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The giant soul: jenn law in conversation with penny siopis

Penny Siopis, The Giant Soul, 2020, glue, ink, oil, and newspaper cuttings on paper, 29.5 x 39.5 cm, image courtesy of the artist

Back in April, when most of the world was in the initial stages of lockdown, I came across a small glue and ink painting online by South African artist, Penny Siopis, titled "The Giant Soul". Donated to “The Lockdown Collection” fundraising initiative in support of vulnerable South African artists impacted by the pandemic, the work struck a chord with me. It was inspired by a newspaper story Penny had encountered about a 'giant soul', and captures something of the existential angst that I (and much of the world) seem to be feeling as we collectively struggle to navigate the evolving global crises, while sustaining connection with each other from a necessary mediated distance.

Readers of art + reading may remember Penny’s contribution to our inaugural issue “Rupture,” in which she poetically wrote about her process of working with glue, ink, pigment, and newspaper cuttings for her triptych "Late and Soon" (2013-2015), a monumental work reflecting on personal and collective grief, following the loss of her partner, artist and writer Colin Richards, in 2012. I first met Penny in 1995 at the Royal Academy in London, UK, when she was participating in the africa95 festival of exhibitions and events. I was a PhD student at SOAS preparing to embark on a year of fieldwork in South Africa and it was a fortuitous encounter with one of the most important South African artists of her generation at a significant historical moment. South Africa was entering a new era—a year before, in April 1994, Nelson Mandela had been democratically elected as President, officially marking the end of the apartheid regime. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Penny was a leading artistic voice in the struggle against apartheid and has continued to actively engage the ongoing shifts in the socio-political landscape. Working fluidly across a variety of media including painting, installation, and film, she has helped shape the contemporary art scene in South Africa and internationally through her teaching, writing, and prolific artistic practice. On a personal note, that initial encounter with Penny—and our many conversations since—have informed the course of my own research and evolving material practice for the past twenty-five years (and counting).

At the core of Penny’s creative practice is a deep-rooted interest in materiality and chance, which has long led her to experiment with unorthodox materials and mutable processes. Over the past eight months, Penny and I have regularly touched base via Zoom to discuss her ongoing series of glue and ink paintings and the impact of the pandemic on her practice. Unable to access her studio at the University of Cape Town during lockdown, she temporarily turned her Cape Town home into her live/work space. Her recent series, “Atlas I and II”—57 paintings composed of repurposed materials—was created during this period, and is currently on display in her solo exhibition “In The Air” at Stevenson Gallery, Amsterdam (October 22, 2020—January 9, 2021). The following interview forms part of a larger collaborative biographical project and represents an abridged version of our extended conversation.

Penny Siopis, work in progress created in her home studio, Cape Town, 2020, glue, ink, and oil on paper, image courtesy of the artist

Penny: I have almost relished this time of being really quiet because it actually feels like the world is quiet. I’ve found it has given me more head space. I’m on my own, so it feels like I have this endless time, it’s extremely elastic. I’m also very aware of nature, which is absolutely glorious at this time of year in Cape Town, and how the outside seeps into my intimate space. I think there’s something happening in my thought process that will impact positively on how I wanted to shift anyway. I suppose I’ve always been interested in change and process but my working with the fluid glue and ink shows this most directly. The glue is white, opaque, at first. But as it dries and reacts to the ink, water, gravity, and my gestures, it changes, becoming transparent. The change from a viscous to a crystalline state is recorded in the residues, the shapes, and patterns showing arrested movement, a kind of suspended animation not unlike the way light registers a moment of time in a photograph. That the medium self-forms is important for my thinking about material agency. It’s difficult to explain, but for me, the physical process makes material a philosophical position on transformation, something I explored in a public way in Open Form/Open Studio at the Maitland Institute [Cape Town] in 2017 when I opened up my glue painting process as a form of social engagement. It involved working horizontally on the floor in a very visceral way on a massive scale, where every material move of matter on the canvas could be closely observed by everyone present.

Penny Siopis at work at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, 2017, images courtesy of the artist

Now, it’s almost as if my life has become like the glue and the ink in these paintings. I’m just sort of moving within the bounded space of my apartment like the ink and glue moves and shapes and changes on the canvas. It’s conditional on everything else—like the air, the gravity, and all the other forces that affect the medium changing and finding its forms. It’s the same here—you’ve got the edges of the home, and within this bounded field I’m making the work. I’m also writing and thinking a lot about a film I’m working on. There are so many different aspects of my practice that seem to be more fluid because I’m living in the space in which I’m working. The boundaries between the practices of making and living are so porous now. I’ve never experienced that before, not in the same way. It feels like I’m one little speck of colour in all this glue writhing around the place and this whole house is like a big painting! [laughter]

Penny Siopis (with feline friend) working in her home studio, Cape Town, 2020, images courtesy of the artist

Jenn: It definitely looks like it’s becoming a kind of immersive environment! [laughter] Can you speak to the ways in which these latest paintings have evolved out of earlier works?

Penny: Most of these works on paper began as grief paintings culminating in the series “Notes,” but didn’t fit into the body of work that emerged. After Colin [Richards] died [in 2012], I started making little paintings on paper, dropping glue onto the surface, letting it do whatever it did, and then seeing something in the formless shapes that appeared, and strengthening them, often with minimal intervention. Almost always they appeared as a veiled figure. This comes from the sort of pooling effect of the medium connecting, in my mind’s eye, with imagery on the verge of being recognizable—what I think of as potential images, always in the process of becoming. Eventually, I started adding oil paint on top of the glue and ink ‘skin’. The oil, viscous at first, dries as a crust that sits on the surface, forming layers that I could scratch through, scraffito. The large composite work you see here was started at Gasworks studios in London last year [2019], so it’s a kind of repurposing of surfaces. Like the paintings that never became grief notes but are now the ground for my current little Warm World paintings, this way of working is eco-conscious, in that I don’t buy materials, but rather use whatever I already have on hand. Here in the Gasworks piece, I’m incorporating text headlines from newspapers, weaving them around the suggestive glue forms that already exist—basically responding to what is already there. I’ve been trying to work the words into fluid organic lines or shapes. I want them to operate a little bit like the text in my films.

Penny Siopis, detail of work in progress created in her home studio, Cape Town, 2020, glue, ink, and oil on paper, image courtesy of the artist

Penny Siopis, She Breathes Water, 2019, single-channel digital video still, image courtesy of the artist

Jenn: Like film stills…

Penny: Yes, but not restricted to a line in the lower register of the image. The words in the paintings are part of the image—form and text are one. In the films, there’s an idea of translation and projection, with the words acting as the access point to the narrative. The paintings suggest narratives too, even if reading is difficult. With their virus-like intensities circling the gluey ink image, you need to move your head in weird ways to follow the flow. In this contortion, the logic of reading left to right breaks down. Like the films, there are frayed threads linking the fragments, usually drawn from similar frameworks or contexts. Since the newspapers are local, local experiences of the global pandemic come to the fore. As in my last film “She Breathes Water” [2019], these texts likewise address the challenge to human-centredness.

Penny Siopis, details of installation at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, 2019/2020, image courtesy of the artist

Jenn: The film is very beautiful—and poignant. With this evolving lockdown experience and the way in which the world has been interacting and working, there has been a shift in global consciousness. It has prompted me to revisit critical humanism and question how we position ourselves in the world. We’ve had many conversations about this over the years—with Colin as well. Humanism is a very broad umbrella term, of course, which historically has often been associated with anthropocentrism. Critical humanism aims to redress this by recognizing multiplicity and the historical context of human values, moving away from ‘mastery’, while positioning humanity in relation to other species and entities. Alongside theories of vital materialism, I am especially interested in how critical humanism embraces indigenous philosophies of humanity, such as [the Southern African] concept of “Ubuntu”, which views the self relationally through and with others. “I am because we all are.” Many of these ideas have long informed your work conceptually, but also materially, embodied in the very act of making.

Penny Siopis, She Breathes Water, 2019, single-channel digital video still, image courtesy of the artist

Penny: Yes, the material process embodies the concept, and it’s relational. Critical humanism is brought home in different ways now with the environmental crisis and the pandemic. I think a lot of my concerns about process in both my films and my paintings have engaged these issues, often through associative form. The glue and ink painting developed over time as a sort of exploding of the human figure, a decentering of the human subject, breaking down distinctions between figure and ground, or rather allowing a frail figuration to emerge from the process rather than through representation. They’re like bits and pieces of matter that fly around and get congealed into something like a figure or organism depending on what form you see in formlessness. Yet in my films, I actively put together a narrative from fragments of random, decentred footage, discarded reels of ‘anonymous’ old home movies I find in junk shops or flea markets. So, I suppose there is a connection here in the way both film and painting work as imaginative projection. With the paintings, it often stays in the realm of being extremely mysterious and ambiguous, and I want to keep it that way. But now I’ve been thinking about how the human subject—or, if you like, the gestalt or shape of the human—can emerge as a different presence. I can’t say exactly why, but perhaps the pandemic has opened up a way to think again about the human. The human is manifestly so vulnerable at the edges now, with the non-human virus a universal threat. And the effect? A kind of solidarity perhaps.

Penny Siopis, detail of installation at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, 2019/2020, image courtesy of the artist

It is like the idea of the “Giant Soul” that I picked up in the little painting that I made for the Lockdown fundraiser. That headline just came out of the newspaper. It struck me as a brilliant emblem of the present, because we’re not interacting with others in the same physical way. Now we have humanity without the human and without all the comfort that human touch signifies. But we do have a strong sense of human connectedness across the world through our shared vulnerability. These are the things that have always intrigued me, especially the idea of vulnerability, often through the emblem of the porosity of skin. Through different painting processes too, boundaries dissolve and then make new little boundaries just to survive, and then they’re porous again. There’s a constant to-ing and fro-ing of edges, where the borders are never stable. That can be frightening and liberating. What’s interesting now is that you have something like the social contract but imagined through an image of a soul rather than the kind of giant mechanical man of Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’—a different kind of human. It relates to a desire to rediscover ourselves as humans, in a way. In theoretical discourse, the trend has been to displace and decentre the human subject, because the human has been so dominant and destructive. But critical humanism, as I understand it, is not about the old idea of the human as masterful being. It is trying to offer something different, which I think is interesting coming from South Africa. In the apartheid era, and even now with the kind of neocolonialism of this place, there has been a disregard for human bodies and human lives. There is such a need for dignity. Humanism has to speak to something that’s bigger than just the immediate self or individual.

Jenn: Yes, critical humanist discourse is very much positioned in relation to its opposite form 'dehumanism' and experiences of violence and trauma, themes that have been at the core of much of your work as well. I’m wondering if you could speak to the extension of your focus from socio-political violence to ecological violence or trauma. I’m intrigued by this evolution of one into the other, and I’m wondering when you first felt that shift in consciousness in your work?

Penny: It's difficult to mark a precise shift in consciousness. What I can say, is that my interest in the non-human evolved out of my longstanding interest in materiality, which became more and more about vibrant materiality and what this consciousness offers for a political ecology and unsettling of binary thinking. The violence inflicted on the Earth—and humanity—often unfolds slowly, almost imperceptibly over time. A particular turn happened for me in Mauritius in 2016 when I used seaweed, ‘live’ matter, to make a wall installation. As it died over the exhibition period, it lost its scent of the Indian Ocean. That exhibition prompted an invitation to contribute to a show on the Indian Ocean [Rising Waters: The Indian Ocean in the Twenty-first Century] at the McMullen Museum in Boston [2020] and was also a stimulus for my Warm Water Imaginaries show at Stevenson Gallery [in 2019]. Much of my ecological thinking is reflected in my process of working with glue and how its behaviour can stand for other non-human beings. It actually dries as a non-toxic plastic. The process of working is organic and a lot of it comes through a kind of thinking through other senses, especially touch and vibrations. Now, of course, you wear gloves or don’t touch things when you go out, yet I’m still making my paintings through touch—I seldom use a paint brush. When I started working with glue, I was reading quite a lot about viscosity, which is neither solid nor liquid, it’s sticky. Being in a viscous state is being between two states. Stickiness suggests edges that are always changing. I was interested in this idea of fundamental change through the process of glue and ink itself, how relationally, in an embodied experiential way, one could be a partner in the process with air and gravity. Although these elements dry and help form the image, I enact those object-oriented ontologies, and am just one of the agents that makes the painting.

Penny Siopis, work in progress in her home studio, Cape Town, 2020, glue, ink, and oil paint on paper, image courtesy of the artist

I am reading a lot on the politics of the environment and making connections all over the place. Timothy Morton’s idea on viscosity as a ‘hyperobject’ and his idea of global warming is really intriguing as a philosophical view on how the human is distributed in time and space, in the very thick, ‘the glue’, of things. In South Africa, ecological consciousness is informed by a complex set of issues including a lack of resources, poverty, poor governance, cultural attitudes, etc. This doesn’t play out in the paintings as obvious content, but many of these undercurrents are there in the films in an allegorical way, and more directly through newspaper clippings in my installation Tentacular Time [2019].

The term 'non-human', which is often discussed as equalling 'nature', offers an alternative frame to old binaries like 'nature/culture,' but it also has problems as a category. That’s fine for the moment, given that my medium makes it difficult for people to start thinking of glue in this context—it’s not seen as pure 'nature' in the same way. Glue is a medium in the real sense of the word. It acts! It works in tandem with the medium of my body. The paintings are a residue of a process, indicating a relationship. This has a kind of resonance for me in the ways in which it invokes the complexity of human and non-human coexistence, and I want to draw out certain aspects of painting as a phenomenon of emergence. I’ve been dissolving the image the whole time, exploding the picture. It’s time now to pick up the bits and pieces and produce some other visual presence.

Penny Siopis, The Sentient Side, 2020, glue, ink, and oil on paper, 37 x 27.5 cm, image courtesy of the artist

There’s something that happens in this process that I think is related to what I keep seeing through images of the pandemic—the iconography of a vulnerable body being curtained, veiled. If you look at healthcare workers, they’re veiled figures. There’s something so extraordinary when you look at people now, photographed anywhere in the world. Almost everyone is masked—health care workers, protestors, and ordinary people on the street. The pandemic is a trauma; the disappearance of physical human contact is a related trauma. We count the deaths, but can’t bury the dead with a proper funeral—a ritual that perhaps most marks our humanity. We’re speaking to each other, but we’re often looking through a screen or over a mask. What’s happened to the human face? It’s lost its other parts and thus its orientation. Maybe now we need the idea of the human so much because we can’t see the whole face.

I’m also intrigued by what happens to perception when you look at things upside down. With the glue paintings, I work horizontally, looking down. There is no top or bottom to the work. This comes later, when I look in a vertical axis—and even then it’s negotiable.

Jenn: This reminds me of your Pinky Pinky series [2002-2004], where you gave material form to socio-psychological fears through the fleshy depiction of the mythical South African character “Pinky Pinky,” believed to prey on young girls. In many of these images, certain facial features of Pinky Pinky are missing, or are depicted upside-down, or only the eyes are showing…

Penny Siopis, Pinky Pinky teeth, 2002, oil and found objects on canvas, 41 x 50cm, image courtesy of the artist

Penny: Yes, with my upside-down Pinky Pinky paintings, for example, people often want to turn them around—the ‘right’ way up! There’s a feeling that the eyes shouldn’t be at the bottom, or the mouth on top. There’s a disorientation of space when you turn a face upside-down, and I think there’s a similar feeling that the world has actually been turned upside-down now. It’s an interesting metaphor, because these days you often see only the eyes—you just see a shape that you read as the rest of the face, as in these gluey and inky paintings.

Jenn: You're searching for the face within, for the point of identification and contact…

Penny: Exactly. There’s a similar thing in the grief paintings where the eyes are a point of contact. There’s often no line edging the face, no demarcation of inside and outside—only two little dots of ink. Aligned, they appear as eyes and can give you the sense of a face. Now I’m working more consciously with the idea of curtains or barriers, or things that signal the fact that you can’t touch, but you can see through to some degree. A very porous veil. It’s strange—a world of images without material substance, a kind of a world where one has to imagine touch.

Penny Siopis, work in progress in her home studio, Cape Town, 2020, glue, ink, and oil paint on paper, image courtesy of the artist

Jenn: The little paintings feel like a record or documentation of time. Each painting is an event. Working with ink and glue, which have different drying rates, you need to leave some in progress while you work on others.

Penny: Yes, the glue sets slowly as it dries. As it becomes transparent, it reveals shapes made in the process of drying. So even before I mark the surface, something is already there. Then with the oil paint, I respond to the forms the glue has made. It’s moving like this all the time! It’s a very open associative process. Now it’s about to be something, but not quite, so it sits at that stage of in-between for a while, while another shape seems to emerge. There’s always a tension between figure and ground, a productive confusion of forms, which makes anything possible in that instant of looking and touching. In the painting Warm World, Siren, for example, the figure has won the day, separating from her ground, coming forward to face the spectator. But there’s definitely a sense that she is still emerging—this little human is drawn out of stuff from which she is made, all the glue and the ink with oil paint over it, which is like a veil. It has a kind of waxy quality, a dimensionality, like you’re looking through skin, or water almost.

Penny Siopis, Warm World—Siren, 2015/2020, glue, ink, and oil on paper, 33 x 25 cm, image courtesy of the artist

Jenn: You’re also working in an unusual way in terms of living in your ‘studio’ space. In this context, is there ever an end point to the paintings?

Penny: I think that’s usually the situation with me when I work—things are always in a state of flux. They don’t finish. They’re always potential images. They tell me when they want to become a painting.

Penny Siopis working from her home studio, Cape Town, 2020, image courtesy of the artist

Jenn: This approach to material transformation is what I loved about your 2019 Maitland installation. First of all, the scale was incredible. But I also like the idea that you were recycling paintings, working with old pieces and painting over them, rethinking them, and reinventing them. I’m very used to thinking about your installation work that way, but I hadn’t really thought about your paintings in that context. There’s an interesting connection between the two.

Penny: There’s a connection with the films too because I’m treating the paintings now as if they’re found objects, just like I treat the found footage that I use to make the films. Even though the text hooks contingency into a narrative, it’s still that kind of radical openness that allows anything to happen. In Maitland in 2019, I recycled my old paintings. Painters often work on old paintings but not usually on those that have been shown previously on exhibition as finished works. The only reason I had access to them was because they weren’t sold. But they’re archived in catalogues and elsewhere. I collected them from Stevenson Gallery and storage and remade them as entities of a big visual field coming together as a new painting. Remaking what’s already in the world has generally been my philosophy.

Penny Siopis working on her installation at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, 2019/2020, image courtesy of the artist

I have done some new work on fresh surfaces. But like my life now, I’ve also not been buying new clothes or anything. I haven’t been buying more paper to work on either, so I’ve been using up all my stock that’s in the studio. The principle is to use what I have—and it’s extraordinary what you actually do have. Somebody said to me, “What are you going to do once you’ve run out of paper and stuff?” I’ll just paint on my clothes or anything! I could just paint on the walls of my house! There are surfaces everywhere. There are surfaces dying to be painted on! There are surfaces that are highly receptive to engagement! [laughter]

Jenn: There’s something very satisfying in working with pieces that are given permission to evolve. Do you ever document them in different stages of evolution?

Penny: When I did the first Maitland project in 2017, there was some documentation of the process itself because the primary concept was material change and the ways in which one can extrapolate other change and social transformation from this process. But even then, it proved impossible to do a time-lapse recording, which would be the only way to show the glue changing from opaque to transparent. But I never really photograph the works in progress for archival purposes. Changes happen instantaneously, both through the glue and also in my mark-making. Having said that, I have thought about doing this more recently because I think it’s interesting that they have their own histories.

Penny Siopis at work at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, 2017, image courtesy of the artist

Jenn: In the context of witnessing and facilitating change, embracing chance and improvisation in your process seems to be a strategy for consciously relinquishing control and opening a space for connection and, as you put it earlier, “shared vulnerability.”

Penny: Much of my engagement with the unpredictability of the glue and ink process has entailed deliberately putting my own painting skill on a kind of edge, making it precarious… It’s a process of making yourself really vulnerable, undercutting your own mastery by reducing the drive to impose your will onto things, the drive that’s usually valued in art. It reflects my consciousness of the implications of human mastery more broadly. If we just give the material world, the non-human if you will, more of an opportunity to pass through our skins into us and we into it, then we don’t have the same impulse to master or dominate it. In the process of making the paintings, I have felt a desire to give over to the process, which became very much in tune with a theoretical and critical interest that I have around ecology. In your own little world, how can you enact something of what you hope the bigger world can become, which is less about the imprinting of a human footprint into the substance of the world?

Penny Siopis at work at the Maitland Institute, Cape Town, 2017, image courtesy of the artist

In becoming conscious of the air drying the paintings and changing them, I also became much more aware of the air as a force, an agent, in a way that I never really thought about much before. In my little film “She Breathes Water”, that was a strong motivation in how I chose the different phrases, some of which came from what I was reading. “Can you imagine the world without you?” is a slightly altered line from the thought experiment of Alan Weisman. Other sources include The Climate of History by Dipesh Chakrabarty; Donna Haraway and her creatures; and Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. I was also interested in stories from local newspapers, including those about a recent cyclone that hit Mozambique, as well as reports about octopus fisheries in the Indian Ocean—anything I could find on the octopus, the sea, and its creatures, including Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. So, all these things were in the air in the process of making. Reading was itself a process of movement and change, a kind of tentacular experience. And then there’s the emotional air of the image sequences that I put to the sound of ice cracking, taken from a CD that had been lying around on my bookshelf for years. It is a nature track for relaxation, but sounds more explosive, which I inflected every now and then, mostly in the violent scenes, with the instrumental part of Schubert’s Ave Maria. All this allows for a connectedness that’s not realized through mastery.

Penny Siopis, She Breathes Water, 2019, single-channel digital video stills, image courtesy of the artist

Jenn: It’s a collaborative process. In the history of Western art, there has been a glorification of mastery and a denial of how much collaboration is often involved in what we make and do. We tend to think of collaboration in human terms, but of course collaboration can be between human and non-human as well.

Penny: That interests me. We’re all made of the same stuff, actually. Fluid stuff. This idea of collaboration is such a powerful way of thinking about your world, that you’re collaborating with everything around you, especially now with lockdown at this time. The materials have always been my companion in the process. That’s the relationship. I’ve never seen them as passive—they’re very active! [laughter]

Penny Siopis, Atlas II (detail), 2020, glue, ink, and oil on paper, 1 of 32 pieces, 27.5 x 37.5 cm each, installed at Stevenson Gallery, Amsterdam, image courtesy of the artist

Jenn: They are very active! I sometimes struggle with certain theories about material agency, which lean towards anthropomorphizing materials. I think it is more accurately framed through the lens of collaboration. Materials do not act with 'intention', they’re dependent on the laws of physics. As an artist, you work with and react to their properties and direct what is happening. It’s an experience. It’s a response that emerges out of recognition, whether we label it as art or not…

Penny: Yes, you create the conditions for something to happen. It happens. You recognize something in the observable, and even embrace energies beyond what one can see and pin down. But what and how you recognize is not observable. Call it consciousness, emotion, other things. All I can say is that whatever it is, for me it is felt as relational, and it’s extraordinary now what’s happening with larger questions around global warming and the virus/pandemic, in these terms—it's an ethical relation. I think about how we try to create a language or vocabulary to hold onto what we feel and how we think about the future. People are making much more of what they can in the moment; they’re forced to with lockdown. I think we can all learn to do things differently. But there’s this larger sense of something collaborative happening in the world, like the Giant Soul. A soul is very difficult to visualize. In this context, it is experienced as an imagined relation to others and the world. It’s incredible. That can sustain you forever.

Penny Siopis, Atlas I, 2020, glue, ink, and oil on paper, 25 pieces, 27.5 x 37.5 cm each, installed as part of "In The Air'" exhibition, Stevenson Gallery, Amsterdam (October 22, 2020 - January 9, 2021), image courtesy of the artist

For more by Penny Siopis, read her contribution "Late and Soon" in art + reading, "Rupture", issue 1, Autumn 2018.


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