A monthly feature on an artist currently in the public eye
Charmed Lives I (1998)
Somnambulist: Transvaal Scottish (1999)
My Lovely Day (1997)
Comrad Series (1994)
Dora and the Other Woman
Kathryn Smith (September, 1999)
For Penny Siopis, the history of inanimate possessions is of consuming interest. Each has its own past, once played a role in a life, and thus itself became a part of social history. Cumulatively, massed together in wall embrasures, built into mounds or strewn across a floor, the disparate objects which make up Siopis' installations become integral parts of a new whole. History and personal memory are dissected, autopsied and diagnosed in itinerant archives, elements of which reappear time and again. This love of details, of detritus, of layers of association, has always marked Siopis' work. Currently, the artist works in installation and video. In the eighties, she was known for her baroque "history paintings" and pastels, gradually using an increasing number of found objects to make work that commented on colonialism, gender, and discriminatory practises of all kinds.
" In my recent work I use 'found' objects including found film. I am particularly interested in the things people leave behind by force of circumstance; things which embody very specific memories and experiences, yet have wider social and cultural resonance. These objects are complex subjective traces of emotional investment not always easily expressed. Being 'found' and often made and treasured for intimate and private reasons, these objects are emblematic of a merging of private and public worlds. "
Continuing her Somnambulist series from 1997, Siopis presents Somnambulist: Transvaal Scottish (1999) along with her film Verwoerd Speaks 1966 (1998-9) on the group show 'Wedge' at the NSA Gallery in Durban. The Somnambulist series reconstitutes a loved one's army paraphernalia used on the border. In a search for healing and catharsis, the artist has stitched a variety of personally-charged white objects to an outsize piece of army parachuting. A new delicacy and sensitivity hovers around these latently violent and formally arresting objects. Verwoerd Speaks was produced for the exhibition "Truth Veils" at the GPG, Wits University, coinciding with the History Workshop Conference The TRC: Commissioning the Past. In this 9- minute film, Siopis' mother's home movie footage is set against the soundtrack of a speech given by H.F. Verwoerd, inventer of the word "apartheid", the year he was assassinated. Celebrating the first five years of the Republic, the speech is translated and the English appears as subtitles. The juxtaposed images seem incongruous at times and other moments are uncannily connected. A jazzed-up 1980's freedom song plays over the whole film. The film epitomises the artist's interest in the 'found' object as emblematic of the slippage between public and private. Quoting Adorno in the Wedge catalogue: "The expression of history in things is no other than that of past torment".
Siopis exhibited recently on the 'La Memoire 99' show at the Villa Medici in Rome alongside Christian Boltanski, Mary Kelly and Rem Koolhaas to name a few. My Lovely Day, a film made in 1997, is being shown on "Democracy's Images: Photography and Visual Art After Apartheid", which is still touring Sweden. The film also appears on "Emergence", currently on view at the King George VI Gallery in Port Elizabeth, which focuses on key South Africa art works of the last 25 years.
And Before that:
The film My Lovely Day, produced for the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, marked Penny Siopis' engagement with film and video, and has received much critical acclaim. The film has been shown widely both locally and internationally, appearing on her semi-retrospective Charmed Lives! at the Goodman Gallery in 1997.
"Liberated Voices: Contemporary South African Art since Mandela" is being installed at the Museum for Africa Art in New York in September. For this show, Siopis is presenting a work called Charmed Lives, a reconstitution of two earlier pieces. Inspired by having to pack away her mother's personal belongings after she became critically ill, Siopis became aware of how objects can and do come to 'stand in' for a human life; what should be kept, for sentiment or posterity, and what is disposable? As she says, it is the "raw intimate archive gone public". My Lovely Day will form part of the installation, tracing stories of forced migrations and ruptured histories, both personal and 'global'. A short film is in the pipeline, taking its impetus from the installation of My Lovely Day where Siopis 'recreated' her grandfather's Metro cinema in Umtata, built by him in the 1930's. Siopis plans to travel abroad and locally, researching, visiting places significant to her personal history and upbringing and gathering archival footage shot by her grandfather. The cinema still stands but has been renamed 'Umtatarama', which provides the title for the film.