As you walk through the large roll-up doors into the airy, hangar-like space of the Maitland Institute, leaving the noisy hustle of the street behind, the sensation is like plunging underwater in a massive reservoir. The scale of the room heightens one’s awareness of the physical limits of the body; its muffled echoes provide an invisible shield from the outside world. A mechanical pulley hovering close to the ceiling recalls the former industrial purpose of the building. This is the setting for Penny Siopis’s Open Form/Open Studio.
The space is filled with studio paraphernalia: massive canvases, huge tubs of cold glue, myriad tiny bottles of coloured ink. Some canvases lean against the walls; others lie on the floor. They occupy the room with their eerie, awe-inspiring presence. The artist takes full advantage of the large dimensions of her temporary studio, working on a scale that presents new challenges to the medium of glue and ink that she pioneered and has explored for more than 10 years.
With a four-month residency, the Maitland Institute — founded by Tammi Glick as a nonprofit experimental art space and a welcome addition to the established map of the Cape Town art scene — has offered Siopis more than an exploration of scale.
The artist reflects: “The project allows me to activate my painting process as a form of social engagement. Conventionally, process is a means to an end product and is associated with the painter’s mastering hand working its magic in the hermetic space of the studio. Revealing process in this scenario threatens to unmask mystique, exposing doubt and vulnerability.
Working with glue offers something outside this convention — glue becomes its own force with a strong hand in the making of the work, encapsulating its own mystery.”
She says that to open the studio to visitors is to expose an already open process and encourage everyone to participate in the project. “By paying particular attention to the medium’s physical capacity for transformation, people can imagine other active presences in the world that can help dissolve the binaries constraining human potential for change. The glue is opaque, slowly becoming transparent as it comes into contact with the air,” Siopis says.
“It is impossible to predict how it will transform. One must submit and paint blind, work on the floor and be immersed in substance, let gravity pull things into shape. Later, you can shift to a vertical perspective and see how certain forms are emerging to look like images. We all see differently. To open one’s self to the ‘life’ of nonhuman matter and to find in this openness an intimate model for relationality in the bigger political picture of the self, of the social body, of ecology; a model that is full of risk and uncertainty — that is what ‘open form/open studio’ means to me.”
Siopis’s relationship with her medium is not limited to experimentation or the focus on the unpredictable, however drawn she may be to the formal manifestations of the glue and ink and their coming together on the canvas in response to her own contingent and seemingly effortless orchestration.
Her explorations can be perceived within a wider complex of current philosophical theories that propose the capacity of all matter, whether human or “inanimate”, to act, interact and cause action in others. What she is opening up — literally in the public workshops and materially in her process — is a dialogue about all matter.
She recognises all the acting forces in her work and situates herself as just one among them, forming networks of relationships that, through a ripple-like effect, are capable of bringing about open-ended change within wider webs or “assemblages”, as they are referred to by many contemporary critical theorists.
Importantly for Siopis, the forces involved are not confined to her gestures interacting with the medium but include the effects of gravity and air, as well as the physical attributes of the support frame.
Siopis relishes the sharing of agency in the making of the work between herself and her medium, and it is in this spirit that her residency at the Maitland Institute was conceived. The Open Form component of the project is about making boundaries porous, unsettling conventional notions of the artist and artwork.
It places emphasis on co-authoring and mutual vulnerability between artist and object to allow a new kind of relating to take place. Open Studio does the same. It is relevant not only for the studio but also for thinking about a different model of social interaction beyond its walls.
Throughout her career, Siopis has consciously pursued the educational potential of art practice beyond the established academic structures and limitations of access.
The question we are asked is: What happens when perceived truths are discarded in favour of uncertainty? Is there hope that one’s vulnerability can open the space for a connection with others that is not shaped by violence?
The desire for subversion and the opening of oneself to the unknown and unpredictable extends to the relationship between the artist and her audience. The Maitland Institute project’s exciting potential lies in its ability to bring new, experimental energies into the city’s art spaces.
Using this experimental framework, Siopis does not simply provide a glimpse into her own private space or her process; she turns the studio and her practice inside out, offering the public a chance to witness and discuss what happens as the paintings evolve. She invites the audience to be an active presence through informal exchanges, participation in demonstrations and a series of dynamic public talks.
The latter have followed various models, from a typical “artist and critic in conversation” to participatory open dialogues led alternately by the audience, the artist or invited guest contributors. Workshops for schoolchildren and students from tertiary institutions, as well as members of cultural associations, have also been held, and have been described as enormously stimulating. The collaborative nature of the medium has been brought to the fore throughout these engagements.
In manifesting this openness, dispelling mystique and leaving room for scrutiny, Siopis exercises another of the key concerns of her practice — exploring the poetics and generative power of vulnerability. The viewers are seen as participants in the work in varied ways, not least through their own active viewing and their projections of form on to the “formless matter” of glue and ink, especially once the canvases assume their vertical positions against the walls.
By recognising the aliveness of the medium, exposing the fluidity and contingency of the artist’s process and acknowledging the life-giving potential of the viewers’ engagement, Siopis has created a space for a different kind of relating in a world that is plagued by structural inequality, violence and closely guarded borders, physical and social.
Her project manifests an approach to knowledge production that recognises, on equal terms, different knowledge systems that are not constrained by the hierarchies and binaries typical of Eurocentric models. In doing this, Siopis creates the possibility of a future with different relationships — unpredictable, fluid and unbounded by preconceived ideas.
Penny Siopis’s paintings created during the four-month Open Form/Open Studio residency will be on view at the Maitland Institute in Cape Town on August 12, along with documentation of their making. Email [email protected] for more details.
Olga Speakes is a freelance curator and art historian with a particular interest in modern and contemporary art. Originally from Russia, she studied and worked in the UK and South Africa, currently completing her master’s degree in art historical studies at the Michaelis school of fine art at UCT. Her last project, Women’s Work exhibition that she co-curated with Ernestine White, has just completed its run at the Iziko South African National Gallery