sbya 2000 grahamstown
A Corrosive Beauty

By Professor Colin Richards
Department of Fine Arts, University of the Witwatersrand

Beauty is, at the very least, innocent of the charges against it,and it may even be the case that far from damaging our capacity toattend problems of injustice, it instead intensifies the pressurewe feel to repair existing injuries. (Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton 1999, p57)

What follows are pieces, partial reflections written on encountering Alan Alborough's work in Grahamstown. Each is discrete. Each is related. How the reader narrates these into overall coherence is the reader's share. If the reader desires something more wordless, so be it.

In some ways this approach is analogous to Alborough's own sometimes maddeningly serpentine, sometimes simply matter-of-fact creative process. I am mindful that to claim this analogy betrays a conceit on my part. Such grave feelings too, are, it seems, encompassed by that process. In this sense the work is avaricious and all-consuming. To encounter this artist's work is to participate in it.

In this writing I hope to be conversational rather than didactic. Why is it necessary to even say this? Because, however clumsily, it addresses an understandable but unhelpful public response common to Alborough's work; that it is too forbidding in its conceptualisation, in its intricate, laboured premeditation, in its strange materiality, to allow the fluid adventure of conversation. That it is self-evidently intensely structured and voraciously ordered betokens for many viewers closure rather than openness. The latter encourages engagement, the former distances. There is a paradox here. The work is both in almost equal measure. And it is this tension, this tirelessly distant intimacy, which provokes reaction. But one does not need a code-breaker (however much one might be implied) outside what one already has at hand. One needs only thoughts, feelings, senses and a conviction to play. Some of us play lightly, some seriously. Some, not at all.

Artist and writer Andrew Verster conjured two images in his opening words for this exhibition which seem to me to capture and challenge us on entering the arena of Alborough's work. And somehow we always enter his works, captive to an encounter which telescopes that distance we often require to appreciate what lies before us. Especially in matters of art.

I did not write Andrew's remarks down, so recollection might well disfigure them. But, as I recall, the first remark had to do with our - artgoing viewers - expectations of art. The second, with drawing and death. I am less interested in the first, which is about framing reception and feels closest to the didacticism I want to avoid. The second is really more the meat of the matter for me.

I: Great Expectations

Andrew's first comment alluded to the challenge that contemporary art of quality poses for a viewer's expectations. This challenge is integral to quality itself. It involves a complex game with rules we are always making and changing, a 'feel' for the game that is language and indeed life. Nothing less. That game resists easy consumption, and never really ends. Of course neither pleasure nor beauty nor comfort are automatically excluded from our experience because of this resistance or this persistence. The closest correlate to this gaming is what Umberto Eco once called the structured walk of indeterminacy that is art. This sums up Alborough's work wonderfully.

Standing looking at the work, a prominent Johannesburg gallery owner felt that the works were not beautiful. Too cold, it seems. Andrew felt differently. The work, or works, were indeed quite beautiful. Quite why and how puzzled him some. Whether this puzzle persisted or exercised him I cannot say. I was too preoccupied with a set of reverse reflectors ordered on the grey gallery floor which I had clumsily shuffled out of line. These reflectors were not fixed in an otherwise almost completely calculated space. Presumably my anxiety at my clumsiness, my inadvertent interference in what seemed a clearly pre-meditated, pristine staging of a complex work, was part of the exercise.

I did not feel better for thinking of these unfixed reflectors as 'devices' for registering the presence of the viewer. A way of the work noticing the viewer, as it were.

The expectations of those who know or claim to know art when they see it are surprisingly ungiving. Many seem unable to embrace the work's cool, puzzling generosity. And there is a point here. One of the things Alborough's work does with almost excruciating gentleness is create an aesthetic ecology for opening the mind. This is another way of understanding Umberto Eco's structured walk.

In this work there is always more than a spectator will notice. And this includes the artist; not in the same register perhaps, or in the same measure. There is always a disarming material/conceptual excess in this tightly woven, paradoxically porous world. And to notice anything in our image and information inflated world must count as an achievement. For Anatole Broyard, writing in the New York Times (8 April 1991), "[p]aranoids are the only ones who notice things anymore".

If I were to describe what I see, all I would be doing is describing what I notice. But there is always more. Or less, as when one strains to produce something out of nothing along the lines of modernism's 'less is more'. Whichever way, this process, even as parody, exercises the mind and the senses, making perception and sensation more supple, more subtle, more sublime. And if art is meant to intensify, refine, challenge, then this work surely succeeds against the odds of its passionate, unsparing coolness.

But every viewer expects and seeks different things. Sometimes our desires herd like sheep, especially if we know something about art. Almost every viewer, or those specialised connoisseurs of creativity, were, on the day I was there, in search of 'art', of 'expression'. From comments I overheard, and sometimes admittedly put to myself, this familiar search for the familiar was frustrated.

This is not surprising. Alborough's can be as estranged a world as it can be humane and ordinary. Strange and alien writ small, as in the microcosmic world of primary structures and forms. Strange and alien writ large. Where the individual objects and the organic constellation they add up to, recall models or modules for some grand technological confection of God knows what proportion or purpose.

All this puts one in mind of the technologisation of life. Identity as a twist in DNA, as a monstrous possibility in the Human Genome Project, as a cheerful clone, genetically engineered to fit the best laid plans, identity in nanotechnology and in the addictions to the prosthetic life of the cyborg. Or, for me less intriguing, alien in the sense of figures or figments from somewhere beyond the global horizon, some outer place. These are mostly discouragingly dull, being made in some lopsided image of ourselves.

For my part I prefer recognising in the shadow of his work those bizarre organisms and food-chains of extreme situations. Like those transparent, luminously loopy deep-sea creatures and structures which morph idiosyncratically as they respond to the absence of light and the presence of pressure.

The ability to breach and estrange is as overused as undervalued in much contemporary art. Alborough is rare in producing something which never reduces to the tacky shock tactics we know well in art, which are often just so much reshuffling of the aesthetic furniture. His work is something quite other.

And, in the face of this other strangeness, what if, rather than withdrawing to the comfort of our habits, or indulging in our melancholy for their loss, we try and describe and intensify what we actually see or notice in front of and within us? Objects, words, feelings, imaginings. And what we notice becomes exactly a function of that labile space between our subjectivity and the objective phenomena in front of and around us. It is in this space that the imagination breaks the stranglehold of habit. This is where we find new enchantments, construe new worlds of things.

What we come to notice, and this takes time, is an interpretation not just of the work but of ourselves. Interpretation can be a dirty word in art after modernism. The second thought that interpretation suggests smothers spontaneity: what is direct becomes distant. The modern tyranny of 'spontaneity', or immediacy, is now as pernicious as it is persistent in our attitude to art. It embraces a fiction which seems to impoverish contemporary experience and is certainly unequal to it. It signals a certain lassitude, almost a lethargy in our attitude to our worlds.

At any rate it is seldom only about "what does it mean?" (a question posed over and over), but surely "how it feels", with all the attendant pleasures of a chase after an unknown and elusive quarry. Interpretation is a species of appreciation. Contemporary conceptual art rarely creates the conditions of beauty and of sense, of meaning and of appreciation, of signification and value.

This intertwined intellectual/emotional, external/internal habitat seems almost uniquely Alborough's terrain. He creates less the objects and structures we might desire (on the contrary, probably, save for the odd battery fetishist or zealot for the zen of plastic), but the conditions in which our desires can take sensual and sense-making skips and jumps. And this is about pleasure, about beauty, about liberty undoing the bondage in which the familiar holds our imagination and keeps our vision moribund. What faces us is a tonic material ritual; a habitual, laboured making and unmaking of habit to create new structures of experience itself. And of course Alborough uses ordinary, familiar, often disposable material from our industrial urban world, using an often blindingly simple syntax of addition and subtraction to liquidate our more comfortable perceptual habits and conceptual routines. He remakes the found, readymade world by hand in order to make other worlds.

II: Death and Disfiguration

The second image conjured up by Andrew Verster is patently poetic. Perhaps 'pathetic' in the best sense of the word. What, in our sometimes mordant cynicism, is more alluring than death? Why is entropy, energy leaking so conspicuously, corrosively, into the white field so compelling? Doubtless this is a deep cultural question and has perhaps to do with our sense of being trapped in an unending fin de siècle. Everything decays, except decay itself. In this cool assemblage of almost anthropomorphic structures and elemental elaborations there is life and its loss. One could read this psychologically, if you had the courage or the temptation.

Imagine an artwork which 'draws its own death', as Andrew Verster put it. This is exactly what each circuit of contacts and batteries interlinked and woven into the roundels at each corner of the end structures does. These elaborate end structures are the most brightly lit, with light emanating from the structure itself. Light becomes here as much a medium as a condition. The kind of plastic used - the planes, the tubular structures, the ties - absorbs, holds, deflects and disperses light differentially.

A riot of analogies and associations are unleashed here, in this obviously live, or living, part of the installation. We could even see in the trace of that spending of energy the most lively and active aspect of his work. The wispy configurations of rusty, stained corrosion seem like so much liquid smoke, in which the liquid has evaporated. These are exquisite formative processes where the natural and artificial merge. The figures produced are not unlike Rorschach blots which absorb our projections just as the paper absorbs the stain. Projections which speak of us more than of the object of our contemplation.

Marcel Duchamp's Dust Breeding (1920) has, in the next century, become Eveready energy. It is now the action of positive and negative charges in salt water that holds the stain of time, not the accumulation of dust. It is difficult not to read this action in corporeal terms; a sterile, inflamed, corrosive stain of passions spent. The conduits of energy are inert where current once flowed. The batteries die. The cellular corpses evacuated of energy lie piled in a plastic vat. There is an awful link to human catastrophe here. For the bath, or vat, seems vaguely reminiscent of the great graves of human genocide. There appears to be no end to these batteries spent during the course of this exhibition, which ends months away. The geopolitical correlates are obvious: South Africa, Angola, Cambodia, Vietnam, Germany, Bosnia, Chechneya, East Timor, Rwanda, the Congo ... Batteries are apparently quite rare amongst the things we produce in not being recyclable.

If we follow this mordant line many of Alborough's materials - ties, disposable syringes, wire, nails, salt water - become sinister. The sense of the social and corporeal body being restricted, infected, pinned, shocked, transforms the installation into something of an infernal laboratory. This brings us very close to home.

But does the installation not also look like a model of some sort of complicated habitat? Or perhaps it is a habitat itself? Some machine for living? It depends on us to choose what signifies for us, what we notice, and where that act of noticing takes us. We could follow an entirely different aesthetic line. We could, for example, see, between the brightly lit brackets of the paired end structures, an internal, dimmer, perhaps warmer landscape of skeletal carapaces, a space peopled by creatures from another world. A world in which light itself seems to enflesh the plastic ribs of some technophiliac's geodesic tortoises.

We could also follow the beautifully stained and unstained coils, and the dispersal and distribution of these coiled discs systematically on the specific structures across the entire field of objects. There is a system at work here. The coils are placed differently on each of the internal primary structures, poised as they are on a singular black rib which moves in each unit. The actual material of the coils, like the paper absorbing the electric stain, is ideal for drawing; tough and with enough tooth to capture the expressive mark.

This is, then, an expressive world; austere though it might be. We notice further details with unease. Each active coil has, embedded in its structure, a series of small nails. Others have only white clips. These seem distributed across all the structures in some kind of cryptic code. They could, of course, be random. There is something 'natural' about these insertions, like knots in wood. There is something satisfying in imagining the act, the ritual play implied in evenly coiling these lengths of material, something childlike perhaps. The results are quite beautiful, even if the insertion of the nails suggests a disturbing elaboration of this play.

As aesthetic (and whenever one uses this 'art' word, we have to acknowledge at the same time a purely functional, mechanical and practical description would work) are the peculiar black bases of each object. Each rests on modular, interlocking industrial tiles. Where the edges of a base converge - at the corners for example - the plane lifts. This curling of the edges is the result of the placing of small black orbs under the tile. I found this curling as disconcerting as having a stone in my shoe. I also sensed more intensely the emotional presence of the artist in this device. Alborough's aesthetic economy generally tends to this kind of detailing, but here it feels more expressive than functional, assuming we persist with this sort of opposition. Or is it expressive and functional? And more. There are clearly many different drummers drumming here ...

III: The Whole World and Nothing but the World

Alborough's work is the first, as far as I know, to tackle the Young Artist Award as system, an artworld system. This is part and parcel of what I would suggest is a larger, almost utopian project. Clearly this utopian project, if it is one, is stalked by the figure of death, haunted by entropy, fashioned from dystopic materials - acid, disposable syringes, nails, ties, charged wires. The project is almost self-denying, self-cancelling.

I would argue that the utopian gesture, or impulse, lies firstly and perhaps mainly in the desire for completeness. And, as with matters of life, the desire for completeness, not its actual and impossible achievement, is what drives and determines the process. It is as if in all of his work Alborough seeks to develop a population of living aesthetic objects, structures and environments for some as yet unknown cosmos, a material and symbolic cosmological system in which any metaphysics would be the viewer's burden.

At the Grahamstown festival one's first encounter with Alborough's work points to this utopian gesture. This comes in the form of his poster which competes with the cacophony of posters which assault viewers as they enter the Monument. Alborough's poster follows an aesthetic economy and set of signs from which the work in the gallery space is drawn. It also references his previous work. The stark black and white, the simple structure or diagram capable of immense elaboration and radical reduction, the icon of 'sender' and 'receiver' (a visual synapse), the blazon of a primary structure in silky coil reproduced in full colour, are all included. The coil is pristine here, uncorrupted, unstained, untainted by currents of energy. The poster is in and of itself part of the work.

The poster contains important information, principally the urban centres and their cultural sites - museums, galleries - and the dates that prefigure the future of this exhibition. These centres and sites are nodes on the cultural map of South Africa - perhaps complete for the sponsors (also included on the poster) but incomplete for the rest. These nodes embrace an entire artworld - from contemporary art sponsorship, through our acts of cultural prize-giving, to the very depths of our cultural history as expressed in our art institutions, museums and galleries.

There is both adaptation and resistance to these future sites built into the process of travel mapped out for this prizewinning exhibition. The work will change and remain the same. Some changes would be internal to the work itself ... changing configurations of corrosion and staining, an increase in energy spent and so on. Other changes relate to the new sites, the literal and symbolic site in which the work will be restaged as it travels. In some ways the installation will be arranged to account for the changing space, in some ways it will maintain its autonomy against the site. Site specificity and the 'specific object' will thus live in some tension. Of course the reception of the work will also be a function of the demographics of these different sites, which is in itself another text in what we call the artworld.

Along with the commodification that inevitably goes with this kind of artworld process, Alborough produced cards which signal the presence of a 'catalogue'. The catalogue is however not present in its conventional physical form, but in that nowhere and everywhere place we call the worldwide web. It comprises introduction | biography | archive, a list of sites, essays | images | reviews. Clearly the internet and cyberspace are both a medium and part of the artworld system. The material structure of the computer, its keyboard, mouse, do not do symbolic or aesthetic violence to the work as staged in the actual space. The terminal fits. It provides a fitting conduit to an entirely 'other' space, and the point at which history, this artist's particular aesthetic history in all its modalities, becomes accessible. And it is here that language too is engaged with a vengeance, language which is always present in the pun, the cliché, the wordplay that is part of Alborough's work. There is also an uneasy but often acknowledged utopian narrative associated with information technology and the fluid networks of its wide open spaces.

IV: The Candle and the Flame

What is essential, what is elaboration in Alborough's cosmos, with its tenuously animated structures, objects and processes? Is the fuss of structure the core? Is it the central emptiness of the coil, like that of a wheel the core? Is this a homoeostatic world driven not by pleasure but by something more pleasantly deadly? It seems a world suspended between attractive opposites, a world in which black absorbs light and white reflects it. Light, black and white have their own language of illumination, of shadow, of enlightenment and darkness. What predominates? Every assertion has its counter, every form its shadow. Like a battery, every negative has its positive, and herein lies the possibility of life.

Does Alborough's project suggest the death of pleasure that lies in the harsher reaches of reality? Is this important? My sense is that it is. We never stop playing because we never fully reconcile our desires with reality. And is it not in the intractable dissonance between desire and the real that the impulse to play and create lies?

Jean-Francois Lyotard writes it thus:

Play does not reconcile fantasy and perceptual reality by rendering one immanent in the other; rather it proceeds from the realization of their dissociation, while affirming the rights of the former in the enclaves it creates in the latter. Art, an offspring of childhood play, is also in no sense a fusion of realities... Admittedly, the artist brings about a much closer interpenetration of the two processes, collecting the elusive in the actual configuration of his play; and artwork, however... only belongs to reason by the gap opened up by the lack, which (for Freud) rules out any hope that the wish will ever become the actual world, that reality will ever become the game. (Jean-Francois Lyotard, Toward the Post-Modern, New Jersey 1995, pp4-5)

Is much art not exactly about having reality (impossibly) become the game?

Whether in this play, this delicate, elegant staging of a fully incomplete world, the candle is worth the flame remains an open question. It is in the abysmal, fantastic folds of this question that we must answer yes and no. It charges us to decide, to judge, to produce meaning, to embrace sensation, to meditate. And this gives us agency, and with agency comes the possibility of an ethics of aesthetics. And, if we are convinced by Elaine Scarry's defence of beauty glimpsed at the opening of this piece, we can return to our unjust world strengthened, and emboldened to act. Above all, we find space here for the mind to float, even if on a knife-edge.