Penny Siopis’ ‘This is a true story: Six Films (1997-2017)’ on show at the Zeitz MOCAA Center for the Moving Image does an interesting thing. Her films mess around with traditional methods of filmmaking —Super 8, 16mm— but open up another dimension, that of history.
Siopis uses the off-cut, overexposed, bleached or damaged material from the rolls and rolls of film that she has either found or bought, the footage that formally trained filmmakers would discard. These pieces of ready-made footage open up a space of abstraction in her narratives allowing new symbolic meaning to adhere.
Last year I saw her live painting performance at the Maitland Institute. She got up, neatly dressed in her stylish black outfit and embodied her medium. She began by pouring paint and glue onto the canvas and then lifted the edges of the meters by meters long frame dripping and swirling the paint and glue around the surface. In grappling with that abstraction, entranced by the half-images emerging from this process, I, as the viewer, became implicit in the conversation.
The mark she was making was a simple pool of red, dripped directly onto the white surface. It was beautiful. However once it started to dilute, overflow and move around the primed surface of the canvas it began to look like the trace of a violent attack. Mixing with the white cold glue, the red paint took on an orange mercurochrome tinge – I could almost taste it. The work triggered memories of violence I had experienced and witnessed. I felt uneasy.
Siopis’ paintings demonstrated to me how the medium could take on dual meaning, both material and referent, and perform beyond the surface by visually tapping into the experience of the viewer. The conversation she opens up is about the potential depth that can occur on a visual, material, philosophical and political level by implicating the viewer in the narrative. In her films, this dual meaning is also opened up, but the scope shifts to the politics of memory and nostalgia.
In her first film My Lovely Day (1997), she presents the personal narrative of her grandmother, an immigrant to South Africa from Greece. The grandmother, who filmed the Super 8 footage, is given a voice via subtitles. Siopis manages the text, music and found footage in a way that invokes a conversation between herself and her grandmother in absentia.
While sitting in the intimate round dark capsule in the museum looking up at the digital projection of bright colourful footage, traditional Greek music I started to internalize the voice the grandmother. And it is through the voice in the head that one starts to embody the narrative, project personal experience and become implicit in the story and by extension in history.
The aesthetic effect of working with super 8 and 16 mm footage in a digital era points to both nostalgia and to obsolete technology giving Siopis a space to interrogate the complexity of the past and the present simultaneously. There is a beautiful moment where the faces of the children, playing in the garden, are so bleached out that their features are lost. These moments become both a seductive as well devastating invocation of memory and the loss thereof.
Here the work evokes her painting process. On a surface level the work triggers a feeling of familiarity and nostalgia in me as I too have super 8 archives of family footage. However, I cannot shake the feeling of how problematic that nostalgic feeling is coming from the past that I do in South Africa. The bleached out features of the characters disrupt the archive and become what Roland Barthes called a punctum; they become a indicator of fragility, loss and anonymity.
In the more recent films, Siopis moves away from personal narrative and works with appropriated stories and footage. In doing so she becomes a mediator, telling complex historical stories, which tap into universal issues of belonging, identity, displacement and consciousness around memory and history.
In Obscure White Messenger (2010) the character states: ‘I am a man without a country, a ghost lost without an identity.’ The story, based on snippets from the life of Demitrios Tsafendas, speaks about a man living in Mozambique who is not seen as African nor as a European citizen and the madness brought on by being in exile and living without identity. By using frenetic and jumpy footage with movement and flickers she metaphorically illustrates a seizure, and the violence and the slippage between what is real and what is imagined, what is projected and what is our own.
He speaks, through her text, about a tapeworm he had as a child, which is indicated by Siopis’ use of found footage of an octopus. The cut of the octopus is long enough for the movement of the tentacles to become uncomfortable and for the image to move into abstraction, evoking images of the central nervous system on a cellular level.
In The New Parthenon (2016) there is a reference to ‘Freedom, which is now a car park.’ Freedom is a metaphor, here, a device used by Siopis to show how layered yet how repetitive history is. By emulating Greek Tragedy in a contemporary context she points out the fragility of the existence of the individual and the ‘poetics of vulnerability’ between the personal, the public and the body politic. Watching this film move between the layers of Greek history one cannot get away from the contemporary issues of refugees currently navigating the Mediterranean grappling with displacement, survival, belonging and identity.
I had been through an emotional roller coaster: internalizing the voices of an immigrant, a killer, a madman, a nun who was killed by a mob and set alight, and a displaced man. I was taken aback by how much empathy and grief I felt. Siopis’ films, through the play between material and narrative, transport the viewer into the shoes of the protagonist or antagonist. This strange empathy makes me feel complicit in a complex world history.