Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title


Penny Siopis needs no introduction. Yet, paradoxically, the Goodman Gallery’s monograph, Penny Siopis, disappoints from the outset because the brief and rather anecdotal introduction by the book’s editor, Kathryn Smith, does not do enough to acquaint the reader with either the assembled essays or the artist herself.The essays, by Brenda Atkinson, Jennifer Law, Sarah Nuttall, Griselda Pollock, Colin Richards and Siopis herself, as well as the interview between Siopis and Achille Mbembe, focus on particular themes or series of works, and are largely self-contained. Smith’s synopses of these essays are too laconic to orientate the reader to, or offer critical reflectionon, the sometimes complex arguments they raise. Moreover, the introduction would have benefited from a more sustained outline of the artist’s life, work and primary concerns – a biographical shortcoming by no means ameliorated by the short chronology at the back of the publication. Consequently, the book falls uncomfortably between a monograph and an anthology.The disjunctive forces that act against the essays also ravage the images, in terms of their cropping and positioning. Reproductions that cross from one folio to another are particularly annoying, but only slightly less so are those that are truncated by the edges of the page. The quality of the reproductions is often poor: some are out of focus, others are over-exposed, while still others are under-exposed. These technical insufficiencies would no doubt divestmany readers of the capacity to interact with the works in an immersive and agile manner.While it behoves one to note Smith’s rationale – “The intellectual content and design of this book intends to mirror something of Siopis’ simultaneously synoptic and specific approach” – one cannot help feeling that what the book lacks is precisely the reflexivity this strategy implies. Contributors such as Law and Nuttall both explore the fascination in many of Siopis’ works with fragmentation. It does not follow from this that a fragmented book would “mirror” or give body to the artist’s own concerns. Conversely, the dismembered character of Penny Siopis tortures rather than illuminates the compulsion in much of Siopis’ work, particularly in the recent Pinky Pinky and Shame series, toward a both critical and tantalising breakdown of the sign. Siopis aligns this breakdown with an “accumulation [that] makes nonsense of a contained symbol”.Accumulation of objects, piles or fragments have always featured in her work in one way or another, from the cakebreasts pushing their way through the “masculinity” of formalist flatness to the incomplete and chaotic “collections” comprising her installations. Yet what especially strikes one about her above words is the extent to which they invoke the allegorical mode, as adumbrated by Clive Dilnot and Maruja Garcia-Padilla: “Far from the orderly essential totality of the symbol … allegory incarnates and exemplifies an essential absence [that refuses] the idea of unity.”It is in Pinky Pinky that Siopis’ interest in partiality and seriality is most condensed and turned to an end that leaves the observer deeply moved. She describes the series as “an accretion of scenes”, and Nuttall explains that Pinky Pinky is a figure seen in parts which do not relate to each other logically. Even more significant is the conclusion she draws from this: “If … the fear instilled by Pinky Pinky is one of partial recognition … then in this absence of totality, we might allegorically read the figuration of a country in which recognition of one another is constantly only fragmentary”.Here, in arguably the finest works of Siopis’ exceptional oeuvre, iconography and representational means combine to draw us into a visceral encounter with history as myth and part-object, a history gargantuan in its obscurity, yet diminutive in its dislocated recollections and “official” stories.Penny Siopis thus does not fail to reveal the artist’s work in all its bulk and experimental awkwardness. Nor does it obfuscate the uncanny power of her latest works. However, in its lack of a more binding act of editing, it reads as something of a missed opportunity, yet not one that makes of the pile an excessive outgrowth built on the absence of symbols.Michael Herbst lectures in Art History and Visual Culture in the Department of Fine Art at Rhodes University

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