Art South Africa, Vol 2 Issue 01, Spring 2003
Alan Alborough
Sasol Art Museum | Stellenbosch

By Hazel Friedman

By some postmodern coincidence the British-based artist Françoise Dupré was exhibiting her French knitting in the Stratford-upon-Avon Gallery in England around the same time that Alan Alborough set up his French knitting installation in Stellenbosch. For those unfamiliar with Dupré's work, she's concerned with the production and display of hybrid objects evoking the transience of life across physical, cultural, imaginary and geographical boundaries. Although her concerns are not entirely antithetical to Alborough's, the end result couldn't be more dissimilar.

If interpreting contemporary art is a bit like solving a postmodern crime, then Alborough's work tests the resourcefulness of the most art-smart sleuth. A master of the art (or is it craft?) of wordplay, Alborough cleverly manipulates a given set of circumstances - choreographing them with careful intent. He devises sophisticated brainteasers of "whodunit" and clues to which the solutions lead paradoxically to more problems. The links between his various projects go hand in hand with an unwavering commitment to forging paths into previously uncharted turf.

Aptly titled work[ing/ in] pro[cess/gress], his current exhibition challenges notions of linear progression, the processes involved in making an artwork, its consumption and relationship to industry.

He has transformed a traditional static art space into a dynamic installation in flux. This effort is integral to the contemporary context of urban regeneration, labour history and current debates around the protection of historical industrial buildings. Using the circular space around the first floor balustrade of the Sasol Art Museum, Alborough has constructed a temporary barrier of posts topped with cotton reels through which an indigo polythene rope has been threaded. It's all been scientifically calculated and symmetrically arranged. And at first sight (or should that be site) it resembles a futuristic aperture. In the latter stages of the show, it might resemble a reconstructed spider's web. But the central motif around which the entire exhibition has been assembled is, of course, French knitting - a domestic activity that holds emotional currency for many as a childhood endeavour.

Although its origins are unclear, French knitting is basically a primitive weaving technique whereby a cotton reel is adorned with nails around which wool is wound and woven. It's a circular process and it forms the prototype for even the most advanced knitting techniques and machinery.

Similar industrial prototypes are arranged on the floor nearby the installation's "loom". These include vessels used in the manufacturing of bottled water - evoking the ultimate nature/culture duality. Other binary tensions suggested through these arrangements include art and craft. In terms of Alborough's meticulous constructions, there also exists the polarity between the "invisible" industrial hand and deliberate references to the artist's signature.

And while the industrial processes point to a futuristic, mechanised environment, there is something unavoidably humanistic and historical about Alborough's intentions. It is as much about excavating the past as it is about the future, about relocating primal functions, objects and Alborough's own obsessions.

Which brings us to another aspect of Alborough's trajectory: the concept of "post normal science" - a term which Sandra Klopper invokes in her insightful essay on Alborough's previous work. Mainstream research science "normally" consists of puzzle solving within the framework of an unquestioned and unquestionable "paradigm". Post normal science argues that this assumption no longer holds. In this sense it complies with the postmodern "rejection of grand narratives" and the plurality of legitimate perspectives on any problem. In short, post normal science inverts the traditional distinction between "hard" objective scientific facts and "soft" subjective value judgments.

Alborough has marked the space with clues to a finite "answer". He notifies the viewers of his creative presence at certain times in the evolution of the installation by transforming various aspects of the show. But he also acknowledges the inherent open-endedness of the work. His is a gentle riposte against the notion of the "completed" artwork and an admirable attempt at redefining the relations of power between artist and viewer.

He also tries to galvanise community participation in the show by inviting schoolchildren to produce their own French knitting. The fruits of this outreach endeavour are displayed adjacent to the installation with the individual names of the participants clearly recorded. This is more than just a pointer towards dualities of anonymity and authorship. Through this endeavour Alborough seems to be saying that communities need not necessarily be passive recipients of the materials provided by the "experts". They can also possess, or create, their own "extended facts".

But the artist's thought processes are ultimately more fascinating than the artwork itself. It is almost as though Alborough might be dabbling in too many languages, deconstructing too many histories to achieve a truly cohesive, enticing presentation. There is something almost clinical in his meticulous attention to detail. It is all a bit too processed. As an exercise in design systems the installation works beautifully. As a cognitive trajectory it teases effectively. But its visual properties and conceptual resonances do not ignite the senses much beyond the cerebral. "Art-as-open-ended" has become something of a truism. Without more indication of art as lived, breathed, felt experience, this kind of art runs the risk of being perceived as a skilful exercise in evasion.