‘Is it this?’ Essay by Alice Tappendem

In 2021, Alice and I started talking about the work I was making. She visited my studio while the works were still in process, still deciding who they were. She wrote this piece to accompany my exhibition at Orex, Auckland.

Is it this?

Alice Tappenden

Gold curtains frame the studio doorway. Pulling them aside, I step through and sit down on the faded red carpet. Particles of glitter and worms of thread start working their way into my tights, little hitchhikers for the ride home. Siân is mid-making and there is stuff everywhere: ribbons, sequins, balls of wool, paint-splattered shoes, oil pastels, fabric scraps, notes to self tacked to the wall. It’s grey outside, and Siân makes us tea. The radiant heater warms a spot on my legs, and we start talking about what she has made.

It was over a year ago that I first tried writing about Siân’s work, after seeing her exhibition I’m glad you’re here, just the way you are at Toi Pōneke Gallery in Wellington. It opened shortly after lockdown, and I think I was as glad to be there as Siân was to have me. In the year prior I’d had a baby and had somewhat extricated myself from the art world. When I had managed to make it to a gallery, so much of the work I saw left me cold. It all seemed too dry and intellectual, requiring me to read wall labels that my brain didn’t have the space for. But at Siân’s show I felt safe; warm; protected. There, my thoughts weren’t important, but my feelings were. 

Over the next few weeks I sat at the computer for five-minute increments in between breastfeeding and nappy changing and wrangling forbidden objects out of little hands. I tried to find words that seemed worthy, but they didn’t come. Instead I would rewrite disjointed sentences like that orange looks like the mandarins I threw up in labour and I know my interest in her work is bodily. The document was a response of sorts, but it didn’t make much sense. Reluctantly I told Siân that I didn’t have the headspace right now, but to let me know if she was doing anything in the future. 

Open body sailing, silk, canvas, leather, rope, knitting, wool,
thread, wood, paint, 2022

“I was trying to make rocks” reads the note on the wall next to an early version of I used to be a rock. Once a tight ball of thread, it is a rock no longer. Its hard shell, a dense skin of wool and glue, has been ripped apart and turned inside out. Siân tells me that today she feels in her body. Last night she went to a Medieval Armoured Combat class, where women taught her how to breakfall. She’d been feeling drifty, but today she is present again, loosened up. When bodies and art get too tight, sometimes the best thing is to stretch out, to create space, to rework. Everything here was once something else.

I used to be a rock thread wool
wood paint fabric 450 x 300 x
250mm 2021

After the studio visit, I go home and download Siân’s MFA thesis. In it she suggests we should begin by making an action. What actions do I have available to me within the confines of a google doc? I play around with inserting drawings; “curved connectors” and just “curves.” Sometimes when I press save the drawings appear in the document, at others they disappear into the ether. Reading another chapter, I wonder about cutting up words. Cut ups are for everyone. Could my ramblings be made into little thoughts? Poems, even? I have never considered myself a poetic writer, but I print off thirty pages of notes on the work machine, at a cost of $1.64. They languish in my bag, abandoned for the next fortnight. Eventually they will be repurposed as drawing paper for my toddler, a place for him to scribble constellations with crayons and coloured pencils. Allow diversions, Siân says, the editing will come later.

Stoke and balance, pastel,
watercolour pencil, oil pastel,
charcoal, 380 x 520mm, framed

What happens in Siân’s studio is for her, and her alone. In this cave she mines experiences. Making can be a battle. She tries to make it easier; she has recently allowed herself to use a sewing machine rather than labouring for hours by hand. She needs to trust the process; that what she needs will come; that the works will reveal themselves as what they want to be. What you see here is what she has brought back for us. But she cannot tell us how to feel or what to think: Siân’s call is to bring yourself. What is it, you wonder. Is it this? The only answer can be yes. 

Unstretched but strong, silk, canvas, wool, thread,
wood, paint, 2022

I take some time off. There are endless colds, migraines, gastro. A trip to Hamilton. The works are still there, I tell myself.

Siân has come to accept what she can make. In the past she has tried to make things that are less. But she can’t. If you hate them, she says, well that’s as good as loving. 

It is this soft, if we let it be, pastel
and watercolour pencil on 650gsm
watercolour paper, 560 x 760mm,

By the time I come back, things have changed again. The works have started to figure out what they want to be. They swoop and slump and dribble and tangle. They are explosions, they are chaos at the edge of control, they are witches wands, they are body armour, they are a queer cry, they are a rallying call. They have transformed, grown, reshaped. Siân has nurtured them into being. Perhaps there is power in waiting; in focusing elsewhere for a while; in nurturing our relationships and our bodies. Sometimes we aren’t here and we can’t, sometimes we are here and we can. 

cluster, wool wood paint fabric 450
x 300 x 250mm 2021

Little khaki strings hang on the floor. Soft can be strong. The essay will be finished on my iPhone, sitting next to a sick toddler on the couch. Once he is in bed, I will pick glitter from my tights, and send the little hitchhikers onto their next destination. 

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