How Memory Works: Penny Siopis at Michaelis
by Kim Gurney
Video gives artists a way of making tangible the usually invisible process of art-making, according to leading South African artist Penny Siopis. Delivering her keenly awaited Michaelis lunchtime lecture last month, Siopis said: "In painting, there is always something about the process that is as significant as the end product - but that process is private. With installation and video, the process seems to bring itself out much more because the viewer has to literally experience some of it."
Her point was underscored by the screening of My Lovely Day - a 21-minute film that formed the main focus of her lecture. Created for the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, this video comprises reconstituted sequences from home movies filmed by the artist's mother. The images are superimposed with subtitles that tell a life story through the eyes of the artist's grandmother.
Siopis said the materiality of the medium held interest for her over and above its function as a vehicle for the work; it was also part of its meaning. She said: "The dust spots and markings are all part of realizing it's a construction. There is a sense that it registers something niggling below the surface that cannot get captured in an image."
This idea of memory as a constructed reality is pervasive. The harsh editing of a disparate jumble of family images seems to hint at the viewer's own inner selective processing that also edits memory and creates history in retrospect. The text, instead of providing a linking narrative, more often creates further dissonance. Its frequent incongruity adds ironic humour. And it also ruptures the sense of linear time because the grandmother occasionally speaks as if she were dead.
Siopis said the various elements in her video work together "to register a psychic space in which memory really operates". She added: "Installation and video have used space and time as a medium, which has added a special dimension to exploring something of the unconscious."
The film, which was absorbing and successful in both conception and execution, was followed by an interesting but rushed overview of the artist's more recent work. Due to time constraints, the rest of the lecture was a blur of images and clipped explanations.
Slides of various installations showed her ongoing interest in the power of material objects. The most riveting was a work called The Will that displays some of the 500 items Siopis has bequeathed to acquaintances. She said: "Nobody knows what they will be getting - a monkey skin or half a plastic brain - but they are all especially chosen. I can't get rid of these objects because they are part of my estate. I am imprisoned by objects as an idea."
Siopis also briefly reviewed her well-known 'Pinky-Pinky' painting series, which explores the ideas of strangeness and estrangement.
Monday March 31
Michaelis Lecture Theatre, Michaelis School of Fine Art, 31-37 Orange Street,
For further details of the next lecture, check our listing page or contact Lisa Essex at Michaelis on Tel: 021. 480-7111 or Email: