| Artthrob, May 22 2001|
Alan Alborough at the Standard Bank Gallery
By Kathryn Smith
If a touring art exhibition was read like a TV series, we'd unfortunately have reached the end of the Alan Alborough season. And quality viewing it was, too.
The Standard Bank Gallery is not one of my favourite spaces, but for the Standard Bank Young Artist award winner it's a requirement to show there. After poring over the online visitors' book for at least an hour, I was pleased to notice, between the usual graffiti and messages from Alborough's old art teachers, that many comments in the Johannesburg section bemoaned the expensive corporate rag of a carpet.
A note to the gallery: a neutral floor is a good floor. With the unpredictable nature of contemporary art these days, you may well find people looking down more often (as with this show) than at the walls.
A note to readers: the reason people look down is because the work is mostly a floor installation. And although I did sense an air of dejected defeat among a few visitors, I've learnt that the answers seldom come from staring at one's shoes.
You see, the one thing that Alborough's exhibition succeeded in doing, for me anyway, was simultaneously to draw attention to the architecture and interior of this gallery (horror), and then to make me realise that, of all the shows I've seen there, this one tackled its territory with quiet intelligence and stealth.
For those who haven't been there, a ground floor level has two small spaces on either side. At the moment, these house a Bonnie Ntshalintshali retrospective. Moving into an atrium, two enormous wood-panelled staircases swoop you upstairs, only now you have to look over the space across a wide, eye-of-the-hurricane-type central well. A gigantic disc-shaped ceiling with skylights finishes off this central feature, and large wood-panelled columns make their appearance in the gallery space now and again, as huge obstacles to bypass in search of the art. It's a bit like 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Banking Giant on Survivor.
While others have either ignored the space or tried hard to work with it formally, they have, for the most part, had to admit defeat. Alborough has not emerged unscathed, but his passive-aggressive tactics worked as best they could.
If you've followed the course of the show on ArtThrob, you'll be familiar with the processes it involved. The work altered and the show grew as it toured, the installation becoming "site-specific" at each new venue.
Alborough also used his option for a catalogue to produce one of the most comprehensive artist's websites that I've seen. It too has grown with the tour and he plans to publish it on CD-ROM once the final details have been tweaked.
The objects on show lurk in semi-darkness, lit from beneath. Their arrangement, whether encountering the first series at the top of the stairs, or the two systems to the left and right side of the well, is perfectly symmetrical. Pegged, non-woven fabric screens divide the space towards the rear of the gallery, creating an enclosed space that is quite insular. Alongside hang Alborough's corrosion drawings. Numerous reflectors and small, pegged sheets of fabric punctuate the spaces where his sculptures sit.
As I have written elsewhere, you could easily construct these things from stuff you find in the kitchen cupboard or the garage. And that's just the thing. You wouldn't go to all the trouble. But you will be completely taken in and bemused by his ability to alchemise these bits and pieces into shapes that you can only grasp at what they could be - geodesic domes, nuclear reactors, dead circuitry technology, even hot cross buns and parking lots - whatever makes you feel more emotionally and intellectually comfortable in their presence.
His aesthetic seduction entices you - despite yourself - into a space that is implicitly violent and disturbingly alien. It's a bit like rubbernecking around the scene of an accident. Whether you need to find the familiar in these constructions or simply be in their presence, you should still feel comfortable enough with a point Alborough drives home: "If meaning is only recoverable in explanation, this is a failure."
One comment by a visitor to Alan Alborough's Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition reads: "Totally incomprehensible. Which is kinda nice in a chin-stroking, art diploma kinda way - isn't this image a bit too myopic in its area of attraction? It's too inaccessible to revolutionise but not sensational enough to excite. And those 'pod' things do rather resemble hot cross buns."
Another visitor found that "the square ones look like parking lots". And another: "It's like watching grass grow."
The exhibition, currently completing its national tour at the Standard Bank Gallery in downtown Johannesburg, remains without a title. On entering the space, your path is mediated by a row of meticulously placed disc-shaped reflectors on the gallery carpet (when will they remove the hideous thing?).
Semi-darkness provides a theatrical setting for Alborough's works, a collection of intensely laboured sculptural constructions, often lit from beneath and made from domestic and industrial plastics, dead batteries, corroded and oxidised elements, an infinite number of cable ties, and other bits and pieces.
Watching grass grow, or paint dry, is a meditative, boring, frustrating, pointless but ultimately rewarding act. You know the end result will deliver, but the process you need to endure to appreciate the product is anything but instant gratification.
Writing this, I feel quite desperate to avoid all the unconsidered things that are usually written about Alborough. He doesn't say much about his work, as a rule. While many artists, in interview situations or in statements, overcompensate to the point of hyperbole, Alborough is (in)famous for his reticence, as well as for these Meccano-like forms you could easily build from the contents of your mother's kitchen cupboard and the garage out back. Well, almost.
It is clear that Alborough takes an intense, if not controlled pleasure in his constructions. They are, by virtue of their existence, exercises in an exquisitely considered formalism. This should not mean that you disregard the material significance of his mad-scientist combinations.
Every single aspect of the very difficult gallery space has been co-opted as a conductor of sorts. His dome-like forms and rectangular vessels are arranged in perfect symmetry around the central well, with sheets of non-woven fibre screening off certain sections, treated with bio-mechanical corrosive stains or left plain, pegged and hung. Cable ties encircle columns, and reflectors (the placement of which has not managed to withstand the human traffic) demarcate spatial zones.
These objects lurk. And you can't trust their stillness. Despite that, a relative quiet is needed for really engaging with these things. On a return visit, I watched a small boy crawling along the floor, totally mesmerised by this adult Lego. The gallery assistant insisted on trying to drag him towards the corrosion paintings, saying: "Look, there are pictures in these."
So you're left with trying to find similes where there really are only metaphors. His constructions wriggle further away from comparison the more you try to say they resemble something else simply because you need to name them to understand them. Or, judging from other comments by visitors, the need to understand the headspace that is required to make work like this.
In typically fastidious fashion, Alborough transcribes the visitors' comments from each centre the show has visited on to his personal website. lnstead of taking the conventional catalogue route for his award exhibition, he went multimedia and produced as coherent and comprehensive a document as I have seen online.
Having said all this, I've probably done precisely what I set out not to do, to talk about enigmas wrapped in mysteries. But this is where you begin to approach the impetus behind Alborough's plastic-fantastic excursions. They are, as critic and artist Colin Richards has noted, "intimations of cool violence". Violent in their transgression of objects that occupy otherwise very ordinary roles in our daily lives, and violent in what they conjure, as hibernating machines.
Beeld, May 9 2001
Uiteindelik tuis ...
Soos 'n reisiger kosbare herinnerlngs, foto's, verslae en briewe tuis uitpak, verteenwoordig dié tentoonstelling van Alan Alborough die einde van 'n kunsreis.
Die reis het verlede jaar op die kunstefees in Grahamstad begin waar Alborough hierdie installasie vir die eerste keer bekend gestel het as Standard Bank se jong kunstenaar van 2000. Van daar is die tentoonstelling na Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Bloemfontein, Kaapstad en nou Johannesburg.
Ook na aanleiding van sy vele fasette en dimensies kan hierdie kunsgebeurtenis vergelyk word met 'n reis. Die tentoonstelling belig die aard en wese van kontemporêre kuns.
Dit verwys na die teatrale, interaktiewe en skouspelagtige elemente van die installasiekuns, die beklemtoning van herwinning in die moderne samelewing, die gebruik van onverwagte materiale in hedendaagse kuns, die verhouding van kuns en wetenskap, die intuïtiewe spel by die konsep van dle kunswerk en die gebruik van nuwe media deur kunstenaars.
Met so 'n uiteenlopende tentoonstelling is die moontlikhede tot verklarings wyd, uiteenlopend en ook uitdagend.
Die kunstenaar verkies om geen titel of enige verduideliking aan die werk te gee nie - die toeskouer word genooi om self te besluit, betrokke te raak en in die proses verryk weg te gaan.
Dit is nie te veel gevra nie, want hierdie tentoonstelling lê wyd oop vir interpretasie.
'n Mens se eerste reaksie op die vreemde "beeldhouwerke" is een van verwondering. By nabetragting bestaan hulle uit deurskynende wasgoedpennetjies, spuitnaalde, kabelbande met metaalspykers en plastiese matte as basis. Die vorms wat 'n mens herinner aan 'n Lego-konstruksie, is van binne verlig deur buisligte.
Die vorms gloei in die halfskemer soos ruimteskepe wat wag om op te styg. Plastiekhouers met gebruikte batterye lê hier en daar. Teen die mure hang papiervelle met roespatrone.
Die pragtige konstruksies vorm slegs 'n deel van die tentoonstelling en kan ook beskryf word as kunsmasjiene.
Die kunstenaar span hulle in om verdere kunswerke te skep deur die metaalpennetjies wat in die kabelbande versink is, in sout water te plaas en dan aan batterye te koppel om deur middel van die positiewe en negatiewe energie roesvlekke vry te stel.
Binne elke konstruksie lê 'n vel saamgepersde veselpapier wat dan die roesvlekke opvang en nuwe kunswerke daarstel. Die groot ligsensitiewe velle papier met die verslag van die proses, hang soos tapisserieë deur die galery as getuie van 'n konsep wat deurgevoer is.
Hier eindig die tentoonstelling steeds nie. Die swygende kunstenaar plaas in die galery 'n rekenaar waarmee die progressie van die tentoonstelling van Grahamstad tot in Johannesburg gevolg kan word.
Die openingsrede, vorige kunswerke deur die kunstenaar, resensies soos dit in die verskillende koerante verskyn het en essays deur akademici stel verdere vertolkings tot beskikking van die toeskouer. Uiteindelik word die tentoonstelling dus 'n grootse ervaring wat soos 'n kunskarnaval vermaak en bekoor, maar ook sterk reaksies uitlok.
Die taalkundige en psigoanalis Julia Kristeva omskryf die woord "karnaval" só: "It is a spectacle, but without a stage; a game, but also a daily undertaking; a signifier, but also a signified ... The scene of the carnival, where there is no stage, no "theatre", is both stage and life, game and dream, discourse and spectacle."
Daar is veel te skryf oor dié tentoonstelling, maar die waarde lê eerder in 'n persoonlike belewenis.
Business Day, May 4 2001
Initially Alan Alborough's exhibition is cold and stark. Strange unearthly boxes made out of plastic pieces and rolled tapes are set in mathematical precision in a symmetrical pathway around the space.
There is an immaculate order in the use of everyday objects - plastic pegs, syringes and parcelling, organised tightly into shapes. It all looks so dreary until one reaches the hanging images at the end, which are like wilting, bleeding sunflowers.
I had to ask the artist what was going on. He refused to discuss any emotive aspect as he intended the viewer to be entirely free in interpreting the installation, explaining only technical aspects.
Batteries at each corner supply energy to coiled tapes, which are soaked with salt water and studded with nails. The resultant oxidisation stains the paper beneath the tapes with rust. The result ("sunflowers") is hung up.
Alborough consciously makes the sculptures frigid with sterility - they induce pain, they are so cold. The organic process he uses does not challenge the inorganic; it works within the limits and changes everything.
The show is a travelling one, with new sculptures added at every venue. Its essence is to live and change - to be in process all the time. The older artworks' tapes are deeply stained, looking like blood-stained bandages. The husks of the batteries are collected in the centre of the sculptures in a tight circle of syringes as they are used up.
The work speaks of ineffable pain, of an unceasing effort to change an inhuman order. The images at the end show a flaming, fluid and blazing victory pulled from the rigidity of death.
I could not help thinking of Picasso, who said that every one of his works contained a phial of his blood, and of Goethe, who said all beauty was grounded in pain.
This artwork appears to be about blood and love, about the aching devotion to truth that it takes to change the inhuman world, and the beauty it is possible to reach through suffering; it is about death, resurrection and metamorphosis.
It is one of the most emotive and beautiful things I have ever seen.
A brilliant piece of contemporary art, it reaches out with singing warmth and optimism, using a genuine alchemical process. It is impossible to describe at how deep a level it works.