| An open letter to Alan Alborough on the occasion of the exhibition of his Standard Bank Young Artist Award 2000 exhibition in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town
By Sue Williamson
Don't you think there is some kind of paradox in a situation where you, who refuse so smilingly and steadfastly to discuss your work with your viewers, have set up a website catalogue in which no less than seven assorted writers on art across the country must engage in a focused essay on your SBYA installation? These essays are in addition to the numerous press reviews on the site which have accompanied the show as it has proceeded majestically across the country (except in Durban, where the critics were either overcome with Natal fever or nerves, and wrote nothing). As if this were not enough comment, there are also the visitors' remarks, of which the prize for the most succinct must surely go to J Nomdo in Port Elizabeth, who wrote, "I don't understand it. Thank you."
A rather god-like pose, yours, where it is left to the mere prophets on earth to interpret the divine creation. One imagines you, like some kind of benign and venerable headmaster, reading through the latest effort, perhaps nodding slightly at the recognition of a good point made, a tiny frown at a clumsy comment. Pity the first essay writer, breaking unknown ground (Colin Richards in Grahamstown); pity the last (the person selected to address the Johannesburg leg at the Standard Bank Galleries) - what will be left to say? It is a comfort, though, to know that just as you do not discuss your work with viewers, you also do not comment on or criticise what is written on your work, but accept it all with the same cool good humour.
When the Standard Bank Young Artist Award show opened in Grahamstown last July, as editor of www.artthrob.co.za, I requested art critic Chris Roper to review the work for the website. The exhibition opened on Friday June 30. Update day was Tuesday, so I needed the review by Monday latest. On Monday Chris phoned from Grahamstown, and tensely suggested he write the review for the following week, saying he needed to think about it more. I refused, and extended his deadline to the last possible minute, Tuesday lunchtime. When it came, the opening line made me smile, though a little nervously. "Inescapably, Alan Alborough is a bit of a bastard," wrote Chris, going on to call the show "astoundingly beautiful" (the review can be found in the Grahamstown press section of this website). Would you mind, I wondered, being called "a bit of a bastard"? I need not have worried. I discovered you are not one of those artists who gets upset about what is written about you. If the writer is sincere in what they write, it is all the same to you. The important thing is that they, like your viewers, have engaged with the work in any way they wish.
I first made your acquaintance on the telephone, in 1995, when I was working on a book on contemporary art in South Africa with co-writer Ashraf Jamal. I explained the project to you. Although I did not know your work very well, you had come highly recommended by other Johannesburg artists, and I wondered if it was possible to meet, to see some work, to talk. You declined, saying you did not wish your work to appear in a book at that time. I was slightly taken aback and invited you to phone me if you changed your mind. You didn't phone.
It was only when you moved to Cape Town in 1997 that I met you. You took a studio in part of the old factory building in Woodstock where I share a large loft space with a number of other artists, in a studio which is often slightly chaotic, with visitors and noisy, smelly art activities of all kinds. You felt free to drop in from time to time and engage in conversation (I always wished, like some Fifties housewife, that I had tidied up a little before you came), but the dropping-in courtesy was not returned. It was never expressed but clearly understood that access to your studio was by invitation only. I did not resent this in any way. It was part of your persona. Each artist has a number of necessary conditions under which he or she is able to make work, and undisturbed privacy was clearly one of your most important conditions. When one day you did invite me up to come and see what you had been doing, I was flattered and a little apprehensive. By now I had seen enough of your work to feel sure that I would admire whatever it was you were going to show me, but I was anxious about how you would respond to my response.
I crossed the cobbled passage between the buildings and went up the stairs. You shared the long studio with a ceramic artist, and had divided the space between you with a typically Alborough solution. To form partitions, steel tension wires were strung between the columns at a height of about two and a half metres, and to these wires were pegged, at precise intervals, lengths of translucent white plastic hessian weighted at the bottom with heavy screws suspended from short strings.
The pieces which I had been invited to view were hung from the ceiling - three spherical objects, roughly one metre in diameter, each fabricated entirely from plastic clothes pegs, red or white. The surface of each was differently configured. Their presence was undeniable. I imagined the hours and days each must have taken you, working from a small central core outwards. I knew that the white translucent pegs you had used in Beautiful Objects, the much smaller suspended spheres now in the collection of the Sandton Civic Gallery, could be found in only one shop in London, the Japanese design shop Muji. On a table in the studio lay a number of other pegs in different styles and colours: clear evidence of an exhaustive round of exploratory shopping trips. I felt certain that there was not a clothes peg available in Cape Town and its vicinity, probably the whole country, that you had not tracked down and considered carefully.
I looked at the new pieces for some time. I couldn't quite put it into words, but I wasn't sure that the change in scale from the spheres of Beautiful Objects to these large new pieces really worked. There was a delicacy and mystery about the earlier pieces that was missing here. I did like these new ones, but at the same time they seemed a trifle absurd in spite of their intricate structure and monumentality; a bit like an overblown Lego exercise. Boys' toys. Perhaps it was the flatness of colour of the red and white pegs. The quality of light passing through translucent white of Beautiful Objects was missing. What to say? I asked you if you had any plans for showing the work. You replied that you didn't. This again is unusual - generally artists have figured out where they would like to show work by the time it is completed. I felt I had let you down by not making some telling comment. I thanked you for letting me see them.
Some months later, when I heard that you had been named Standard Bank Young Artist for the year 2000, I was a little surprised. Not that I didn't think you were an excellent choice: I thought it had seldom been so well deserved, but I wondered where the selectors, whoever they were, had seen your work lately. As far as I knew, and as ArtThrob editor it is my business to know which artist is showing where, the only occasion that I knew of was an exhibition at the Gertrude Posel Gallery at the University of Witwatersrand of old Wits students some time ago. I also wondered whether you would be showing the pieces I had seen on my studio visit, but I learned you were planning something quite new.
I was sorry I was not going to be in Grahamstown for the opening. I had to depend on descriptions and photographs to try and gauge the measure of what you were up to. The pictures looked stunning. "Is Alan Alborough's work as cool as it looks on the website?" my son e-mailed from Europe. I have had to wait for the show to open in Cape Town, some nine months later, the length of a pregnancy, to find out.
During this time, I have tracked the trek of your installation pictorially through the web. You have been very lavish with images. In each stop so far, some 37 new ones have been added, with the exception of Port Elizabeth, where you stopped at 33. By the time the installation had reached stop no 4, Bloemfontein, you had started adding some of the interesting details of the constructions to the site, like the trays of exhausted batteries (and no doubt you chose those batteries rather than any other brand because of their black and silver colouring). I have looked at the gorgeous website pictures as you have assembled your elements in each new location, from the bland carpeted space in Grahamstown's Monument building through the more formal spaces of the museums.
Nonetheless, as in all cyber relationships, it was still a surprise to come face to face with the reality of your installation in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. You know how interviews with film stars often start out saying that the person in question is smaller than the writer had imagined, but just as, if not more, beautiful. It was a bit like that. I had imagined the structures were bigger, at least waist rather than knee high. And I found a sense of fun in the piece that I had not perceived in the web pictures. On one hand, there is the pristine industrial beauty of the elements. On the other, there is a real wackiness in the pseudo-scientific process whereby the sheets of dampened nonwoven fabric, meticulously folded, wound and bound into tight coils, are embedded with mild steel nails connected to wires connected to batteries to allow corrosion to take place. The resulting marks are rusty flowers, rather reminiscent of the ones ladies who paint silk scarves using salt resist techniques might make on their better days. The fabric squares on which the rust and water have inscribed flowers are hung on the wall, joined by pegs to make long banners. The flowers grown in different cities have slightly varying qualities - the yellows vary in shades and strength of browns telling us something - but what? - about the various municipal water supplies. There was a play once called The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, about a girl conducting a science experiment for school. Now why did the name of that play come into my head when I was looking at your work?
And then there was the piece made by the late great British artist Helen Chadwick called Piss Flowers (she died in 1996 at the age of 42). In 1994, given some grant money to spend time in Canada, Chadwick arrived to find the snow thick upon the ground. She conceived a piece whereby each morning, she and her American husband David Notarius, who had been separated by work for some time, went out to make a collaborative piece. "We heaped up piles of snow, and first I would piss into it and then he would piss around my mark. I made casts of the indentations." Twelve large white enameled bronzes looking somewhat like flattened hibiscuses with pistils and stamens rising from the middle were the result. Piss Flowers turned out to be one of the most controversial series Chadwick had ever made, with the British press and television ignoring the beauty of the pieces and droning on about the shocking way public money given to artists was wasted.
But Alan, I am only comparing your work to Helen Chadwick's in the sense that the end result of the popular subject of flower images was almost entirely incidental, an organic by-product of a process. One of the things I most admire about your work is that, unlike most South African art, it absolutely does not look like anyone else's, and the impulses that inspire and inform it are clearly yours and yours alone. In the gallery at the SANG, the dome-shaped constructions and rectangular work stations, meticulously constructed from myriad elements, glowing from within (I will not describe them further here when they have been so well described on other parts of the site), sit in the space with the kind of easy authority which is the mark of the best installations.
I must tell you that given your stance, your silence on your work, no statement on which to fasten, I have found this piece quite challenging (read difficult) to write. Robert Weinek suggested that instead of writing anything, I should make schematic drawings of a clothes peg, a light bulb, a cable tie and a battery, connected by plus signs and followed by an equals sign after which I would simply print ALAN ALBOROUGH. He said you didn't really like people writing about your work. Oh, really?
Anyway, I wish you the very best for future manifestations of your beautiful, mysterious, crazy SBYA installation, wherever it may travel, and I hope it travels far.