The Star, November 25 1992
Art on games people play
By Hazel Friedman
Conceptual art has enjoyed little more than cult status in South Africa. The international legacy of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys has found favour theoretically in local art institutions, but rarely in practice, and until recently as effectively ostracised by mainstream galleries.
No wonder, for this movement, which rose to prominence in the 60s, was essentially a counterculture and a rebellion against the constructs of traditional aesthetics. In opposition to conventional art with its obligation to the visual, to craftsmanship and to the rarefied status of the aesthetic object, the conceptualists rallied for the notion of art as idea and, among other things, as an interplay between image, text and object, between criticism, theory and the very act of making art.
But after years of being marginalised, conceptual art is finally being acknowledged in this country, due to the commitment of a new generation of artists. Alan Alborough belongs to this generation, and his first solo exhibition at the Everard Read Contemporary Gallery is astounding both in terms of its conceptual clarity and the extraordinary sophistication with which it has been assembled. It is not a pretty show; it doesn't tug at the heartstrings or lull the senses, but it doesn't remain lodged in the cerebral region either.
Like the glass that covers his installations, Alborough's concerns are multi-layered, revealing and concealing at the same time. Distanced contemplation is not enough. They are pieces that demand active engagement, yet make us feel like voyeurs.
On one level, Alborough is intent on exploring the games people play, seemingly innocuous activities that in actuality codify the power relations to which we remain conditioned throughout our lives. Noughts and Crosses, I Spy and Hangman are games geared not merely for survival but in order to assert superiority over one another. At the same time, Alborough plays with the concept of literacy and the literal, asserting, inverting and undermining the authority accorded to the written language, its signs and its references.
For example, we read the stylised figures on the gallery floor with a sense of deference to their authority. These are the signs that have conditioned us to behave in a particular socialised and unquestioning manner. Do they simply assert the position in which we should stand when appraising Alborough's works, or do they contain a more sincere association?
Images are punned against images, against words, and words against themselves. For example, the commercial Sunbeam Polish sign - a familiar household commodity - is used to illustrate, literally, the daily cycle of sunrise and sunset. But the words "Morning" and "Mo(u)rning" transform this trivial image into a metaphor of life and death. These metaphysical cycles (circles) recur throughout the exhibition particularly in the Hangman series, and in Alborough's Lifebuoy installation. The latter comprises an arrangement of Lifebuoy soap into a circle (the "nought" part of Noughts and Crosses). This is juxtaposed against an arrangement of Lux soap which forms the "cross" part of the game.
The social associations of Lux and Lifebuoy are unavoidable. They are commodities that refer to South Africa's less-than-clean legacy of race and gender. Even if we attempt to avoid their painful connotations, they confront us in The Gardener and the Madam, a collage of Lifebuoy and Lux wrappings.
Under the circular "lifebuoy" - physically similar to a Lifesaver sweet - is the word "tiring", a brutal reminder of a form of execution endemic to this country. Similarly, the Hangman series refers to various forms of capital punishment, institutionalised overtly or through covert means: namely death by hanging, guillotine and the assassin's bullet.
Reading this exhibition is tantamount to playing a ping pong game of the intellect, but this is not to deny its powerful aesthetic components. Alborough's works are both paintings and sculptures, yet they are neither. They are made up of media that have a specific product identity, yet have also featured strongly in the tradition of conceptual art, through the work of Joseph Beuys and through the "readymades" immortalised by Marcel Duchamp. Alborough has taken non-durable readymades, recontextualised them and transformed them into pristine visual arrangements that are worthy of aesthetic contemplation. The works speak of a violent culture, yet they are comprised of innocuous components. They are the products of a sophisticated intellect, yet reading them does not require specialised intellectual tools.
The only danger that Alborough must avoid for future exhibitions is in allowing the cerebral components of his works to supercede their emotional impact. But given his finely tuned sensitivity, intellectual overindulgence is unlikely to feature strongly in his game plan.