| Artthrob, July 2000|
Review: Alan Alborough
By Chris Roper
Inescapably, Alan Alborough is a bit of a bastard. His show - untitled, of course: why give the poor viewer even a smidgen of help - is opaque and inscrutable, and forces you to torture your brain for references, for emotional clues, for half-remembered insights - anything to help you understand the work and the feelings it arouses in you. The artist has given nothing away. If you want to understand this work, you're going to have to really, really apply your mind and soul.
Does this sound nasty? It's not. It's a labour that the show compels you to undertake, because the work is not just difficult: it is also beautiful, astoundingly beautiful. It's so beautiful, so arresting, that people were sitting for ages on the floor, mesmerised by the hard clarity of the plastics, lights and surfaces that make up the structure of the pieces.
It's difficult to provide a description of the work, and this review will lean heavily onthe visuals that accompany it. Picture seven large ovoidal structures of light andplastic, squatting like alien eggs on the floor. They are bracketed by two pairs ofsquat, square structures, on which a slow motion drama of decay is being playedout. The materials used are all part of the common lexicon of plastic objects thatinhabit our lives. White clothes pegs, transparent syringes, cable ties, plastic matting- all constructed, all possessed of an industrial beauty.
The four square constructions have vinyl-like white surfaces on which sit coils ofwound material with nails imbedded in them. Alborough has poured salt water on these coils, and run a battery-generated charge through them. This causes corrosion, a rusty effluence that bleeds onto the white surface over the fortnight that the show runs. When the show is over, these coils are transferred to one of the ovoid structures, and new ones take their place for the next show. The coils sit on cotton reel spools that are placed on the plastic ribs that make up the ovoid shape. The show is going to seven cities, so each ovoid will receive the byproduct of onecity's process of decay.
I almost didn't provide this description, because it's the kind of information that onetends to grab onto so as to have some sort of framework for thinking about thework. You almost feel that the artist has provided this information out of the kindnessof his heart, to provide an escape hatch from the remorseless demands of his art.
Even if this is true, Alborough is still a bit of a bastard. Poor Andrew Verster, whoconducted the walkabout that I attended, suffered miserably trying to explain theshow. He desperately tried to humanise the art, telling the viewers that they neededto imagine the pieces as a room full of strangers with whom they had to strike up aconversation. He gave them tips about interview techniques, suggesting that theydon't ask leading questions of the art, but rather let it do the talking. It was a braveattempt to give instant gratification to the crowd, and he was even reduced to anapology, jokingly offering money back to those who still didn't understand what theshow was about.
But the truth is, Alborough's work is not about instant gratification, except in thesense that your heart surges with pleasure when you first walk into the space. It'sabout the materials used, and about the rupture in time that the show marks. Thisrupture is the divide between the old languages of art (realism, conceptual,performance, all those words), and the new language that has come into being withthe advent of the 'net and cyberspace - the language of interdimensionality. This isnot to suggest that this rupture in time is linear, or that the one language supersedesthe other. Of course you can establish antecedents for Alborough's work in abstractart and surrealism, and there are even intergeneric references. His rigid adherenceto an apparently pointless structure is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's use ofrepetition, and has the same effect of creating a white noise of informationaloverload in the viewer's brain.
Still, Alborough has crafted a new language, in the sense that the plastic objects heuses owe nothing to the more malleable materials of other art forms. They are thestuff that make up the symbolic matrix of the cybernetic generation, a generation thatdoesn't even necessarily know what cybernetics is. Even the word "symbolic" is outof place here: Alborough's work doesn't rely on any narrative element, and itcertainly doesn't have meaning in the classic sense.
This insistence on new materials even extends to the exhibition's catalogue, whichonly exists on the 'net at www.alanalborough.co.za. A zooty blue iMac sits on atable, and visitors are invited to surf through the site, which provides a history ofAlborough's work, and space for comments to be added. This is not just a cutedevice, but an integral part of experiencing the show. The hypertextual leapsdemanded of the surfer are akin to the process of understanding the works.
There are a million other ways to explain this work, and the power of AlanAlborough's creations is such that they infect you with a burning desire to reach allthose explanations. Some people, like Andrew Verster, try and humanise them.Others, like the man who asked Verster whether it wasn't all just a con, react withsuspicion. Me, I choose to think of Alborough, albeit affectionately, as a bastard whoforces the viewer to do the work of the artist. This isn't about decoding, it's aboutcreating. Therein lies the genius of his work: it is so inescapably of its time, that theviewer is irresistibly embroiled in the act of creation, and thereby marked foreverwith the power of Alborough's gorgeous creations.
Cue, July 8 2000
The Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner, Alan Alborough, defies all the conventions of art- and exhibition-making. The individual "sculptures" and the exhibition have no titles. The large squat works are not presented at eye-level, on conventional sculpture stands; rather they sit, unsettled, on the floor.
There is no catalogue; rather there is a card with a web address referring to a site which can be browsed on an accompanying computer. The site contains biographical information on the artist, lists his many prizes and awards, and illustrates works made for previous exhibitions. The site also has space to document the exhibition in the various cities it will tour during the forthcoming year.
What is missing from the site is information on this exhibition - there are no clues as to how to read the works and what they mean! The artist is adamant not to give visitors any clues into the possible meaning of the works - he believes that viewers must experience them on their own terms, and not be swayed by external explanations.
It is impossible to describe these aesthetic creations which are crafted from a variety of odd every-day industrial (predominantly plastic) materials, including clothes pegs, plastic tubing, cable ties, syringes, food pallets, batteries and fluorescent tubes.
For some people they resemble an extraterrestrial station, for others they suggest a shopping mall viewed from outer space - while other folks claim they resemble fantastic underwater creations. There are no words to describe them - they are like nothing you have ever seen before! Perhaps this is what the artist is striving for.
Four of the sculptures are surmounted by a damp sheet of paper and rolls of fabric, embedded with paperclips and nails which are connected to batteries. The electric current from the batteries causes the nails to corrode and a rust-coloured stain is slowly bleeding across the paper. The works are thus non-static; they are organically growing "time-bombs", and as the exhibition moves to different venues, new rolls of fabric will be added, and the work will continue to develop.
The paper onto which the corrosion stain bleeds is the only organic material on the exhibition. This possibly hints at medical and ecological issues. The image of environmental bleeding is reinforced by the incorporation of syringes and other non-biodegradable materials.
Certainly this is only one possible interpretation. Alborough's work is highly sophisticated and its meanings are multiple, nuanced and as variable as the psyches of the individual viewers. Go and see what you think - challenge yourself!
World Online, July 13 2000
You know that scene in Alien where John Hurt walks through the mist-filled space ship, and there are eerie alien eggs everywhere? You can experience that same sense of awe and tension by visiting Alan Alborough's untitled exhibition, which will be coming to a city near you sometime in the next 12 months.
It's a beautiful, beautiful exhibition, one that will leave you with a sense of quiet wonderment. To compare it to a Hollywood movie is a little insulting, but let's put that down to the scifi qualities of Alborough's work. The materials he uses are common objects from the hitech modern world of plastics and energy. Plastic clothes pegs, pallets, cable ties, tubing, syringes, batteries and wire are all used to create the seven egg-like structures that squat on the floor of the exhibition space.
These seven eggs (one for each city the show will be travelling to) are bracketed by four rectangular plastic structures, made of the same components, but that have a cloth or paper surface on which sit coils of some sort of material. Little towers of black Eveready batteries push an electrical charge through nails in these white coils, causing a rusty corrosion to slowly seep out and over the cloth surface.
You catch yourself thinking that the brown, inexorably seeping corrosion is the only natural element bringing relief to the antiseptic, pristine affect of the show. But this is incorrect. The effect is as entirely constructed as the white glow of light that emanates from the structures, and is reliant on electrical power and the disintegration of human-made materials.
Alborough's work isn't about the duality between the manufactured, eternal perfection of plastic objects, and the natural decay that has always seemed an inevitable part of human life. It's about how that duality is a false, forced one, a hangover from a time when natural metaphors were dominant. In Alborough's work, nature and technology have become the same thing, part of the fabric of modern life. And when you look at the work, at Alborough's eternally glowing plastic sunrises that squat on the floor of the gallery, you experience a profound sense of satisfaction that this is the case.
Dispatch Online, July 8 2000
The group assembled in the darkened gallery for Alan Alborough's "walkabout" seemed to fit into three sets: devotees, certain that meaning must lurk in the glowing plastic frames; neutrals, who looked no less neutral at the end of the lecture, and sceptics, who had come to hear what they could not see - whether they were missing some subtle point.
Alborough gained attention at the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, when he hung salted elephant ears and elephant feet, like medieval trophies, to make a point about culling. He might have assembled as many live elephants to bring home the problems of over-stocking - if only briefly.
His favourite materials, however, are industrial and household plastic objects. He makes amazingly symmetrical white spheres from plastic clothes pegs and bowls.
In similar vein (or tube), his award exhibition comprises seven dome-shaped plastic frames; four rectangular frames; an Apple iMac computer, table and chair. And two rows of white reflectors.
The frames could be the model for a domed city, supports for small vegetable tents, or a Lego-Technic space station.
The centre of each structure is a white plastic palette, normally used to load wet goods with fork-lift trucks, the glow coming from a light underneath. On each palette is a circle of plastic syringes held together with plastic ties. An injection of meaning here, perhaps?
Attached to the frames or lying on the palettes, are a number of white "discs" - in fact rolls of non-woven, absorbent tape, Alborough tells us.
He has pushed nails into four of the discs and wired them to torch batteries. Because the tapes are damp, brown patterns of corrosion develop, creating the forms Alborough chooses, if somewhat loosely - as with oxide glazes or tie-dying. The form is predetermined, the detail somewhat loose.
Alborough tells us he is fascinated by corrosion.
Each time the exhibition moves, four stained discs will be fitted to the frame representing that city and four more will be wired up. Alborough will not say what all the forms will be.
You can follow their progress on www.alanalborough.co.za. The site design is interesting.
As a clue, the shape on the visitors' book is a - wait for it - heart. The meaning, it seems, will come from corrosion. Corrosion and plastic permanence ... corrosion and sterility ...
It doesn't seem to matter very much.
Eastern Province Herald, July 3 2000
Leave your preconceived ideas of what sculpture should be at the door for this one: Alan Alborough's work is very, very different, but at the same time weirdly beautiful.
This year's Young Artist for Visual Art might be a controversial choice, but winners are chosen on the basis of potential over the preceding years, and he certainly has an impressive academic pedigree and substantial body of work behind him, much of it in the same vein as the current exhibition.
He currently lives in Cape Town and is senior lecturer in Sculpture in the Department of Fine Arts at Stellenbosch University.
For this setting he's created 11 large illuminated structures, squatting on the floor like science-fiction pods. Look closer and you'll see that they're made up of plastic and clothes pegs, syringes, paper clips and rubber - not really space age at all but giving that impression. Dim lighting, reflectors and a snazzy iMac complete the show, where visitors are invited to log on to his website.
If you are fortunate enough to wander round the exhibition alone, you may find the room has an almost zen-like tranquillity.
If you don't have time at the festival, the exhibition comes to Port Elizabeth on July 28.
WebCue, July 2 2000
Standard Bank Young Artist Award 2000 winner Alan Alborough brings his latest highly refined, strongly conceptual installation to this year's festival. This work in progress builds from venue to venue, assuming a variety of shapes depending on the space in which it is installed. Alborough has the ability to convert everyday objects into forms which attain almost iconic significance, asking viewers to unravel the aesthetic maze for themselves. The artist sets out to shatter preconceptions of form and space, so that each installation is a unique experience.
National Arts Festival supplement
The press release I receive from Standard Bank refers to Cape Town-based artist Alan Alborough and is headlined: "Complex Artist Wins Young Artist Award". It is very possibly a line that would make Alborough himself smile, not smugly, but in appreciation of the ellipse of "complex artist", suggesting as it does confused respect, respectful curiosity, admiring bewilderment. "Complex", a convenient catch-all term, acknowledging interpretive difficulty, revealing an awareness of complexity, but not necessarily an understanding of what that complexity might denote.
As it is, Alan Alborough's work seldom denotes: it is most often a minimalist cluster of connotations, a pristine assemblage of suggestion executed with awful intelligence and an exquisite aesthetic sensibility.
I definitively fell for that sensibility and all that it entails when I came face to face with Heathen Wet Lip, his installation on the exhibition Graft, curated by Colin Richards for Trade Routes, the second Johannesburg Biennale.
What I saw as I entered the navel of the exhibition, mounted in the South African National Gallery, seemed at first to be the rigging of a ship. Only the sails, such as they were, consisted of two rows of eight cured elephant ears, roped and rigged at 45-degree angles to the columns that cut through the centre of the space. Between the columns and the rows of ears, twinned together, were the foot pads of elephants, resting on suspended glass platforms that did not so much hover above as hypnotise the ground.
Heathen Wet Lip. Regarded straight on, from a precise position at centre, on approach, this explosively disciplined structure took on the shape of the elephant's head itself, obvious and then obscure, a privileged encounter with history, memory, violence, acquisitiveness - all through immaculately rigged contraband.
Language (the title of the work) and image (the work itself) fought for sense: knowing Alborough, as if that were ever possible, one knows that this is a game, an experiment in the statistical probabilities of meaning that occur when language meets - and misses - vision, material, space. Heathen Wet Lip is an anagram: White Elephant.
Each encounter with Alborough's artistic production - from his first solo show at the Everard Read Contemporary in 1992, to Heathen Wet Lip itself - is an exercise in deduction swathed in aesthetic seduction. As Richards describes it, Alborough's work catalyses a simultaneous priming of gut and brain, "a sort of visceral-cerebral mix of the pristine sort - heart and head holding hands".
Richards, who for Graft worked long-distance with Alborough (then in London) finds him "remarkable in his ability to work the tension between feeling and thinking ... it's as if his ideas come only in material form, even for him."
Alborough's 1997 exhibition for his Masters degree at Goldsmiths College, University of London, is a case in point. Titled Beautiful Objects, this deceptively quiet show materialised as a manifestation of the in-betweenness of language, projected into space. The works, bearing titles such as Beautiful Objects: Bracket, Beautiful Objects: Hyphen, and so on, gave physicality to the mind's eye vision of punctuation rendered in 3-D. To a point. The sheer aesthetic pleasure of their quirky literalness had to be undone - through materials, through the slippage between words and the things to which words are meant to refer.
Beautiful Objects: Hyphen was a simply perfect, snow-white curve, a smile that looked not like a hyphen but like a bracket. An intricate construction of plastic pegs, gut, and coins, this delicate piece of plastic punctuation deferred even as it referred, recused itself from the artifice of "meaning" while offering meanings beyond its apparently humble intent. An example of what Richards refers to as Alborough's sometimes "acid sentimentality".
In Kill the Messenger, a work made for the exhibition State of the Art at the Everard Read Contemporary in 1994, Alborough made the medium the message, and vice-versa. A telegram from the artist addressed to the gallery provided instructions on how to install and label the work, of which the telegram itself formed a part. But through this low-tech missive, Alborough constructed an infinitely layered game in which the conventions of communication became endlessly referential, and self-referential. The telegram ended with the injunction: "KILL THE MESSENGER (FINISH MESSAGE)." Language turned in on itself, turned against the user, in solipsistic suicide.
Despite the fact that Alborough has won numerous awards and has exhibited widely, he is still to an extent an unknown quantity in South Africa. His resistance to hype is part of his method rather than another form of hype; his desire is to have his work communicate to us before he does. The entry under "Alan Alborough" in the catalogue for the second Johannesburg Biennale was void: two pages of black ink, no information, no CV. What this strategic reticence achieves is a refusal of privileged access to meaning: Alborough, like his work, resists closure, offers only a series of openings, doors to other places.
As this year's winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art, Alborough - while anxious not to come across as "obstructive" - has remained opaque regarding the work on show in Grahamstown. No interviews, no directives, but also no pretenses.
Just the start of another intriguing game by an extraordinary, thoughtful, thoroughly complex artist.
Artthrob November 1999
The Standard Bank Young Artist Award for the Visual Arts for the year 2000 has been awarded to Alan Alborough. His name might be a little unfamiliar to some, but those who know his work rate it highly. Besides, the repeatedly stated aim of the award is that it be given to an individual who is 'young' in terms of the development of their career, one who is highly regarded and will benefit from the publicity and accolades which attend this award.
Alborough's work is difficult to pin down and he is notably silent about it. He chooses not to work in any one medium or mode, but instead shifts around, finding what is appropriate for a particular project. Unlike many conceptual artists, Alborough never abandons the aesthetic, and his works are engaging, sensual and provocative. Listing the materials in which he has worked - cured elephant ears, plastic clothes pegs and armoured glass - can't do justice to the multi-layered meaning and visual arrest of his work. It might also seem to preclude any number of media in which he may choose to work in the future. Recently audiences have seen his work, part of a group of works, entitled Beautiful Objects on the 'Emergence' show which is currently travelling the country. His 1997 work Heathen Wetlip (an anagram of 'white elephant') was part of the 'Graft' show curated by Colin Richards for the Johannesburg Biennale of that year. It is fashioned from the cured ears and feet of culled elephants and was rigged with cotton rope and clamps. It elicited strong responses, not all of them approving. The work created a tension between its sensual and emotional shock value and its compelling visual and intellectual aspect. Its clean lines and structural integrity were refuted by its reference to South African domestic artifacts.
The Young Artist Award finances the production of a catalogue and headlining publicity for an exhibition at the Standard Bank Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown. The show then travels the country. After a hiatus of one year, while the festival celebrated its 25th birthday, it is refreshing to see it return with what some would regard as a risk. Alborough was born in 1964 in Durban and studied Fine Art at Wits University. He went on to complete a Master's Degree at Goldsmith College in London. His career and studies have been marked by numerous scholarships and awards. He is currently resident in Cape Town, where he is certain to produce a compelling and challenging body of work for his upcoming show.