in any language, says Louis Armstrong. Home is a scene of Great Zimbabwe.

In my research on Skokiaan I come across the fiction writing of Yvonne Vera which weaves in Armstrong’s visit to Bulawayo. There is an underground bar in downtown where men talk about his visit. They are migrant workers whose lives involve regular journeys to Johannesburg to work on the gold mines. Vera’s words “breathless and blue” evoke the beauty and pain of the voice, the instrument, the tune.


I call my research embodied because I search with my body as well as read. I follow my nose as I travel. Once I went all the way to an island I never knew existed because of a handwritten label on a film reel I bought in the flea market in Athens. It read “A day in the life of Kalimnos”. Kalimnos is famous for its sponge divers. And also for the many who died trying to make a living underwater. That is where

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When you play you become foreign to yourself. Act alien. Improvise.

I hear first-hand accounts from locals about the arrival of African migrants. They were dropped on the seashore at night and told by the smugglers it was Athens – they would see the Acropolis the next day.

For The New Parthenon I go to Greece. I see antiquity’s weight. How it figures in the Greek imaginary. “My hands disappear and come towards me mutilated”, haunts a line from George Seferis’s Mythistorema, a merging of myth and history in poetic form that speaks beyond specific time and place. Melancholy matters in this story.

I search everywhere for what I already know in my bones. I travel to Thessaloniki. My father’s town. On my way I see beautiful ancient olive groves, now, in my mind, a picture of terror – the civil war, famine, Nazi occupation, British, American occupation, the Cold War… I go to a square, now a car park. Greek Jews were held there, and forced to perform degrading antics by the Nazis before being sent to concentration camps. I learn that headstones of Jewish graves are used as building material throughout the city, including Aristotle University, my father’s alma mater, and the Greek Orthodox church. I learn that many poor Greeks can no longer afford to bury their dead in the customary way. The earth is too expensive since the EU. Greece is not European anyway. Someone says there is a communal grave. It is a pit of shame. History today.

22 Penny Siopis Never the Same Water Twice
Shame is visceral emotion. Some say it is foundational to identity. Whatever, it has many faces that keep visiting in adult life. In fragments. Shattering speech.

The words “Shadow Shame Again” appear as the title of a work that responds to the shameful acts of femicide and violence on women and children that mark our world. A particular event has just happened during lockdown. The film starts with the title against a red visual field that reveals itself as a curtain. A paragraph of text comes into view. The words of Pumla Gqola taken from her book Rape: A South African Nightmare. Words that are universal. A small child innocently climbs a tree. There is the sound of nature. Or so it seems. But the sound is made by human hands. A sort of clapping. It gets intense. Faster. Louder. As scenes of innocence and affection are cut so short as to feel like watching wounds. A corpus of collective history of pain cut through. Then a quieter feel to the gentle song by Mbali Ngube. She has transformed her voice through an app to make her solo sound feel like many voices. She has posted her song on Twitter as a tribute to Tshegofatso Pule, murdered by her partner. There is a choir of religious music sung in isiZulu. Words, usually in the body of my works, have failed. It is sound that holds.


Sirens call. Odysseus is tied to the mast so as not to waver on his journey home, so compelling is the siren sound around him. He is blindfolded even though it’s his ears that are the vulnerable spot. Didi-Huberman speaks of certain images that resist and stay – the surviving image he calls it – and I would say sound does a similar thing but perhaps a more insistent getting under the skin, being as it is less optical and so less controllable. What stays for me in the image world is the tension of figure and ground – the brain’s organizing tendencies to distinguish form that is precarious, even disappearing, but never gone. The outside is already within, in the work of memory. Kaja Silverman’s phrase “sonorous envelope” in her Acoustic Mirror is another way of speaking about the persistence of sensory things. This is not about all things soft. It is defiance too. Loud, like Miriam Makeba’s Ndodemnyama (“Beware, Verwoerd”) in The Master is Drowning. Or ice-breaking and Schubert’s Ave Maria duo in She Breathes Water.

2023 On Film and Painting 23


There is jouissance in grief that opens the vulnerability of life to poetic persuasion. Life is subject to swerves, as Joan Retallack observes. Swerves that for me run along a feminine line that I care not to explain. Let me just say this: in Greek tradition you are given your grandmother’s name. I deviated. By chance and design. Penelope is a weaver. Her story is of a thread done, undone, and never finished. To say it’s the pragmatics of practice is too hard an edge for this unrecoverable strangeness.

24 Penny Siopis Never the Same Water Twice
Leave it now, let things blur, and brew.
Published on the occasion of Penny Siopis Never the Same Water Twice: Nine Films (1997-2021) 18 March – 29 April 2023 Stevenson Cape Town Penny Siopis Feral Figurations 25 March – 6 May 2023 Stevenson Johannesburg © 2023 for images and text: Penny Siopis Design and layout by Gabrielle Guy Printed by Hansa Digital & Litho Printing (Pty) Ltd Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road 7925 Cape Town +27 21 462 1500 46 7th Avenue Parktown North 2193 Johannesburg +27 11 403 1055 Prinsengracht 371B 1016 HK Amsterdam +31 62 532 1380 @stevenson_za
She Breathes Water, 2019
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