24.03 - 24.04.2021
“Shame is always full of holes.”
Penny Siopis made this statement during a recent Zoom discussion with art historian Griselda Pollock. The conversation revolved around Stevenson’s presentation of Siopis’s Shame (2002-2005) and Shadow Shame Again (2021) for Art Basel’s ‘online viewing rooms’. The difficulty of the phrase is what has stayed with me. Not because it makes no sense, but because its sense seems half-present. I’m still unsure if I understand it, but I do feel it speaks to the elliptical nature of certain works of art, which give only the ruins of their meanings. Some things, it seems to say, can’t be represented; things too dense or difficult to be put into words or onto canvas.
The Shame paintings were first shown in 2005 at the Freud Museum in London, responding to Freud’s seminal text, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). Shame could be seen as a single painting fractured into over a hundred fragments. The series considers the complexities of shame both the psychosexual and collective shame of a nation, as was dramatized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The later work, Shadow Shame Again, is an elegy to Tshegofatso Pule, one of the many victims of South Africa’s femicide, and recontextualizes the earlier Shame series. The film angles Siopis’s interrogation of shame onto the on-going crisis of gender-based violence, what Siopis calls, “the other pandemic”.
Blunt, unspoken words appear as subtitles: “Every time / the same / shadow shame / no witness / but me / hanged / stabbed / raped / with child[.]” The words accompany images of a child climbing a tree, a running river. Shadow Shame Again, like all elegies, wrestles with the problem of representation. Constructed from fragments—of Siopis’s own home videos and other found footage—the scenes are disjunctive and refuse a clear narrative. Rather it aims to circumscribe what is not representable. With every juxtaposition, meanings multiply. The word “spiked”, for example, inferring abduction and drugs, is paired with an image of a child-hand holding the spike of a sea urchin. Ambiguities and chance encounters of sound, image, and text form in pools of half-meanings, which then disperse as arbitrarily as they came together. The film stretches meaning out so thin, one can feel the presence of something on the other side of the music-text-image paradigm. This something, what is not said, or the holes between meanings, is what pricks us.
The Shame paintings are small, discrete and painful. Almost child-like in their simplicity. The scenes depicted on the other hand, are fragments of deep sadness, violence, rage. Degrees of red, from pink shades to dark intensities, take on a bodily associations. And this is largely due to Siopis’s process of spilling or dripping lacquer, intuitively in abstract shapes out of which she paints figures and scenes. The chemical reactions of lacquer, glue and paint turn into dried ruptures, cracks like broken skin, scars, or veins. Since the surrealists, free association and chance occurrence of this kind have been processes used to go beyond the conscious. For Siopis these methods are used to move toward the pain of others.
Though they are bodily and human-like, Siopis insists the forms in the Shame paintings are not human. They are something other that is encountered—there, where the I is estranged. Paul Celan called this ‘Gehemnis der begegung,’ the mystery of the encounter. The only direction is toward the automaton, the cyborg; to relinquish the self to chance encounter, to rethink the body as un-human. Associative leaps, a mess or mistake, becomes a baby, becomes a Pinky ghost; sperm becomes barbed-wire becomes cursive typeface; stylisation becomes a violence turned in on aesthetics itself.
One of the last paintings in the Shame series is simply a dark pool of lacquer. No figure, just a congealed red blob. On the lower side of this pool’s circumference, at its edge, in red cursive script, the words ‘I’m Sorry’ have been repeatedly stamped. They form a small web of spindly marks, almost illegible. The words spill out from the edge of this fluid concentration. Throughout the series similar stylised rubber stamps have been used. ‘Get Well Soon’ reads one, ‘Hug Me’ reads another. Phrases glib and clichéd, but Siopis’s compulsive stamping of them generates new, undefined pathos where there was only semantic litter.
A stamp saying ‘I’m Sorry’ is oxymoronic. By its very stamp-ness it implies a ready-to-hand apology, a prop in the performance of remorse. But Siopis’s compulsive repetitions eat away at this palatable, ready-made surface. The multiplying ‘I’m Sorry’s, represent the failure, not just of apology, but of meaning. In the aftermath of trauma words are reduced to shapes and webs. The language might fail, but the failure has poignancy. The spillage, pool of blood or blob becomes an embryo, a protozoa, a mouth: the painting speaks.
It is significant to note that after Shame, Siopis left figurative painting behind and moved into abstraction. The abstract works are still all violence and body, but no longer held back by the aesthetic constraints of definite signification. In the same discussion with Griselda Pollock, Siopis said that these experiences, such as rape, cannot be put into language. If painting is a language, this kind of painting conducts itself in the silences between the semantic gestures of that language.
Apparently we cannot see darkness. When there’s no light, we don’t see nothingness, we see off-cells, peripheral cells that are activated by the retina: the last vestiges of visibility. This is how I propose we should view these works on shame: as the ruins of figurative meaning. For Siopis shame is full of holes, but holes are something active: “shame is never complete, it is a process.” A trauma too difficult to be spoken, too dark to be seen, distorts and fragments meaning. These remnants, what is left to see, the paintings, the fragments of the film – this moves us. The gravity can be felt, and this feeling is perhaps the start of an apology.