Business Day, November 12 1992
Nursery rhymes echoing amid the visions of killing
By Anthea Bristowe
With Alan Alborough, one needs to start at the beginning. In this case the beginning was a visit to the Police Museum in Pretoria.
We are schooled into accepting authority at an early age, through the very games we play. So, on one level, this installation becomes an investigation into crime and punishment. At another it questions coercion.
But Alborough's work is not some moralising tract. Conceptually and aesthetically it completely transcends the parochial requirements of relevance. What confronts the viewer is an exquisite body of work, haunting in its obsessions, an astonishing first exhibition.
Alborough takes children's games as the point of departure. In Ching Chong Cha, the scissors become surgical instruments, the paper a metaphor for the body. Scissors and stitches are mounted behind shattered glass. On the one hand the work suggests healing, on the other violation.
At times, Alborough admits the viewer, leading generously beyond the confines of the glass. At others he sets up barriers that prompt more questions than answers. This ebb and flow creates extraordinary tensions between artist, viewer and work.
And so he continues the game. The triptych, Spelling Death, has its origins in a simple game - Hangman. The failure to spell correctly results in death by hanging. Death by hanging is a tidy affair: someone else decides and imposes the penalty on our behalf, so we do not get involved.
The central panel of the work is, as Karel Nel points out, like the observation window in a gas chamber. It bears the simple legend Spelling Death. The paper/body of the earlier work has gone and the viewer has to confront the business of killing. The panels on either side are the hangman's trapdoors, stout and functional.
They mirror one another. Superimposed on the glass are the words Morning and Sunlight. Morning can be read as morning, the traditional time of execution, or as mourning. Below is an inverted sunbeam and the word Sunlight in reverse. The soap is the ritual social cleansing, the moral harvest of execution. The words are frosted and difficult to read. One understands the fumblings of the poorly educated and illiterate.
Alborough continues the theme of killing with Head Loss and Neck Loss. Hanging has been reduced to a simple authoritative sign like that on cloakroom doors, a stick figure without a head. Above is mounted armour-plated glass into which high-velocity bullets have been fired.
When the bullets hit the glass they mash into it. The glass bleeds in ripples around the point of impact. Flesh and bone are not manufactured to withstand this kind of impact.
Alborough leads the viewer inexorably to confront violence and death. There is no sentiment, no comforting distance. He presents the instruments of killing with the utmost clarity and beauty and then abandons the viewer to consider them in silence, like lepers on the pavement. Long after one has left the gallery one still hears echoes of the nursery rhymes and sees visions of killing.