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Penny Slinger: Exorcisms
Penny Slinger and Jaleh Mansoor

In October 2020, Fillip presented Penny Slinger: Exorcisms in partnership with the Cinematheque: a virtual screening series focussing on the film work of English artist Penny Slinger. The series culminated with a live-streamed conversation between Penny Slinger and art historian Jaleh Mansoor, on October 24, 2020. The following is a transcript of that conversation.

Jaleh Mansoor – First off, I can’t emphasize enough what a tremendous honour and pleasure it is to have been asked to be in conversation with you, Penny. And I’d also like to acknowledge that this conversation is taking place over the airwaves, situated in unceded Coast Salish territories.

My first question: I’m really interested in this term “exorcism,” which is the title of the series at the Cinematheque, and it’s drawn from a very important book of photocollage that you published in the mid- to late-seventies entitled An Exorcism. Even though this term has been sort of sidelined into the zone of popular culture and horror films and something we associate with Hallowe’en, you seem to be suggesting something else, something much more fundamental. I’d love if you would talk a little bit about that term, but perhaps one way of framing it in a more rigorous art-historical purview would be to ask why you chose photocollage specifically as a way to explore this notion; why that medium is most conducive, and what it is that is being summoned. What is the meat of the matter in the operation of an exorcism?

Penny Slinger – Okay, there’s a lot in that – a meaty question. I will start with saying how I got into collage. How I discovered collage really, was – although I made collage as a child when I was in bed and just cutting up magazines – I really didn’t think it was something that was much more than putting bits of coloured paper together and creating a new image. When I was studying art history, trying to decide what I wanted to do with my thesis, I came across the collage books of Max Ernst. I hadn’t been aware of them before. In England at that time, there wasn’t an awful lot of consciousness of surrealism. So, this was really nothing short of a revelation for me because I’m looking at these collages and I’m saying, “Oh, my goodness, you don’t have to see where they’re stuck together.” He’s actually created these new worlds. And they were worlds of myth and fantasy, really tapping into – as any good surrealist would – the subconscious and the unconscious layers. So I thought, this is an incredible tool for exploration. I’d always been – since I was little really, I guess – interested in self exploration, trying to know myself: who am I and what makes me tick? So I thought, this collage technique is absolutely wonderful for probing the psyche. In particular, I felt, for me not only paying homage to Ernst in the work that I did for my thesis – I wrote about him, I made a little film about the work, all of this – but I also made my own project, because I thought, “there’s nothing that’s more of a token of respect than to show how that inspiration has influenced you.” I always hope that my work will help other people be able to manifest their dreams.

So, I made my first book of photocollages called 50% The Visible Woman. Whereas Max Ernst had chosen the old engravings to work with, I thought I would use photocollage. I didn’t want to do more of the same, I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t have a lot of awareness about photocollage. Of course, with John Heartfield, we have things that have come before, but for me, it felt like a very fresh medium at a time. And it also allowed me to do what I felt was an important thing to do. Looking at the history of art, I saw so much of the feminine as the “muse,” and particularly, the naked feminine. But generally, this woman was portrayed through the eyes of a man artist. I thought, “there’s a big opening here for us to look at ourselves.” So, I chose at that time to use myself as my own muse, and then use these tools of surrealism to probe my own psyche and subconscious. I was studying Jung at the time, and I did believe – as Jung does – that if you dig enough into the personal, you come up with things which are universal and which are keys for all of us. So, as I got into working a few years later on An Exorcism – which was a long process, it took me about seven years altogether to create this series – it was, in fact, for me at that time, truly an exorcism. I was looking at who am I and what I’ve inherited from my society, what I have projected onto me by people I know, particularly my partner or partners, and what’s me. How do you separate those things? How do you, in fact, exorcise yourself of those things which you don’t want to own, because they’re not really yours, they’re some kind of other overlay? Also, I wanted to release myself from bad experiences. We’ve all had, in our childhoods, traumas of one kind or another. I felt that in doing this work, which was my own psychological probing, a kind of heroine’s journey very much in a Jungian kind of framework and feel-about the alchemy of the self, how we can refine the nature of the self through self-alchemy.

This book was my way of trying to heal myself from the break-up of my primary relationship with a man and the break-up with the women that I’d been working with in a women’s theatre group. I was left feeling fractured and fragmented with both my male and female sides in disarray. So, this is why I undertook the work, to try and find out: who am I? And how do I leave all these ghosts and shadows behind and be reborn into my true self where I can own all these parts, but not be bogged down and restricted by them?

Jaleh – It’s fascinating to me that what you’re describing is a process of self-discovery and a journey outward that entails a journey inward. And that photocollage would have been the proper medium to engage in this: almost a kind of bildungsroman of where you’ve come from and what you’ve discovered. And yet it’s almost diametrically opposed to that kind of high romantic journey outward, because you’re folding inward at every turn, which is suggested beautifully in many of the titles of your work with various collaborators. So, the title of the film that you worked on with Jane Arden, The Other Side Of The Underneath – it seems to me that film and collage are very specifically suited to afford you that kind of journey outward that is a fold and a journey inward.

But that leads me to my next question: as you know very well, the entire history of modern art could be understood as a negotiation between the creator and his object, the artist and his model. Since Manet’s Olympia, that kind of relationship has been key. It struck me immediately – what you said earlier, and also what you mentioned in the documentary about your work, Penny Slinger: Out Of The Shadows – that you knew early on that you wanted to be your own muse. That’s fascinating on so many levels as a sort of Feminist statement, but also, as a kind of formal operation, that you’re closing the gap between Lee Miller and Man Ray or Picasso and Dora Maar. That’s riveting. Could you maybe say more about that, and also what some of the discontents of that are, what some of the difficulties of that might be?

Penny – Well, I thought that there are many reasons, as I said, that first one being that there was a gap in what we call art that didn’t go into that place. I thought, too, who is more suited to actually present yourself than you, yourself? As I think Frida Kahlo once said so astutely when asked, “Why do you paint yourself so much?” she said, “Well, I’m the person I know best.” And I think this is really true. Also, from a kind of spiritual point of view, the first tenet really is, who am I? Where am I going? Where do I come from? So it’s been a lifelong endeavour to find out who I am. I think the more you can look within, the more you find things that are so much more expansive than just what’s limited to what’s inside yourself, because it depends on how big you think the self is. I happen to think that the self is pretty infinite and that we have many selves. And once we get beyond the limitations of both how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves, then we can start to explore all this virgin territory. I thought that it was absolutely an obligation, if you like, to really try and use the art to show not just skin surface, but what’s going on inside. That’s why I was particularly drawn to surrealism, because I thought, these are the kind of tools and techniques which will allow you to look within. We’re not just looking at how this woman looks, but trying to present how she feels.

As in this present time that we’re in, it felt so important to try to bring the feminine forth – and not just for women, but for men, too. This has been a neglected area in our psyches; the feminine has been disallowed in so many ways, to the huge detriment of men and women alike. So I thought, let’s try and describe this, and in a no-holds-barred kind of way. To actually do it in an opposite way from Narcissus: not to be falling in love with your own reflection, because – this was another reason I wanted to use myself – I could be much more brutal and take many more liabilities with my own image than I would feel entitled to with anyone else. When I have worked with other people and other models, which I’ve done a lot, I like to feel that I’ve never asked anyone to do anything that I’m not prepared to do myself and, in fact, I have generally gone there myself first. It narrows that distance; it’s more like we’re looking in the looking glass – the magic looking glass – the reflections of ourselves that work both ways. There’s no gaze at the other. You’re looking at part of yourself in that kind of reflection, as all people that we meet are reflections of our grander selves. So those are some of the reasons why I’ve done that.

And yeah, there are the restrictions, which probably I had earlier on, of how do I get the photos of myself and get someone else to take them for me, but with me directing what I want? These days now, of course, with the technology and all the selfies, you don’t have that as a hindrance anymore. Though I do find that, maybe as we’ve entered into this world now, there is a little bit of an inclination towards that narcissistic intoxication with image, rather than using image to go beyond image, which is what I’ve always been so fascinated by. What are the personas that we wear? What does the mask reveal about the inner self? That’s always been, to me, the most important thing: to look deeply, and beneath the surface.

Jaleh – Yes, that’s very important. It seems that your body of work pivots on these very subtle, almost interstitial distinctions and differentiations. So, what you said about narcissism – I’m sure that that has come up; I’m sure that you have been accused of that, either casually or in critical literature, because it’s almost too easy for the critic to rely on that as a way to trivialize or diminish your project. Narcissism is foundational to the development of a self within our society, but it’s frequently used to describe a woman’s relationship to herself. So, once again, patriarchy is able to snatch this piece of language that is descriptive of human development and make it a kind of problem of the disenfranchised; of women. I take it that that is what is being exorcised?

Penny – Yes, that’s part of it, too. Luckily, I don’t think I’ve had too much of that label applied to me because I’ve been so ruthless with the image and put together things that were not just to do with looking pretty. Even at a time when I put myself in men’s magazines deliberately, naked, I wanted people to come expecting one thing, but then get something else when they read what I had to say. I tried to always undermine those preconceptions that they might have had about what is pretty, and let them know that I was very much my own subject, and not anyone else’s object.

Putting yourself in two places at once that way is an interesting exercise in itself. It’s like a discipline. It allows you to be able to look at yourself in a more objectified way. But it’s not someone else’s object, it’s your own object, you’re creating your own – dressing up your own dolly as yourself. So that’s a very different thing, because I think we have to have room to play with our own self-image and to be, again, expansive and to do what we like with it. We can be all kinds of different beings. Why settle for just being one facet of ourselves when we can explore the multiplicity of our wider, grander self? So that’s what I’ve done: shown myself in all kinds of different ways as a choice.

Jaleh – Yes, I just I find that utterly fascinating: through the kind of excess of a trope, you turn the trope around on itself and you gain a kind of mastery over it, which I suppose returns to the word “exorcism,” which I just am very compelled by. There is an important question from someone who’s listening to this conversation, which is [on] the notion of glue. She says, “Glue fascinates me. It holds the whole shebang together. I’m curious, too, about what has held you together over time, enabling you to create works now as vital as those of your younger self?”

Penny – Well, that’s a very nice question. When I was at art school, I remember one of the staff members said, “Penny wants to have a glue that will stick anything to anything.” That did sum it up! Especially at that time, when the departments were much more separated than they are these days – we have a much more interdisciplinary approach to art making now, but at that time, if you were in photography, it’s photography, and if you were in sculpture, it’s sculpture – I just always wanted to mix all of them together. I guess it’s that – and an unwavering curiosity, which I’ve had all my life, which makes me feel that there’s infinite aspects to explore. Certainly in the art realm there’s so much creative material. I’ve always been blessed with having lots of inspiration. I’m never short of that, it’s just a matter of time to manifest all the things that I’m actually inspired to do. And the means: if I had much grander means, I could manifest things on the level that I really see. I feel almost everything I do is a compromise. But I try to do my best within what I have at my disposal, to at least touch the hem of the skirt of this glorious being called art that I’m seeing and trying to work with. The muses have always been very kind to me. It’s an ongoing relationship.

One of the one of the reasons I chose fine art was so that I would never have to retire. I always thought, retirement’s no good. But of course, retirement is good if you’re doing something you don’t like all your life and then you retire and do something you love. But I thought I’d much rather do something I’m passionate about my whole life. I think when you find that, you have boundless energy, because if you’re loving what you’re doing, you can never have enough of it, you’re just doing it ‘til you drop. I hope to be creating art of one form or another right until my last breath, because that’s when I feel best. I’m absolutely in love with my art. I think that’s the glue that’s held me together and this passionate engagement. I could never feel lonely and never feel deprived because I always have my art to work with, no matter what happens in the drama of relationship. Because there’s always drama with relationship, and relationship is super important: that’s how we connect and that’s another kind of glue that we can’t live without; that ongoing dynamic with the environment around us, with the people around us, all of that. My relationship with my art has been a big “glue” for me.

Jaleh – Your fidelity to your own creativity has been the glue binding all of your work together. A question that someone has is, “How does this affect your relationship to the film itself? Is an artwork or a film, a neutral receptacle? Or are you transformed in this process by using yourself as a muse?” I think the question is, “Is this a vehicle for transformation, or is the artwork in the film a receptacle of a transformation that has happened?”

Penny – I guess it’s a mixture of the two, really. I believe in the transformative arts. That’s what I’m dedicated to and I think that all the art that I’m engaged with, what I believe to be meaningful art, is that which has the ability to transform, like an alchemist. As I was saying earlier, it’s a kind of refinement process. With each thing that you do, there is a part of you that transforms with it. I also see the medium that I’m using as being that receptacle which will hold the evidence of that transformation, so that it is transferable and speaking in a language that others can comprehend, so that my personal transformation doesn’t remain my own. It can be made use of by anyone else, because we all have to deal with things in our lives that are hard. I’ve tried to look those things straight in the eye, not hide them away and put them under the carpet, but bring them out; the skeletons out of the cupboard, into the light of day. By confronting them, I feel that you’re able to have power over them, rather than they over you. I think that’s a big step. So many people live in fear of loss of one kind or another.

An Exorcism dealt a lot with feelings of loss and trying to paint pictures of what loss feels like, not so you’d wallow in that loss, but so that you’d face it, claim it, know it, and then find a way through it. That’s the transformational aspect. I think that always comes from what you have inside, and those tools you can develop in your own psyche. The transformational arts are ones which both exhibit that for the transformation of all, and are the record and recorder of your own transformation. They interact with you in an alchemical way, in which there’s a bio-feedback loop between you and the actual process of making the art.

Jaleh – So “exorcisms” and “an exorcism” are both articulated as nouns, but I very much have the impression, from looking at your practice over time, that this is a verb; this is an ongoing process and a vital operation that is never fully drawn to a close. I also noted from the documentary about your work that this process of an exorcism, or this process of transformation, certainly was very transformative for your community as well. It’s not a strictly personal process, it’s a collective process. I noted that there’s mention that, in the reception of the film The Other Side Of The Underneath – your work with Jane Arden – it created quite a ripple effect in your community. It generated quite a bit of volatility. So that isn’t really a question, I suppose I’m just noticing that this act of self-transformation comes to be a collective process in many ways. There’s another question here: “I wanted to know how well artists in the late sixties and early seventies knew, or were aware of, each other, [like] those big intellectual circles in Paris or Berlin between the wars.”

Penny – In a lot of ways, I felt – in terms of other women artists working in the media that I was working with – I did feel quite on my own. There wasn’t a lot of cross-fertilization from overseas at that point. As I went on and travelled more and was in New York, I started to connect with other people. Then, later in my life, I found out about other women who were working in some parallel ways at the same time in different parts of the world. But at the time, I didn’t really know. I remember I felt a little upset that I wasn’t alive at the time of the heyday of surrealism, because I wanted to have that interaction and that way of being able to work with other artists, and the exchange, and play exquisite corpse games, and do all that. So that’s really one of the reasons I jumped on the opportunity to be part of the women’s theatre group. I wanted not to be isolated and alone; I wanted both to be able to share the creative process and to step beyond my own ego limitations, because I looked at the world of fine art and saw there was a lot of ego in there. It didn’t seem to me that that was pushing the boundaries far enough. So, I wanted to have the experience of throwing all my creativity into this melting pot with other people and seeing what we could co-create together. Especially, the women’s theatre group that we formed before we made the film really provided that. We did a lot of digging into our psyches collectively, with Jane holding that space, holding that container. That was very instructive, very useful, and quite harrowing at times. But it was great because we were able to put what we found into the creative expression of the theatre piece. So that, to me, is always a saving grace; if you’re having these experiences, that’s one thing, but if you can then find a way to consolidate and communicate them through the art, that makes it much more meaningful and appropriate to be shared.

When we went into the film, the process wasn’t really quite the same. And that became more challenging for a lot of people involved. It became more about telling Jane’s own story than everybody having the platform to tell their own piece of the puzzle. So, it was a little bit of a different experience.

Jaleh – The women’s theatre group that you’re mentioning was entitled Holocaust, is that right?

Penny – Yes.

Jaleh – Okay. I have another question here. “Could you could you talk a little bit about Lilford Hall? I’m interested in the piece’s relationship to psychotherapy and the empty house as a metaphor. Is there a relationship between the setting of the house and the ideas of women and domesticity?”

Penny – Oh, well, yes. I found that house because Peter Whitehead, the filmmaker, my partner – when we just came together, we were wanting to do a project together. Peter had stayed in this old mansion house up in Northamptonshire when he was a student at university. So, he said, “Let’s go and look for it.” So, we went on this magical mystery tour looking for the place, and we found it. Then we managed to get permission from the owner to go in there and stay for a couple of days and do some filming, and we made the film. That was going to be the seed of a bigger film piece that we were going to do, but it never grew into the next stage. But we did take all the photographs of the empty rooms, and that became the basis for An Exorcism, which I worked on for the years after, after Peter and I had broken up. I still worked on all these pieces because I was trying to unravel this psychological situation that I was in.

The house itself was so evocative, it was so magical, because it was derelict and yet it was this amazing creation, this seat of power. Yet now, being empty, it felt so evocative. It contained so many spirits and had so much potential for this exorcism journey, because we could look not only at the domesticity side of it, but also just the idea of the haunted house, too. Trying to approach the idea that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” – it was this idea that I had immediately, that you could take every room, every space within this place as being an aspect of the psyche, and use them as a stage-set to present those things. So, you’re going through and exploring all these different rooms within the self. I really did see it in that way, removing it from a more domestic view. In fact, I went back to visit last year; it was fifty years on. I went back and visited, and I found some of the places still derelict, and some had been restored and people were living there. But I liked best the derelict empty rooms, not the ones that were more civilized, because the empty spaces allow one to project any kind of dream-landscape into them. They weren’t confined then by that domestic application. That’s what I found exciting, thrilling, and eerie. And yes, as I say, evocative.

Jaleh – If I’m not mistaken, a lot of the material that you gathered together for Lilford Hall was also used later in An Exorcism?

Penny – Yes, exactly.

Jaleh – Just briefly, back to the women’s theatre group and the question of whether artists were aware of each other’s work or were exposed or had access to one another: it’s really interesting to me that you mentioned having felt isolated, and your need to elaborate your own community. I suppose artists need to feel that way to some degree. What I noted in the documentary is how embraced you were by the first generation of surrealists. It seems that Roland Penrose, especially, really doted on you; really found the surrealist project to the historical avant-garde alive and well and burning in your practice, and really wanted to go out of his way to make sure that your work would be highlighted. So, the question there might be, even if artists have access to one another across generations and across gaps or across geopolitics, there seems to be something almost necessary to feeling alone and isolated and sort of misunderstood for you to be able to make work.

Penny – Well, I don’t know about that; I’ve been at war with the myth that an artist has to be struggling in a garret and not have any funds in order to come up with good work. I think this is nonsense, because, as I know, anytime I have wind in my sails and support, that allows me to have the means to express, and the time, because it’s very difficult to be an artist. You have this paradox, that to hope to succeed, you have to give it your full and absolute time and attention on every level of what it is to be an artist, and to put your work out there. Yet so few artists are able to actually survive from just doing their art. So, it’s a conundrum; it’s an almost impossible situation. You have to be so committed to weather all those storms.

Getting back to Roland Penrose: I was so fortunate to meet Roland. I met him when I was researching for the Max Ernst thesis and a friend of mine told me, “Oh, you should meet Roland Penrose. He knows more about surrealism than just about anyone else in England, and he’s friends with all the big artists.” Roland took me to meet Max Ernst in Paris. That was super wonderful. When he came to my diploma exhibition where I was showing the work that I’d be doing at Chelsea, and when he saw what I did, he said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you made these things, too.” He immediately got me into the exhibition about where surrealism was at, Young and Fantastic, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, where he was president at the time. He was such an amazing man and a real patron to me for many years, in the true sense of the word “patron.” That was a gift that I was so, so grateful to have in my life.

I did know a few artists, and when Carolee Schneemann was over from America and in England, we hung out together; we were in the same circles. She was about the only other woman, though, that I knew at the time, who was expressing herself so openly through her work. Otherwise, I did know a lot of the artists who were on the scene – the Pop artists, all of the people – but they’re mainly men, and so my role models there were male artists rather than female artists.

Jaleh – It’s very interesting that you found surrealism, but to some extent, surrealism found you, which underscores the surrealist project. There’s something uncanny about that, that across time, across circumstances, you were embraced by that which you were exploring. It seems to me that that ratifies surrealism, as such – without going into too much – well, let’s go into magical thinking there. There’s something magical about that.

Penny – Absolutely.

Jaleh – Before I turn to another question from the audience, I do have one more question for you. I noticed that Laura Mulvey took a liking to your work in local press in London in the seventies. And I’m curious – I don’t think there’s any formal answer to this, I’m looking for just a sort of intuitive kind of response – do you think there is any such thing as a “female gaze?”

Penny – (laughs) Well, yes and no, I mean, what can I say? There is. I like to think of that female gaze as being the one that peels away the surfaces and looks within. Laura, though, had a good take, and an interesting take on me, because I wasn’t really accepted with the feminist movement, as such. It was much more political at that time, looking to get the same kind of rights as men, and powers as men, and I was more interested in bringing up all these feminine qualities that have been so swept under the carpet; so atrophied for so long. A part of that was our sensuality, our sexuality, and the whole package. I think a lot of feminists at that time thought, “Oh, you’re not meant to be coming on with that, because that’s to do with satisfying the male gaze,” but I didn’t really see it like that. If I’m my own subject, not the object, then this is a whole different position.

What Laura saw in me was the fact that I was looking at feminine fantasy, which was not actually being explored so much by the feminists. The fact that this was something I was doing was something she recognized when she wrote about me. That has been, as I say, very important for me because, like the surrealists, the subconscious and unconscious levels have always been a rich material to dive into and they shouldn’t be neglected. I wanted to bring [forth] that underlying place where we can all join in a whole other kind of surrealist dance, which is not to do with the mundane world, but to do with the world of imagination and fantasy, which is much more limitless and much more fun to explore.

Jaleh – I recognize that that’s a very difficult question, so thank you for that lovely answer. To some extent, the gaze is what is being exorcised. That’s what you internalize, and then you peel away at it and begin to suggest that there’s something much richer than this limited gaze. It’s always an ongoing question because many psychoanalysts would try to argue that the gaze can never be gendered. But we all know from the way that we occupy the world as it is, that the gaze feels tremendously gendered. And so, your answer to that – that it’s, well – yes and no. I think my sense is that that’s perfectly apt, that that is part of what is being exorcised. And that you are opening territory for something much more interesting than this kind of limited phallic gaze.

Penny – I wanted to just say one thing, though, before moving on and forgetting it, about the gaze: it’s a question of not just looking at, but looking in. I think that would cap it.

Jaleh – Someone would like to know how or where they can purchase copies of your collage books. I would like to know that as well.

Penny – Well, 50% The Visible Woman is basically out of print. Only one or two copies show up from time to time and they’re rather pricey. An Exorcism has only a few copies left, too. Mountain Ecstasy – I still have copies, even though British customs burned thousands of them, I still have a number of those left. And I’m hoping to get 50% The Visible Woman republished next year because it will be the fifty-year anniversary of when it was first published. I’m actively pursuing trying to find a publisher to do that. And I would also like to republish An Exorcism.

Jaleh – I do hope that An Exorcism is republished – well, I am editorializing. But I think that there’s so much happening in that work that also addresses the question of the relationship between the neo avant-garde and the avant-garde; I would love to see all of these books back in circulation.

Someone would like to know – having watched the documentary, Penny Slinger: Out Of The Shadows – a little bit about your life since then.

Penny – Yes, I know, it finishes not even at the end of the seventies – before that – because we don’t, in the film, cover my whole engagement with tantra, which became a big part for me in my life and my work. But, how much can you do in ninety minutes? Because Richard chose to go in-depth in the part that he did, well, that’s what we had: it’s a little bit like a monograph, maybe, that deals with a certain part of your life, rather than your whole life. But I tried to get the seeds planted in there that I never stopped creating art, it’s just that my context changed. I didn’t really realize until a few years ago that if I wasn’t in England any longer, doing the same things I’d been doing, that I would be out of sight, out of mind. So, I’ve been very happy to have the opportunity, since that wonderful Angels of Anarchy exhibition, back in 2009 – the first one on women surrealists in England – to come back into the fine art world and try to reclaim my position there, which I was surprised that I’d lost.

But I did decide that I wanted to extend a little beyond just the gallery format, and thought the books and publications were a good way of reaching a lot more people. As I had been exploring and discovering tantra – and tantra, not just the religion of sex, which, unfortunately – the Neotantric labels have made it a bit like that and, of course, we’re a bit responsible for it by bringing out Sexual Secrets at the end of the seventies, which dealt with sexuality from a tantric perspective. That was because I thought it was so needed: we didn’t have any context for sacred spirituality in Western religion. When I found that tantra encompassed all of that and was a way of combining your spiritual and material self in a very dynamic way – which I think is the essence of the whole divine feminine movement – that we don’t separate spirit from matter; we celebrate them all as being part of our spiritual life-walk. I was so fascinated, and wanted to share that. That’s why we brought out Sexual Secrets, and that did reach out and touch a lot of people. So that was very good.

After that, that brought me to America to work with the publisher there. I did have an exhibition in New York in 1982, a sort of mini-retrospective, but it felt to me like people weren’t that ready to understand what the work was really about. Then, when we moved to the Caribbean, where I lived for fifteen years, I had to make a choice: do I do more of the same kind of work (which I obviously can’t show here on this little island where they wouldn’t understand the context at all)? Or, shall I use my gifts to make a bridge between myself and the local culture? I chose the second. Then I found my real calling was in trying to embody, give face and form to the Arawak Indians, who are the original Indigenous people who had been there for thousands of years, and who the people on the island currently didn’t even really know about. It became important to me to try and bring them forth, especially as we were doing archaeology and I could feel the spirit of these people still connected with the land. So, a lot of my work there was in painting, drawing, and pastels – which I hadn’t been doing for a long time – but working in that medium and finding a language that could speak to everybody, not just the fine art world. I ended up making a film at the end called Visions Of The Arawaks, where I put this whole body of work together as an offering.

That allowed me to move on to the next stage of my life. I came back to the States and lived in Northern California for 23 years, and then moved to LA three years ago. At that time, in Northern California, I worked a lot with the local community of creative people. I had many events, tried to help empower, especially, the younger women, with my video studio shooting them; allowing them to be seen by me in a way which was non-intrusive because, as I say, I just saw it as mirrors of myself. I tried to disappear and allow them to bring out their full potential, and worked in all kinds of creative media during that time. Then I moved back here to LA and have been working more with the fine art world again over these last few years. But I never stop working.

Jaleh – That answers, I think, one of the next questions from the audience, which was: “Can you talk a little bit about how it’s been re-entering the art world in the last few decades? Have things changed?” You answered that already. But, I noted in the documentary that there was an encounter with a gallerist in London in the seventies that was especially off-putting for you. You encountered the misogyny of the art world. So, I’ll just tack that on to the audience’s question to ask if, in your perception, things have tangibly changed.

Penny – Well, they have changed, but they also – we’ve got a long way to go still, but there definitely is a change. I’m very happy to be able to be back in the fine art world, because I find if I’m not – I thought that I could write my own history and be part of art history from outside it. But after thirty-odd years of experience, I found that’s not really so; you have to be part of playing this game in order to be in it. I’m very grateful to be able to do that. But I’m still very sensitive to the limitations that I find within it. I can’t help, I guess, but be a boundary pusher. I feel that things need to shift. Perhaps this whole pandemic time is going to provide – one of the positives that can come out of it – is a little bit of rethinking and reprogramming about how things are. Because I still find it a little bit stagnant and static – the world that is not connected enough; I like things that are connected.

I gave an interview back in 1972 for Image Magazine and the headline was, “it’s not so much showing people my work, I prefer to give people experiences.” That, for me, is key: that it’s got to be a living art, you know; present. Also, another reason why I felt – I’m so glad my older work is getting an audience now, but I want people to know that I’m a living artist, I’m still working and I am relevant. It’s especially true for older women who are not given much of pride of place in society, I think to the great detriment of our general consciousness, that we are not maturing because of this cult of views. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to try to do something about this. Now that I’m at that time in my life, I’m actively trying to show my relevance wherever I can and I’m still frustrated about it. I would like a broader platform: anyone, give me one, I’m so ready to step up on to it. I have a lot of new work from the last three or four years that I haven’t been able to share yet. I’ve shared a portion of what I’ve been doing during the pandemic, but the pieces that I’ve done – both three-dimensional and two-dimensional – I believe are very important bodies of work. They are collectively called My Body and use my body now, at this time in my life, as my muse to confound how we generally think of that; but they are very tied in to what I was doing earlier in my life. These lines of connection are so important to me and I would love to be able to spell them out. I mean, ideally, I’d love to have a show where we could have all these rooms, and each could have a phase of my life’s work so that people could see the bigger picture and put that together.

Jaleh – The “glue” that came up at the beginning of this conversation. Thank you so much for saying that, because on my own behalf and on a collective Feminist behalf: stasis, misogyny, ageism, these are so inextricably linked, and the best way to disentangle them and to exorcise them is to jump back in, get in the fray, face it and dismantle it from within; which I think is what you’re doing. And I’m delighted. I’m so grateful for this conversation and for your work.

Someone’s asking, “By creating An Exorcism as a form of therapy for broken relationships, did that stir up more drama and connection with the people you were trying to heal from?”

Penny – Hmm, no. In fact, I was very lucky. Only now, really, have I been looking back at it and saying, “Oh, that was quite something.” There are three main protagonists in the An Exorcism book: myself, my partner Peter Whitehead, and my girlfriend Suzanka Fraey. Now, most of the photos in there were taken specifically for use in the book, for the purpose of unravelling this whole psychodrama. But a lot of those sessions were post-relationship. So, for Peter to actually believe enough in the art – which he did – to allow himself to be used as a muse by me, after being in the relationship with me, I think was a very powerful statement in itself. It showed a level of dedication to the process and to the power of what art can do, because we were no longer in that same relationship, and yet he and Su were willing to come in and portray that.
I saw Peter a little bit over the years and he was in his other relationships and things. Then, when making the film, around this time, I got to see him again. And we really had a very good healing from all the things that were still left, because when we broke up it was very painful for both of us and affected us deeply. The fact that that exorcism happened, and then the fruits of that, albeit years later, were healing fruits, is, to me, a strong tribute to the power of the art and the intention.

Jaleh – What’s interesting there, though, is that in order for that healing to take place, things had to be painful for a while; you had to move through the pain to get to that point. I think that’s really key in your work, that for us to begin to approach any kind of resolution – if such a thing exists – you first have to go through the process of metamorphosis, and this very difficult, kind of complicated alchemy that isn’t always comfortable along the way.

Penny – Right. Not at all.

Jaleh – And it’s important.

Penny – It is. I felt that we have to own everything, we can’t shy away from it. No one likes to have pain, so you try to avoid it if you can. But it’s inevitable. As Buddha said, it’s one of the Noble Truths: we have pain. When we’re in a body, we’re going to have pain. So, it’s a question then of how you deal with that. You don’t, as I said earlier, want to wallow in it, but at the same time, you need to look at it and own it if you’re going to have a chance to move through it. I’ve noted, anything that you try to not look at, and put away and pretend that it didn’t happen – I had that in a relationship I had afterwards; something happened that was very traumatic in our relationship, and we broke up and we came back together again. Then it wasn’t allowed to be talked about in the relationship. Then the same exact formula happened ten years later – I looked and I said, “Aha, you see, if you don’t deal with it, it doesn’t go away, it’s still there and it’s going to come out in another way again.”

This is why I think it’s very important to be able to own those things and not be afraid to deal with them. That’s what I’ve tried to do in the work, and the same even with the work that I’ve been doing recently during the pandemic: I wanted to be able to look at the transcendence that we can find in all of this. But I also wanted to be very honest, paint the pain that all of us collectively have been feeling, know my own pain, and try to describe that in a way that was communicable so that others, too, would know that there isn’t something wrong in them having this kind of pain. It is what is happening now. We look at it, we own it, and then we see ways to move through it and not be bogged down by it.

Jaleh – Exactly. That’s why I think your work is tremendously courageous – it’s very, very brave –and why I think the word “exorcism” is fascinating and apropos. Thank you for returning to my initial question about the term “exorcism,” which you just answered beautifully. Jeff Khonsary, from Fillip, our host, has a question: “What happened to Holocaust, to the collective, after that film was released?”

Penny – Well, I say that group was very much a community-collaborative experience. We went on to do the film, and that was set in Wales, where Jane had come from. The deal was that we were going to be – at least a few of us – collaborating with her on the editing; that everything was going to be that continuing, collaborative process; but it’s not what happened. I think, frankly, that the energies that were brought up were so strong that Jane couldn’t really deal with it anymore. She had to withdraw from it. So, she ended up editing – she and Jack did that themselves – and we were not involved in that. Everyone was left feeling very abandoned and disappointed that we no longer had this group that we thought was going to have much more longevity. It all broke apart. As I say, that was the other side of my break-up: my relationship with Peter, the break-up of my relationship with the theatre group; because it broke up, that was part of the process. A number of the women from the group did live in one of the women’s houses in Islington, we stayed there for a while. But people were broken and so it took a while for healing to happen. There was no longer any group that would get together.

Jaleh – But you didn’t really abandon it in so far as you channelled it in your own process, right?

Penny – Right. My work on An Exorcism was very much inspired by the fallout that there was from the film of unresolved trauma. So that’s why I wanted to keep on working with that energy afterwards to find a way to transmute it.

Jaleh – Thank you so much. I think this is really crucial. If collectives had the courage that you had to face the process of exorcism, I think we would all be individually and collectively in much, much better shape. I can’t thank you enough for this inspiration.

Penny – Thank you so much, been lovely talking to you. Very inspiring. Thank you.


Transcription: Robert Dayton

About the Authors

Penny Slinger is a Los Angeles-based artist working across many mediums, including collage, photography, drawing, sculpture, and video. She is the author of numerous publications including An Exorcism (1977), Mountain Ecstasy (1978), and Sexual Secrets (1979), and has exhibited her work internationally for over fifty years. Recent exhibitions include Inside Out, Fortnight Institute, New York (2018); Sex Work, Blum & Poe, Frieze London (2017); Visible Women, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich, UK (2018); Feminist Avant-garde of the 1970s from the Sammlung Verbund Collection, Hamburger Kunsthalle (2015); and Angels of Anarchy, Manchester Art Gallery (2009); among many more. Slinger is represented by Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London.

Jaleh Mansoor is an associate professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia. Her areas of teaching and research include Modernism and the avant-gardes, European art since 1945, Marxism and Frankfurt School Theory, Formalism, Marxist Feminism, and social reproduction theory. She has also acted as director of UBC’s Critical Curatorial Studies program. Mansoor’s current project is entitled Universal Prostitution: A Counter History of Abstraction, 1888–2008, forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2022. Her other publications include Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics (Duke University Press, 2010), and Marshall Plan Modernism: Italian Postwar Abstraction and the Beginnings of Autonomia (Duke University Press, 2016).

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