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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