Time and Again
Penny Siopis at Iziko South African National GalleryBy Anna Stielau
18 December - 10 March. 0 Comment(s)
It’s always hard to talk about pain. Even when we talk about our own pain, we find ourselves caught short. Language fails us. Oh sure, there’s any number of words to describe the subjective experience of suffering: ache, affliction, agony, angst, anguish. But to speak to another about the events of the body – not just the physical body but the emotional body – is to believe that a listener can conceive of that pain as immediate, can understand it as felt and as fact. That’s rare. As human beings we find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine the pain of others outside of our own corporeal field of vision.
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'Physical pain does not just resist language but actively destroys it,' Elaine Scarry writes in her meditation on the difficulty of translating pain, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. In suffering we are reduced to 'a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.' Understandably, that location further complicates the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the pain of another, a project twice diluted by language. How do we apprehend (and comprehend) hurt? How can we chart the invisible geographies of someone else’s pain?
I’d volunteer this question as a gravitational force at the heart of Penny Siopis’s retrospective 'Time and Again' at Iziko National Gallery. That’s an oversimplification of course – there are many forces at stake in 'Time and Again', but pain is perhaps the most palpable and present. Over the course of three, nearly four, decades of art-making, Siopis has relentlessly pursued a means to give representational form to individual and collective trauma. To that end, she concerns herself not only with the physical fact of injury manifest in the wound, but also with the suffering of communities both micro and macro, with history’s capacity to injure the present, and with the quotidian personal battles played out in the space of the family and invested in domestic objects. Frequently, but not exclusively, these explorations take the vulnerability of women and children as a point of departure (and isn’t vulnerability just another way of saying potential for pain, really. Feeling vulnerable is recognizing that one is open to hurt.)
In her Cake works, the series that first earned Siopis recognition as an artist, she uses the descriptive power of paint to approximate female flesh. Each sensual surface, some modelled in that peculiar muted pink that art materials manufacturers like to call 'flesh tone', recalls the contours of a body. Like cake, this implied flesh is available for consumption. Arranged appetisingly on a shelf are pairs of cupcakes that are also undeniably dismembered breasts. Siopis’s generous application of paint lends itself to a cracking of the ‘skin’, and the membranous cake icing crumbles as though it were subject to some terrible internal pressure. These cakes are hurting.
The same shade of pink that appears in the Cake Paintings reoccurs in Siopis’s later work. In her renowned Pinky Pinky series, exhibited in a dedicated room in 'Time and Again', pink becomes the signature colour of the mythical monster that haunts the spaces around township toilets and the psyches of pubescent girls. Pinky Pinky is, I’d argue, a kind of embodied wound in itself. The character’s body is a blank pink void into which a plethora of terrors can be deposited. In Siopis’s interpretation, his amorphous form houses the varied agonies of history – fear of the colonizing foreigner, the alien, the white and male invader – and the same threat of sexual violence evoked by the spaces he inhabits. In this latter sense, Pinky Pinky is perhaps evidence of the wounds inflicted by puberty, of an unfamiliar and unpredictable sexuality emerging from the shadows and heralded by blood. Plastic nails and eyes and testes rupture the surfaces of Siopis’s canvasses. The monster emerges out of formlessness as though by sheer force of will.
Even in works that further erode the figurative in favour of delving deeper into the possibilities of abstraction, the wounding of imaginary or imagined bodies hasn’t vanished entirely. Siopis’s most recent work sees the artist use glue and ink as media. Her canvasses are populated with nebulous forms that bleed out and into one another in billowing sheets of colour, her subjects spilling and congealing and eventually coagulating on the painted surface. As a metaphor for the violences embedded within painting itself, what Elaine Scarry might call the reconstitution of pain into artefact, these works are critical of the very project of representation.
The proximity between these newer works and Siopis’s oldest pieces is perhaps the most interesting curatorial decision on the show. It bears witness to the artist’s technical range and evolution but also serves to corroborate what hasn’t changed for Siopis: how unabated her interest in trauma, how vast the vocabulary she adapts utilizes to articulate it.
Spanning installation, painting and sculpture, 'Time and Again' also features four of Siopis’s well-known video works. Sharing a space are the archival montages, My Master is Drowning and Obscure White Messenger, each narrating assassination attempts on the life of H.F Verwoerd. The first tells the story of David Beresford Pratt’s failed attempt in 1960 and the second describes Dimitri Tsafendas’s successful stabbing of Verwoerd in The House of Assembly in 1966. Stitched together from sequences of 8mm home movies and amateur footage – these works are, by virtue of being found footage, oriented towards the past. The patina of the film, its wear and tear, reinforces this orientation. The videos capture the remote distance of old newsreel footage. They feel authentic, truthful even, but also at first glance seem, like something that happened to someone else, long ago and far away.
Each is subtitled in the first person, coercing the viewer into adopting the perspective of the would-be-assassin. As a consequence, the remoteness of old film is disrupted and the unfolding story becomes suddenly and disconcertingly immediate. That tension between medium and voice is emphasised in Communion, in which the central character is medical doctor and nun Sister Quinlan. The sister 'narrates' her own death at the hands of an angry crowd of anti-Apartheid protestors in 1952, and she does so in enormous detail and with cool dispassion.
The disparate and at times seemingly disconnected visuals in these works untether the viewer. Where do we locate ourselves as spectators, vascillating between that calm subtitled text and what it says, between the images and the story, even between the past moment encapsulated in the work and the present moment in which these texts become available for our consumption? It’s an experience James Elkins calls a 'difficult moment of subjectivity,' that gap that opens up between who we are and what we witness when it is mediated by an image. We are wounded by material that compromises our experience of comfortable remove.
And comfortable remove it is, I think. Represented pain, no matter what visceral response it might intend to inspire, is practically gauche today. In a world of mass-mediated violence, of Youtube execution videos and and Reddit pages styling themselves as 'real death in real time,' suffering is too easily represented as an object of mild interest or distaste. Pain has become aesthetic, in the sense of the word that designates the attention paid to the formal properties of an image at the expense of their social, political or historical implications. Assassination attempts, murders even, are distant both spatially and temporally. Following Scarry, perhaps it’s not simply that we don’t know how to talk about pain because it leaves us at a loss for words – perhaps we don’t know how to see it in the first place…
The spectator’s relationship to these videos, bearing the full and visible burden of history and its incumbent truth value, are where their power lies. In their dislocation and enforced distance, these works remind us that distance exists.
I came out of 'Time and Again' with Lurlene McDaniels on my mind. As a kid I developed something close to an obsession with the American young adult author. Lurlene’s greatest inspiration – the source of all her creative passion – was dying kids. Particularly girls. Her girls died, over the course of fifty novels and counting, in ever more horrifying and exotic ways. They wilted from cancer and shrivelled up from organ failure. Elective surgeries shattered their already-fragile bodies and bulimia corroded their teeth. Their stories resolved themselves satisfactorily, usually with a magnificently unselfish death. She coined her own genre, did Lurlene: sick lit.
Not for all her words could Lurlene give value to the deaths in her stories and eventually she, and her pitiful, beautiful, ahistorical invalid girls, betrayed me. I realised I no longer cared if they lived or died. Maybe I never had. That is what happens when pain becomes truly untranslatable: not only a failure of effort or of language but a failure of empathy.
Penny Siopis’s 'Time and Again', despite navigating many possible permutations of pain, never suffers from a lack of empathy. At the heart of the artist’s rich and extensive oeuvre, a human (and humane) engagement with trauma can be found.