A critical consciousness to champion chance, agency and contingency
with Penny Siopis
Preoccupied with vulnerability and agency Penny Siopis has employed time, painting, video, photography and installation to pose questions on the ways they manifest. As sociopolitical as it is a lifelong deep dive into materiality, Siopis’ work has been known to examine themes like body politics, memory and migration while tackling chance, contingency and materialism in the same breath. To demonstrate this, Stevenson Cape Town and Johannesburg are presenting Never The Same Water Twice: Nine Films (1997 – 2021) and Feral Figurations parallel to each other. An invitation to contemplate the artist’s practice in new ways, this week’s Re:View considers the ways Siopis has placed openness and relinquishing control at the centre of her practice.
An assertive description, using the title Never The Water Twice for Penny Siopis’ film survey connotes ideas of expansive and incessant exploration. When asked whether this is a fitting term to describe her overall practice, Siopis responds with a sure, “I think it’s appropriate, yes.”
Existing since the 1970s, what’s remained constant in Siopis’ practice is “working with openness and process” while finding “embodied ways to mark the porous boundary that puts personal and social worlds into intimate relation”. Associative: the material process and how mediums act play a vital role in what we end up seeing. Referred to by the artist as “a kind of poetics of vulnerability” this sensibility embraces perpetual reinvention.
To start with her painting; the gestural abstractions we see today were first catalysed when Siopis returned to South Africa in 1979, after studying in Portsmouth in the UK.
Describing paintings as a process and a space for enacting and making visible an imagined world through material gestures, Siopis has a problem with calling her glue and ink paintings just paintings because “paintings seldom recognise process as a reality. Everything resides in the product.” More than paintings, Siopis refers to her canvas and paper-based studies of painting as “residues of encounters”.
Immersed in Marxist and feminist theory, Portsmouth led Siopis to a point of perceiving art’s forms and conventions as charged with liberatory potential. “I found a convincing way, at least to myself, to infuse the sensuality of painting with a critical dimension where the medium could be so much more than a means for depiction.” Experimenting with the medium, Siopis used cake icing methods to apply paint to canvas. Employing time as a material, Siopis watched as paintings aged and decayed. After the cakes came the shift to her history paintings. The Pinky Pinky and Shame series followed. Now Siopis is in her glue and ink era. “Most of the old works still feel relevant and I think it’s something to do with their open materiality, how it keeps inviting the viewer in, and how it’s this process that can transfigure into concerns of today,” adds Siopis.
Easily associated with her painting practice, the poetics of vulnerability also extend to her films. Always montages combining fragments of 8mm and 16mm found footage and holding them together with text and sound, this too requires Siopis to release control. “I literally find this material, these reels, in flea markets and buy them sight-unseen,” explains Siopis. “The quality of surprise is emphatic and there is much serendipity, because I only see what’s on the reels after they’re transferred to digital.”
Also in her films, poetics of vulnerability manifests in the use of text which, in the context of film can be read as a visual form. “It speaks to the materiality of language and the tension between image and text, especially in the way I use words, which is often rambling, circuitous and roaming in a way that also creates confusion about who is speaking,” adds Siopis. A battlefield, where text and picture constantly fight for the audience’s eye, “including text in the frame makes the work dialogical beyond the dialogue or monologue of the narrative.”
Although letting the materials interact, live and solidify where and how they want to, Siopis does not position herself as a passive bystander. Her hands: pouring and shaping, have an effect on what we end up seeing, just as our human actions are influenced by varying cues.
Sincerely curious, Siopis stays asking materials and mediums, “What do your agencies look like in conversation with each other?” Fifty something years in the game and still finding (and looking for) new ways to champion chance, agency and contingency, the artist maintains a contemporary vibe while nudging audiences into tomorrow’s zeitgeist where materials are alive, political and influential, independent of us.
Although many things, Siopis’ work (as seen in Feral Figurations and Never The Same Water Twice) repeatedly stirs up feelings of hope. This rings especially true when she asserts, “Art is that thing – learning. And learning in ways that are not about pinning subjects and materials down and dominating them,” asserts Penny Siopis. Attached to the idea of radical openness, with the desire to unsettle the comfort inside convention, witnessing a material’s intuition excites Siopis. A political warcry against rolling over as things decay or stay the same, Siopis thinks the fixation is because “I always see in it the potential for change. Something is always about to happen, something unpredictable. I see the love side of chaos”.