Penny Siopis

In Feral Fables you make reference to stories about 'marginal people'. Who are these people, and what attracted you to them?

The stories I draw on feature "wild people" - people whose identities somehow challenge our humanity. I'm interested in how such characters tell us something about ourselves. We need their wildness to confirm our domestication. We fear them because they embody a state of being into which we might "fall" under extreme circumstances - we might "lose our heads", our language, decorum, civilisation. But we desire them because they also represent a kind of "basic instinct" and freedom in their wildness.

There are two types of stories. The first is of feral children - children raised by wild animals or living in extreme isolation in cities - which I explore through the prism of the recent case of the Cambodian girl who emerged from the jungle, having disappeared in 1989. The second encapsulates characters such as Julia Pastrana, the extremely hairy woman with an overdeveloped ape-like jaw who was exhibited all over the world in the 1850s. Both stories mix categories we feel compelled to keep distinct - human/animal, man/woman, child/adult They evoke a state of liminality. They also open up associations with other images of extreme situations - including contemporary media accounts of trauma - where consciousness appears to detach from the body.

The stories are triggers for me to explore what it means to be human in wider terms. I don't intend my explorations to be interrogations of the narratives themselves; rather, I want to use the stories to picture the feelings they evoke. Many have an 'imaginary' look - like images we might remember from childhood.

In materialising the images you have combined transparent washes of colour with a more tangible substance, glue. Are you setting up a tension between the physical and the ephemeral?

For me the ephemeral can only be accessed through the physical. I want the works to look bodily. In this I try to allow for as much congealing as possible of the viscous glue and the liquid ink stain. I'd like the works to look like emotion made flesh, if that is possible. The glue forms a "skin" over the image, making it look veiled. For me, this effect evokes a caul - the membrane some babies have over their faces when they are born - and reminds me of my grandmother telling me about her sister, who was born with a caul and could thus "see things". I try in most works to show the glue-skin as both shaping the image-icon and in the process of detaching from it. I want the image to seem on the verge of collapse because the stuff it's made of is on edge, about to lose control, slip off the page. I'd like materiality and representation to be at odds here.

The process of working is a mix of directedness and chance. There is a tension between form and formlessness suggesting an image in the process of becoming. This - and the idea of chance in working the medium - reflects the concept of some liminal state of human consciousness as much as the iconography does.


2007 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.