sbya 2000 durban
What you are, the world is

By Andrew Verster
Artist, writer, and member of the Standard Bank National Arts Festival Committee: Visual Arts

We meet this exhibition halfway through its travels, Durban the mid-point between its Grahamstown beginning and its Johannesburg ending. Alan Alborough sent these constructions out into the world as young adults, innocents, with only a blessing and without the armour of experience. They are to fend for themselves. The artist says little. His answers to direct questions are ambiguous, yes and no, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. It is his way, he has made them, he has the right to dictate how they are to be seen.

This is a work in progress. Naked at the outset, it is half-clothed now. It will be dressed by the time it gets to Johannesburg. But even then the journey will not be over. For if it is to have a longer life than a year, and it surely will, Johannesburg will be simply a pause before it sets off on another journey to places with fewer signposts.

Yet despite the artist's lack of words, six months later the exhibition has become encrusted in them. To keep from drowning we would do well to remember that these are things to be seen. Words can blind us.

To make the simple complicated does not take genius. But to speak simply of the profound: that is clever.

How then to approach them? With innocent eyes. We must allow ourselves to be seduced by their sheer beauty. Beauty is the door through which to enter. Trust our senses, not our intellect.

Beauty is subversive. There is no defence against it. It takes us captive without a struggle. We are trapped before we know we are even a target.

The politics of poetry is a powerful weapon. And one that has been underestimated by activists. Ignored. Scorned. Denigrated. No wonder the Hindu thinkers millennia ago saw God in beauty.

Just as beauty can change lives for the better, so the reverse is true: ugliness brutalises. We have only to look at history to see this lesson.

These mute works do not take long to win over even the most skeptical. You come into the room and immediately the frenzy of the world begins to fall away. You feel different. There is something spiritual about the space that Alborough has made. Voices are lowered, you wonder if you should take off your shoes.

The light is low and diffuse. What light there is comes from the objects. They glow.

Once we have made contact with them and the conversation has begun, we should for a while continue to be good listeners, wise to resist the impulse to talk about ourselves, to impose our ideas, to project expectations.

Art is not predictable, or, to put it the other way round, what is predictable cannot be art. Art does not reproduce what already exists. It is creation, not re-creation.

Alborough's use of non-traditional materials can easily be misconstrued. This is no futuristic ploy but an inevitable consequence of solving the problems he has set himself. In this he is in the company of the most traditional of artists, one of a long line of makers stretching back into the infinity of the past.

The hardware store materials are the appropriate means to his end in a way that canvas and paint, brushes and paper would not be. To respond to a question with the wrong answer, however brilliantly spoken, would be stupid.

What, then, is this all about? Life and death? Illusion and reality? Chance? Growth? Transformation?

Each viewer will have a different conclusion, each a different train of thought, a different set of allusions, connections and memories. And, if we allow it, each of us will be changed by the experience.

And the artist too. He is not immune. He can be as puzzled by his creations as we are, for that is the nature of the process. It is not one of stating, but one of questioning. If one knew the answer before one began there would be no point in making any artwork.

For a moment let us take stock. The work is not yet complete. We accept that Alan Alborough is the maker. His name is on the invitation. He is the winner of the Award. But is he? Yes and no.

He began the process but along the way he has drawn others into the net. He has co-opted each of us who visits the exhibition. We become part of the making. Even those who reject it, who hate it, the apathetic, the angry.

When will it be over? Where will it all end?

Alan Alborough's control is eroded a little more with each passing day. And this is as it should be. Soon these works will be able to stand alone, fully grown. They will begin to make their own decisions, decisions which could easily cause friction in the family.

There is a lesson in this for us. We must all know when to let go and when to be protective. Everything has its appropriate time and we fight this at our peril.

Planned to fit a particular space at the Monument Gallery, this nomad has adapted to living in different homes on its travels. In each place it is the same yet different, affected by time and environment.

Leading into the installation are four units. On each is a sheet of white material. Over the two months of the exhibition here these will gradually be covered in a rust-coloured abstraction of blobs and patches made by the reaction of electricity from batteries on dampened coils of fabric embedded with nails.

Alan Alborough set up the same mechanisms for this to happen in Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, and Pietermaritzburg. This he can control, but once the process begins, the results cannot be predicted. It is organic.

There will be no mistaking the family resemblance between these four Durban drawings when they are finished and the other 12 completed ones hanging on the walls. But, as in all families, individuality triumphs. Each person is unique. So here, each drawing is distinct and different.

In earlier experiments - see them under "archive" - the artist has used similar means to create images of metal household objects. A pair of scissors, for example, set on paper saturated with chemicals, produces a halo of rust and its own negative shape.

You can repeat the process, but never the image. No two fingerprints are the same.

In each experiment are knowns and unknowns. A certain object will produce only its own shape in some form or another, scissors scissors, a knife a knife. But the particulars will differ each time depending on the weather, the strength of the chemicals, the dampness of the paper and so on.

Chance and control go hand in hand. Just as nature makes all leaves the same yet never makes two alike, so Alborough's electro-chemically produced images never repeat themselves. We are always surprised, always delighted by the alchemy of chance.

The moment of birth is also the beginning of decay. Life and death are two sides of a coin. The life flowing from the batteries in turn creates a new being, a drawing. We watch an epitaph being written. It is not hard to read into this process a parallel with our journey from birth to death and to the life hereafter.

Way back in the 1830s Fox Talbot trod a similar path. Dipping sheets of paper into mixtures of salt water and silver nitrate and then placing objects on them and putting them out in the sun, he made silhouette pictures of leaves and lace, ferns and flowers. Photogenic drawing, he called it. Or, as he wrote, "the process by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil". These paper negatives which later would be reprocessed to make positives are the birth of photography.

This moment was, however, simply a moment in a longer process which had intrigued artists and scientists for centuries before. The invention of the lens had made it possible to make images of objects and people and landscapes. One needed only a darkened area and a light area divided by a lens between. But they were furtive and fugitive.

The camera obscura and its extended family of portable sisters and brothers allowed artists to project the scene in front of them onto a surface and trace the outline - Canaletto, Vermeer and many, many others used such devices. The invention of a chemical means of fixing these images, to make the fugitive picture permanent, was the moment that modern photography was born.

Alborough and Fox Talbot talk to each other across a void of a century and a half. Each in turn links with others before and between, connected by the common search for the illusive image, each feeding off the ideas that swim in the air around them.

And into that same air, the ideas and words and pictures of this present happening, here in Durban, reach every corner of the earth and beyond, every moment of every day, from now to infinity.

"What you are, the world is," wrote Krishnamurthi, the Indian freethinker a handful of decades ago. Nothing could be more simple: nothing more complex.