| Artthrob, March 2001 |
Alan Alborough at the SANG
By Michelle Matthews
"I really like it," I stutter.
"Thanks Michelle," says Alan.
Alan, typically, didn't elaborate and I, thankfully, didn't have to explain.
I'm not quite clear on why I like Alan's exhibition, just as some people can't explain why they don't. Like the person who scrawled nervously in the visitor's book, "I'm lost. I think this is probably pretty bad. Sorry."
Before I launch into an attempt at elucidation I should point out that, yes, I visit openings, especially when I feel like an after-work glass of wine, and I got an A for art in matric. That's the extent of my art knowledge. It's probably more than most people who are visiting the current show have. The installation is in the National Gallery - it draws groups of schoolchildren, tourist couples, families on their monthly "cultural outing". I spent a Saturday morning in the gallery and it's Alborough's installation room where people spend the longest. Old-age pensioners get down on their hands and knees to see where the lights in the boxes come from. Kids run their hands through the trays of dead batteries. The visitors know they've found something special.
"But what do you think it is?" asked an old man in a safari suit.
Glowing tortoises, parking lots, ballerinas on stage, Gotham City, concentration camps, African huts, futuristic aerial photographs - most people want the installation to refer directly to something recognisable.
"I don't know," I said. "I think he just likes making them."
The man nodded slowly.
People are either suspicious of or intrigued by things that don't reveal themselves to them almost immediately. When it comes to art, they, like the girl in the Diet Coke ad, expect to grapple briefly with an object before deducing its moral, as if all works were inherently didactic. For a long time South Africans were reasonable in expecting messages in their artworks, since much work was politicised. Perhaps this is the reason for the varied reactions to Alborough's work. Some people are exasperated with what they see as the indulgence of it, while most are just pleasantly surprised. Alborough's installation is unapologetically aesthetic without spoon-feeding a meaning, and we don't see that very often.
This is how I see Alan working. He's an engineer/mathematician-cum-sculptor. He sits and stares at a peg. He dismantles, rotates and juxtaposes it with other objects in his mind. At night he dreams of patterns and graphs. He doodles a lot, slotting geometric shapes together obsessively.
No wonder the Alborough reticence. "Well," I can see him saying, "the pegs fitted with the syringes and I, uh, liked the balance of that. It made sense." That's it really. The world is full of building blocks and Alborough likes to play with them.
Not that Alborough doesn't have a definite plan of where his work is coming from or going to. The installation has been growing and developing since it started in Grahamstown last July, where Alborough was honoured as the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Visual Art. The pegs, syringes, batteries, corrosive elements and lights had all been used before in different combinations. It wasn't long before Alborough saw the end point of the installation, and you can too. In the SANG he's got four blank sheets of absorbent paper hanging from the wall, an incomplete "tortoise" and an empty plastic container all set up. At the exhibition's next stop these blank squares will be filled - the paper with the stains from the corrosive coils, the arched object with the used coils and the container with the spent batteries. Alborough's got it plotted out and it all fits perfectly. I smile when I see the URL to the exhibition's accompanying website: www.alanalborough.co.za. The "anal" just jumps out at you, doesn't it?
At this point the only element that is not totally under the artist's control are the orangey blurs made by the corrosive coils. Still, he has set up the coils so that the patterns are fairly predictable. It's not as control-freakish as his 1996 works at Goldsmith's College in London, where he actually plotted corrosion marks on hand-made graph paper. But the light-boxes are still machines, despite the fact that their output is variable.
I think that's why I like Alborough's installation. It has function as well as form. He has made something that makes something else. So, as well as looking good, the objects are "useful". Like the iMac he has set up in the corner. Like the chair from furniture contractors Innovation that he has put in front of it. The installation leans more towards design than "pure art" and in today's society that has more currency.
Die Burger, March 21 2001
AFHANGEND van waar 'n mens 'n vreemde konstruksie soos hierdie teëkom, sal jou vrae daaromtrent wissel. Loop jy dit raak in 'n laboratorium, sal jy noodwendig wil weet: "Wat doen dit?" Tref jy dieselfde ding aan in 'n kunssaal, vra jy: "Wat beteken dit?"
Antwoorde is nie maklik te kry nie, want daar is nie, net suggesties en uitnodigings tot eie vertolking. Ook kompliseer die kunstenaar sake deur nie te wil uitwei oor hierdie werk nie - hy is nie eens bereid om dit 'n titel gee nie.
Maar anders as met die getekende, geskilderde of afgedrukte prent, wat so gebuk gaan onder tradisies van uitdrukking, simboliek, allegorie en konvensies van kyk en vertolk, laat die suggestie van tegnologie en wetenskap hier die deure wyd oop vir nadenke.
Alborough het 'n aantal op die oog af ingewikkelde en dramaties beligte konstruksies - elkeen is verbind met die ander om in die proses een groot installasie te vorm - saamgestel, iets wat lyk soos gesofistikeerde masjiene of, op 'n afstand, selfs soos skaalmodelle van futuristiese stede of industriële aanlegte.
Aanvanklik word die indruk geskep dat 'n vreemde hoëtegnologie-ontwerp die kunssaal binnegesleep is om in die proses herkontekstualisering uit 'n "kunsperspektief" af te dwing. Hoewel die ontwerp, en natuurlik die plasing daarvan in 'n kunssaal, jou wel daarvan oortuig dat die koppelvlak van tegnologie ook in estetiese terme oorweeg kan word, kom jy egter by nadere ondersoek agter dat alles maar net oëverblindery is.
Elke onderdeel blyk baie alledaags, ongesofistikeerd en nie-funksioneel tot die groter konstruksie te wees - rubbervloermatte, gewone plastiekpype, plastiekspuite, rolle papier, skuifspelde, plastiekbakke, spykers, penflitsbatterye en draad. Alborough sal hom beslis kan laat geld in die wereld van spesiale-effekte.
'n Mens wil aanneem dat Alborough nie noodwendig iets spesifieks met hierdie werk wil sê nie, so amper asof die fisieke proses van konstruksie, komposisie en ontwerp die hoofrol speel teen 'n vaer konseptuele agterdoek - die wisselwerking tussen tegnologie, industrie en wetenskap (dalk die genetika?) en die menslike bestaan en geesteswêreld. Tog impliseer die atmosfeer om hierdie werk iets betekenisvol - die dramatiese beligting, plastiekspuite, pype en elektriese drade dra iets oor van 'n sinistere laboratorium-eksperiment, asof hier dalk gebodder word met dinge wat liefs met rus gelaat moet word.
Maar as ons wel hier met 'n masjien te doen het, is dit eerder 'n masjien wat kuns maak as een wat in diens van die wetenskap staan, want die ding is tog wel aan die werk, of aan die "skep".
Een van die sentrale aspekte van die installasie is 'n aantal rolle dun papier, wat op plekke met spykers gevul is. Hierdie spykers is met draad verbind en word deur penflitsbatterye geëlektrifiseer, terwyl die papierrolle sporadies met soutwater natgemaak word.
Die gevolg is 'n roesproses wat nie net die papierrolle verkleur nie, maar ook roesmerke laat op groot velle papier waarop die rolle geplaas is. Ná so 'n roesproses word die velle roeskleurige papier verwyder en teen die galery-muur opgehang - kuns! Daar lê dus 'n interessante tweeledigheid hier - die kunstenaar baai tegnologie en wetenskap in 'n estetiese lig, en het terselfdertyd 'n "kunsmasjien" gebou.
Dus: 'n kunswerk wat kuns maak.
Die SA Nasionale Kunsmuseum is die voorlaaste lokaal waar hierdie tentoonstelling op sy huidige reis deur Suid-Afrika aandoen. Dit is reeds gesien in verskeie stede en vertrek aanstaande maand na die Standard Bank-galery in Johannesburg.
'n Aantal essays oor en foto's van die tentoonstelling, asook besonderhede oor Alborough self, is te vind op die webwerf www.alanalborough.co.za.
Cape Argus Tonight, March 19 2001
It's just a short walk from the Gardens on this late summer afternoon, with its characteristic autumn nip, into the austere air-conditioned space of the National Gallery.
Alan Alborough, last year's winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist award - one of the most prestigious awards of its kind - is crouched on the floor putting the finishing touches to his installation. I watch the careful placing of silver reflectors on the edges of the room, waiting for the right moment to engage him.
He deflects my attempt at setting up an interview with him politely and firmly, as I gather he has done to many others of my profession. After all, he is a visual monger and not a verbal one and as such his work must speak for itself. So I am left entirely to my own devices and a pretty helper in the shape of an aquamarine Apple Mac.
Scrolling through the web site brings up images of past exhibitions - stains associated with chemical corrosion bleed into circular patterns and spherical constructions of plastic pegs, cable ties and coins assume the form of beautiful opaque microbes like those associated with serious scientific journals
Perhaps l should begin, though, by touching on the nature of play. Play has often been misconstrued as belonging entirely to the domain of the child. This, of course, is not true. It is also perfectly at home in the realm of the masters in all their disciplines, from inventor to quantum physicist to philosopher.
Stanley Pinker, my painting teacher, used to warn us about how the loss of the child within, with its unquenchable curiosity and enthusiasm, would be devastating for the artist's creative ability.
The ghost of the Dadaist and Futurist, Marcel Duchamp, whose Zen-like detachment towards art enabled him to give up art making and settle for chess, rises up in Alborough's work to meet the viewer.
This is not necessarily evident in the form that Alborough's work takes, but certainly in its reference to concept and the art of serious play.
In an utterly unselfconscious way, and using very familiar objects such as the clothes peg, cable ties, syringes and the battery cells, Alborough has spawned a rush of organic interconnected shapes, forms and patterns.
On the most superficial level, the installation gives the impression of a sci-fi construction. It comprises "stations" both separate and inter-connected and dome-like constructions made from various forms of modern materials and lit from within.
Duchamp gave us the Large Glass, a work which is in a sense a meditation on the nature of a machine that does not and is not made to function at all, and on another level, on the futility of the mechanics of relating.
He celebrates the unconsummated machine. For all the battery cells and wires, with their impression of function-ality, Alborough's constructions do not "work" either. Even the stains of chemical corrosion around the rolls of tape, suggestive of movement, simply serve as a parody.
The connection of hand and eye and mind and heart is strongly felt in Alborough's installation. It is as if the viewer is invited to follow via tangible forms, the path of the artist's actual synapses as they fire into making connections. Lego for the creative psyche, perhaps?
Alborough is a modern-day alchemist. He does not turn base metals into incorruptible gold or refine the psy-che to a higher level. Instead he transforms everyday, ordinary plastic into works of pure, pristine beauty. The man-made is worshipped and revered. The ordinary, everyday shifts into the aesthetically beautiful.
This beauty, and our attraction to it, is all the more frightening in that it is fashioned from the material that at least mimics the female hormone and at worst brings death and destruction to seas and lands
Go and see this installation - take kids and grandparents, too. Ends on April 8.
Artthrob, Cape Town listings, March 2001
Alan Alborough's Standard Bank Young Artist Award show finally makes it to his hometown for this, its penultimate showing. Although it has been a long wait, in a sense we are lucky in that the show has constantly been evolving since its opening in Grahamstown last year and is closest to what will be its final form, to be shown at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg later. Typically Alborough has still not said a word about the work, but viewers' comments and essays which have been commissioned for each of the show's incarnations are all on the website. Essayists include Colin Richards and Juliet Leeb du Toit, and Sue Williamson will provide a response to the Cape Town showing.
The work has consistently confounded viewers who have battled not only to interpret it but even to describe it. Made almost entirely of prefabricated plastic elements and some intriguing electrical components, these have been arranged and configured into complex modular structures that have evoked an extraordinary range of comments. The work seems to engage with process as much as form and challenge a viewer who feels at loss because normal modes of interpretation find themselves unable to operate. Its form is wholly original and any comparison or reference reveals nothing about the work and stops our search for a fixed meaning or interpretation in its tracks. Some Western Cape viewers have had a glimpse of a related work in the show which Alborough produced in Stellenbosch late last year.
Alborough attained his undergraduate degree at Wits and went on to do his Master's at Goldsmith's College in London. His work is held in numerous private, public and corporate collections across the country. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in Sculpture in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Stellenbosch.