Penny Siopis: Who's Afraid of the Crowd?

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Who’s Afraid of the Crowd?


Who’s Afraid of the Crowd?

14 APRIL – 21 MAY 2011

‘As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch.’ ‘Fire is the same wherever it breaks out: it spreads rapidly; it is contagious and insatiable; it can break out anywhere, and with great suddenness; it is multiple; it is destructive; it has an enemy; it dies; it acts as though it were alive, and is so treated. All this is true of the crowd.’ ‘Put your hand into water, lift it out and watch the drops slipping singly and impotently down it. The pity you feel for them is as though they were human beings, hopelessly separated. They only begin to count again when they can no longer be counted, when they have again become part of a whole.’ Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960

The black and white images in this catalogue show some of the references the artist drew on for this exhibition, which included documentary photographs, pamphlets, newspaper articles, postcards of 12th-century Japanese scroll paintings and Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

Blow Up 2010 Ink and glue on canvas 200 x 300cm




The Hungry 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 170 x 245cm



Host 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 91 x 152.5cm



The Sting 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 170 x 245cm


The Survivor 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 61 x 76cm




Cloud 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 51 x 76.5cm


At the Root 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 170 x 250cm Detail overleaf





Time and Again 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 250 x 170cm Detail overleaf






As if a Rag 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 121 x 91cm


Gulf 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 180 x 280cm



Communion 2011 Digital video, colour, sound Duration 5 min 30 sec








Swarm 2011 Diptych Ink and glue on canvas Left panel: 200 x 180cm; right panel 200 x 125cm Detail of left panel overleaf







Hostage 2011 Triptych Ink and glue on canvas 200 x 125cm each



Black Rain 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 91 x 60.5cm


Ash 2011 Ink, glue and oil on canvas 180 x 200cm Detail overleaf





– rich scope for association, imaginative projection and absorption. I think this strongly associative aspect is more

Penny Siopis discusses Who’s Afraid of the Crowd? with Kim Miller

palpable in this show than before, and my use of the medium is perhaps more exploratory and wide-ranging. Can you talk a little about this ‘chance and directedness’? It’s really difficult to predict how the medium might ‘behave’. The glue is opaque white when I work, gradually becoming transparent as it dries. So I can’t really see what I’m doing. But I know the effects of my actions,

Kim Miller: Your work is always evolving, often

which are framed by the reference or idea that has

dramatically. How is this exhibition both a departure

sparked my interest. Essentially I set the conditions for

from and a continuation of your recent work?

something to happen on the canvas. The glue is very

Penny Siopis: My interest in the multitude is new. What

viscous (sticky, somewhere between solid and fluid) and

continues is my concern with the critical possibilities

this determines how the liquid ink is absorbed into or

of painting, especially through the tension between

lies on the surface. Each pigment reacts differently to

form and formlessness, reference and materiality, and

the glue. Working horizontally, I try to direct the flow of

medium as concept. What also develops is my interest

the medium, dripping, splashing pigment and water and

in violence and ecstasy, a central feature of my 2009

tilting the canvas at different angles. The play of gravity

show, Paintings.

also operates in how the canvas itself dips in sections where thick deposits of glue pool.

What do glue and ink allow that other mediums do

As the medium flows into formlessness, it dries into

not, and how has your method of working with them

form, which I might then strengthen into figuration. But


I try to keep figuration on the edge of formlessness,

Glue and ink offer me a vital, radically contingent way

and here the medium is magical. It freezes a moment

of working. Much of the sense of what I do is embedded

as the glue dries, giving an impression of an image in

in the medium itself. I am fascinated by the strangeness

the process of becoming. It looks like and is, literally,

and openness of the dance of chance and directedness

action arrested. Where there is figuration, this effect is

of the process, and how this offers me – and the viewer

enhanced. There are many other extraordinary chance


effects which I can harness, but only if I surrender to the

and white birds plummet towards a horizontal band

process and risk having to ditch paintings that don’t work.

of formless red in which lines of words appear. These are from the famous poem Strange Fruit, written by

All the works in this exhibit are highly abstracted.

Abel Meeropol in the 1930s to protest the lynching of

And yet subtle iconographic references, traces really,

African Americans. The poem was made into a song

remain. How important is iconography to you?

that became a rallying cry against racism. Even though

I suppose they are abstracted, but the formlessness I

we might only make out the narrative content of the

am after seems less about abstraction than materiality.

work if we recognise the poem, the ‘torn’ surface, the

Iconography is important but always in dynamic

acid colour, the whole feel, suggest this is not a ‘pretty

relation to materiality, of which colour is key. We can

picture’. Also, we placed a small photocopy of a lynching

recognise or code materiality in suggestive ways as

near the work in the exhibition. Clearly reference is

well – seeing phenomena like water, fire, forests, blood.

important here, but literal depiction less so.

This is as important. In Time and Again I reference Edgar Degas’ famous acrobat from Miss Lala at the Cirque

Do you see yourself ultimately stepping into total

Fernando (1879), but the way the medium both shapes


and dissolves her form in the inflamed and liquefied

I can’t actually see this happening. Even though I am

formlessness makes the reference unrecognisable. It’s

fascinated by Georges Bataille’s notion of informe

more the idea of the acrobat that interests me in figuring

(formless) as a will to bring form down, absolute

a dynamic tension between ascension and descension.

formlessness seems impossible. But Bataille’s idea of

In As if a Rag the largest part of the painting is a vertical

‘formlessness’ as an operation – an action and not a

mass of hot colour, inflected with dark specks and with a

product – chimes with what I am after, with my desire to

small head at the apex. The relationship of this head to

keep my process as open and performative as possible.

the mass encourages us to read the material as fire or larva, or even skin. But perhaps the piece At the Root speaks more


What themes anchor this exhibit and what is their relationship to the medium? In other words, is the

to your question. The pictorial reference here is of

medium critical to the message?

a lynching in the United States. But nothing of this

From what we’ve already said, the materiality and

iconography appears in the work. It is a large field of

strongly associative qualities of the medium, its

high-pitched, green-yellow fractured surfaces, which

unpredictability and vitality, how my own energy is

suggest a nature scene. Things that look like black

registered and discharged in process, are primary. Yes,

the medium is critical to the message. The anchoring theme involves the idea of the

want to keep moments in play. In another sense though, the act of painting itself could memorialise an event, a

multitude in tension with the individual – a solitary

human action which, with a particular reference, speaks

figure. Here I have been inspired by, among others, Elias

strongly to history. I’m thinking here about Blow Up,

Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960), an imaginative study

the painting that references the dropping of the atomic

of mass behaviour which draws on a truly extraordinary

bomb on Hiroshima. This and other references are

array of myths and historical and literary sources. He

included as small photocopies in the exhibition

discusses many different kinds of crowds but the one

The video is different. It is about an Irish nun, Sister

that interests me most is his unpredictable ‘open’ crowd,

Aidan, who was also a doctor, Elsie Quinlan. She was

whose energies multiply, morph, take direction and grow.

murdered by a crowd of brutalised people during the

His description of these crowds includes drawing on

Defiance Campaign in the Eastern Cape in 1952. I didn’t

nature symbols – fire, water, forests, swarms – and these I

set out to commemorate her as much as use her story

found particularly resonant for my painting.

as a meditation on the endless violence that seems to trap us and make us tragic. It’s a story of mythical

You often speak of the finished works as a reflection

proportions, not unlike those elemental Greek tragedies.

and embodiment of your own personal energy. Are

At the same time, I do want to remember her, and the

there other ways in which they are autobiographical?

specific history in which she was murdered is critical. So

As I mentioned, my own bodily action is traced in the

she is identified at the end of the video, and in this way

paintings, especially the larger works, but there doesn’t


seem much specifically autobiographical here. Of course all references are also moments of personal emotional

Looking at the paintings, I perceive a deep sense of

attachment, so perhaps in this rather oblique way …

trauma and pain that is manifest in the medium itself, and which is assisted greatly by the sheer scale of the

Every piece in this show references specific traumas

works, even as the subject matter fades away.

that are either individual or collective. Are your works

I think this is because of the strongly associative qualities

commemorative efforts?

of the medium with the visceral body and the ‘larger

I suppose it depends on what one means by

than life’ natural phenomena which might consume and

commemorative. The paintings aren’t specifically

overwhelm us. This is where scale – and indeed colour

about making people remember. Generally, perhaps,

– is important. Also, because much of the surface is

to commemorate means to fix moments, and I usually

made of bits of pigment and glue or evidence material


wrenched off the surface, the suggestion of fracturing

What motivated you to focus, in the film, on an

and laceration is strong. In Gulf, for example, the painting

individual story, as opposed to larger, collective

looks bruised, scarred and charred. But it also looks very


animated. The movement of formless smoke and fire

Looking at individual stories has actually been a feature

suggests perhaps the eternal wrestling between life-

of my video work over the years. But my interest in these

giving and life-denying forces.

stories is really how their particularity brings wider social, political and philosophical questions into the frame. This

There are parallels between the video, Communion, and the paintings. Yet they are quite different in both


is the case with Sister Aidan. I came upon her story by chance. I was on holiday

medium and focus on individual/collective traumas.

in the Eastern Cape a few years ago. Browsing in an

Why did you include the film next to the paintings?

old bookshop I found a thin book, Trust Betrayed, by JL

For many reasons. The moving image, the flickering

McFall. I think it was commissioned by her family. There

light of the projection and the sound animate the

was a familiarity about the story, which harked back to

viewing space in a different way to how the paintings

my experience of nuns at the convent I attended, and

are animated in themselves. The idea of collateral

their talk of their calling as a form of ‘sacrifice’. But it

illumination is important here. Then the obvious

also connected with more recent martyrdoms in the

reference to the crowd in the video registers in the

struggle for liberation. Later I researched the case. I read

paintings and back again, allusive and concretely

scholarly articles analysing the event in wider historical,

by turns. I liked this tension. But there are also film

social and political terms. I studied court records of

sequences that link directly to the imagery of the

the trial of those charged with her murder – a ‘crowd’

paintings; flames, for example. Some sequences are so

of eight within the larger multitude. I also looked at

fractured as to render representation unreadable – a

newspaper reports of the case. Many questions emerged

formlessness that corresponds with the paintings. These

about culpability and common cause – which of the

parts are actually bits of burned film, the product of

crowd committed the murder? The cause of death

amateur camerawork like shakiness, light flares, and the

became an issue. Pathologists struggled to determine

artifacts of old 8mm film – sprocket marks, dust specks

when and how she died, partly because sections of

and so on. All this materiality of the film, especially the

her body were missing, some allegedly eaten. All this

literal burning of the celluloid, I see as analogous to

research made it clear to me that I didn’t want to work

Sister Aidan’s traumatic event. The video brings specific

in a documentary way. I wanted a different sense and

history to the scene.

sensation, another kind of ‘truth’.

So I wrote the text myself from sources I had

in Egypt, and the devastating tsunami in Japan,

researched. I situated her ‘voice’ (subtitles) in the first

for example.

person to mark an imagined narrator rather than

I actually started this body of work before these

an empirical moment. Sister Aidan speaks her own

happenings and thus became hyper-aware of how these

death, as if from the grave. This only emerges some

events played out and were imaged in the media. This

time into the piece. The text suggests an uneven self-

worked extraordinarily and strangely with what I was

consciousness, perhaps echoing the voice in one’s head.

doing. So much connected with Canetti’s words, like

What allowed me to hook contingency to fact, however

his linking of crowds with fire. If anything marked the

loosely, was my selective use of text in combination with

energy of the crowd it was fire – even in the protests

film sequences. None of the film sequences connect

that happened later in the usually sedate streets of

in any way to the empirical facts of the story. They are

London. With Japan’s natural disaster things were tragic.

found home movies shot in India, Greece, South Africa,

Seeing the catastrophic footage of wild nature smashing

Madagascar and the then Rhodesia.

bodies and structures into formless debris, and on such a massive scale, was beyond belief. The natural disaster

Is the film an attempt at recovery or to restore

recalled the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb,

agency to a victimised woman?

fed by the fears of nuclear leakage. And this in turn

It speaks more to a consciousness than to her being a

recalled Canetti’s comment in 1960 that ‘all the terror of

victim. As a nun and political activist she was willing to

a supernatural power which comes to punish and destroy

sacrifice her life. I suppose there is recovery through how

mankind has now attached itself to the idea of the

she is transfigured in the video. There is also something

“bomb”’. These events and images got under my skin.

redemptive in the piece, as in sacrifice. The sound is an African lullaby which hushes towards the end as ‘her’ silhouette is framed against a waterfall which we might recognise as the Victoria Falls. We know she is dead but there she is!

Kim Miller is Associate Professor of Art History and Women’s Studies at Wheaton College, Massachusetts. She is currently completing a book on the extent to which women’s participation in the liberation struggle is represented and remembered, and in many cases forgotten, in post-apartheid visual culture.

How does our historical moment figure into the work? I am thinking here about your focus on crowds and multitudes, both human and environmental. We see crowds demanding, and winning, democracy


Wildfire 2011 Ink and glue on canvas 50.5 x 61cm

CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 F +27 (0)21 462 1501

PENNY SIOPIS was born in 1953 in Vryburg, South Africa, and lives in Cape Town. She is an Honorary Professor at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. She has exhibited widely, both in South Africa and internationally. This is her fourth solo exhibition at Stevenson, following Furies (2010), Paintings (2009) and Lasso (2007). Recent solo shows also include 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). Group exhibitions include Space, Ritual, Absence: Liminality in South African visual art at the FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg (2011); the 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010); Peekaboo – Current South Africa, Tennis

JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 326 0034/41 F +27 (0)86 275 1918

Palace Art Museum, Helsinki (2010); and Black Womanhood: Images, icons and ideologies of the African body, Hood Museum, New Hampshire, travelling to the Davis Museum, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and San Diego Museum of Art, California (2008).

Catalogue 57 May 2011 Cover Blow Up, 2010, detail

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The artist wishes to thank Michaelis School of Fine Art for its support. Special thanks too to Colin Richards for being so engaged in every way, Kim Miller for her responsiveness to the work and Tamsyn Reynolds, Alexander Richards, Alexa Karakashian, Philip Miller and the Stevenson gallery for all their support.


Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Photography Mario Todeschini Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town

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