Ephemeral Encounters: Penny Siopis’s Three Essays on Shame at the Freud Museum (2005)

siopisNote: the image reproduced here is not from the 2005 exhibition, these will be published in the forthcoming text introduced here. It is: Penny Siopis, Quake, 2010, Ink and glue on canvas, 91.5 x 61 cm (Image reproduced courtesy the artist and Stevenson). 

Below is the abstract of a forthcoming publication, a book chapter titled Ephemeral Encounters: Penny Siopis’s Three Essays on Shame at the Freud Museum (2005). It was commissioned by Professor Leora Farber (University of Johannesburg) for the book Critical Addresses. The Archive-in-Process, published with the University of Johannesburg and forthcoming 2016/2017. This project was an important point of focus this year as it presented me with an opportunity to think more about my political and ethical situatedness as an art historian working on contemporary South African art and its encounter with historical events.


Using Penny Siopis’s site-specific and ephemeral encounter with the Freud Museum in Hampstead, London as a lens, I reflect on the ethics of my own subjective and situated relationship to historical knowledge and how I mobilise archival spaces, historical sources and sites of inquiry. Curated by Jennifer Law in 2005, Siopis’s exhibition, entitled Three Essays on Shame, situated objects, found materials, sound and moving image in dialogue with three rooms in the Freud Museum and the furnishings and objects within them. I engage Mark Godfrey’s (2007) essay ‘artist as historian’ to think about Siopis’s formation of an artist’s archive. The encounters Siopis stages between art and historical and archival sites are never absolutely determinable. These encounters and their ethical-political significance may remain opaque, unsignifiable and open to imaginary, affective, performative and poetic processes.

In this chapter, I stage a deliberately subjective encounter with the site of the Freud Museum and Siopis’s intervention there in 2005, considering my own proximity to histories of apartheid as a subject classified white, and the ethical questions and feelings this produces. This ethical positioning foregrounds the methodological question of how it is the scholar is constituted as a historical subject in relation to histories of apartheid and its violence (which encompasses questions related to the politics of representation itself). I draw out particular thematic and historical threads from a site that I experience through affect, sensation and emotion, which I argue is also a significant aspect of Siopis’s practice as an artist. I put forward the idea that it is through a simultaneously imaginative and critical engagement with this sphere of human experience that normative thinking and canonical knowledge formations might be disrupted and placed under scrutiny. I consider how particular historical-geographical conditions of violence related to anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and apartheid brush up against each other through Siopis’s intervention within the particular space of the Freud Museum, which in itself is weighted with particular significations, memories and affects. I argue that the relational aspect of shame suggested by the curation of Siopis’s work at the Freud Museum, and the capacity for an empathetic encounter with another, which it suggests, is where its political-ethical significance rests. I mobilise the ethics of Dominick LaCapra’s (2001) concept of “empathic unsettlement” as I foreground histories of racial violence that are historically and geographically specific, and inflected by intimate and personal experiences made public.

freudFreud’s desk in the library, Freud Museum, London (reproduced here courtesy of the Museum)

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