| The Usefulness of Uselessness |
By Dr Melanie Hillebrand
For the average South African layperson the contemporary art world has become increasingly weird, like Chuang Tzu's dream: not funny but definitely peculiar, and one is sometimes not sure who is being made fun of. Those in the know are suspected of perpetrating elaborate hoaxes. The seriousness with which the "traditional" contents of an art museum are viewed by the untrained can only be matched by the humourless zeal of the trained, intent on converting the unappreciative masses, or, at least, on shocking them out of their apathy.
Much contemporary art is so consciously unfunny, so full of obvious missionary ardour, that to encounter an exhibition without narrative or obvious agenda accompanied by an artist who refuses to discuss or even name his work was very refreshing indeed. It gave me some pleasure, then, to be invited to take part in the unfolding of this artwork and to be given the freedom to respond creatively. Being second in line in a series of essays is a little daunting, but I took comfort in Professor Richards's introductory comments: "One needs only thoughts, feelings, senses and a conviction to play. Some of us play lightly, some seriously. Some, not at all." [Essay 1] I would add that one also needs intuition and that, while playing, you should, like a good musician, keep time and listen to your fellow players.
Who Am I?
As this is a personal response I shall start by introducing myself. I am an art museum director, professional art historian, part-time artist-potter, student of Chinese culture, observer of mass culture, collector of books on food, experimental cook, fantasy fiction addict, and, not least, a woman.
I Curate, Therefore I Am
The art museum is a place where the worlds of the art professional and the art novice meet (and usually collide). [Fig 1] The annual reports of a public art museum seldom record the bizarre or the outrageous which is probably why they are never read by members of the public. And this is a pity because museum work has its own creativity with all its implied tensions and resolutions. In an art museum, especially, it helps to have a sense of humour, even if one only sees the funny side some time after the event. (I'm sure that any day now we will all be killing ourselves over the 300 tiny batteries that had to be clawed out of their little casings and replaced halfway through the exhibition opening, in full view of an audience of jocular, mildly inebriated guests.)
I am constantly in awe of what my long-suffering colleagues manage to put up with (and eventually laugh at) for the sake of art. This in the face of the common perception that we do nothing but sit around all day looking at pictures and things on pedestals. They cheerfully endure the oddities of artists whose artworks, when switched on, blow all the fuses in the Gallery, who finish welding their masterpieces on the front steps of the Arts Hall minutes before the exhibition opens (and you know who you are), and whose depictions have scandalised the faint-hearted and our quaintly conservative local press. So it was a rare pleasure to work with this year's Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner whose only weakness was a desire to arrive early and work late. But then, what else would one expect of a former art museum exhibitions officer? The unexpected, I suppose, which came in the form of an exhibition which not only occupies the available space but incorporates it as part of the artwork.
Being a participant in the setting up of an exhibition always changes one's perception of it. In Grahamstown I was able to step into the completed oeuvre in the featureless confines of the Monument Gallery. I was probably one of the first of many visitors to kick and guiltily reposition one of the immaculately-placed white reflectors on the floor of the entrance passage. So in Port Elizabeth it was something of an anti-climax to be confronted by the poor dismembered artefacts that emerged from their packing crates. It took the best part of a week to reassemble and recreate the installation in the Gallery's Arts Hall. Any machine that is taken apart and reassembled inevitably produces a mysterious handful of superfluous screws. So I watched with bated breath to see whether there would be any spare syringes or cotton reels. But no, in fact the machine needed feeding: vast quantities of new batteries, extra leads, lights and additional alchemical paraphernalia were acquired and incorporated.
We wondered if the Neoclassical mouldings and other early-20th-century trappings of our exhibition space would influence the appearance and meaning of the artwork. The tall arch of the ribbed ceiling and the suspended lighting framework do in fact give the illusion that the artefacts below are miniature versions of the space that they occupy. The altered layout also reflects the rigid symmetry of the room and the fact that it is a passageway to other rooms beyond. The artwork now becomes part of the route for a journey, rather than a cul-de-sac or terminus as it appeared to be in Grahamstown. One visitor commented that the tramlines of reflectors now looked like the runway system of an airport. And this is quite appropriate as our museum is the first stop on its national tour confirming my original impression that the poster resembles a map of the London Underground, each exhibition venue representing a tube station or resting place. And, given the artist's firm refusal to take part in any discussions about the work, he too becomes a conduit, as described by British artist Tracey Emin: "What travels through me is what I make. Something comes into me, spirals out, and as it spirals I pull it in, create something, then throw it back into the world." (Tracey Emin, The History of I, 1997)
Abandon All Preconceptions Ye Who Enter Here
This is not to say that Alan Alborough does not welcome discussion per se. The exhibition opening and the two public walkabouts that he conducted here are witness to that. He is intensely interested by what people have to say about his work, even those who are irritated and baffled by the absence of a ready answer. I have found the comments of members of the public far more enlightening than any of the attempts made so far by critics or historians to relate Alan Alborough's work to the contents of his extensive CV and website archive. Perhaps he has created a miniature model of the kind of purgatory that art historians can eventually expect to enter if they use too much jargon or too many pompous musings unrelated to the world of the artists that they analyse? (The first level of hell will be for the merely unimaginative who will be herded into classrooms and made to listen to dreary lectures on the nature of beauty. And there will have to be a level for perpetrators of meaningless purple passages who will be made to listen to the speeches of politicians and live on spring water and muesli. I can't think of any punishment too awful for historians who use voluminous footnotes and obscure text. Perhaps they will be attached to batteries and fried for eternity on gigantic coils of redundant text?)
Professor Richards pointed out in his essay that the "expectations of those who know or claim to know art when they see it are surprisingly ungiving". This must be his polite euphemism for the kind of hostility that the exhibition may have encountered at the Grahamstown Festival. Or perhaps Port Elizabeth art lovers are just more direct? One who attended the Port Elizabeth exhibition opening was heard to comment rather loudly while standing in the middle of the installation, "So, where is the art exhibition?" This artwork is full of evolving ironies, not the least of which is the spontaneous creativity shown by art laypersons when confronted by this work (something which appears to be lacking in many art professionals). When it becomes obvious that they have been given the artist's permission, they are not afraid to answer the question, What is it? So I am going to take their cue, partly because their various comments have set up interesting trains of thought in my own mind, and partly because, in order to play this kind of play, one must bypass a lot of useful academic baggage and reclaim what you thought was useless.
I Fantasize, Therefore I Am (The Black Warrior Of The North)
There is something distinctly primordial about the plastic tortoise-like forms that march through this exhibition. Sceptics who ridicule the veracity of a flat earth carried by elephants on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space should heed the power of archetypal symbolism, even in the wittily post-modern manifestations of Terry Pratchett who gently pokes fun at belief systems, both ancient and modern, in his Discworld novels:
In Chinese myth the Tortoise is one of the four Auspicious Creatures (the others being the Tiger, the Phoenix and the Dragon). It is the Black Warrior, depicting strength and endurance; it has a very long lifespan and was therefore a symbol of longevity - a highly prized objective in Chinese society. In its warrior aspect the Tortoise was depicted with the Dragon on the banners of the imperial army. This pairing symbolised indestructibility as neither animal can destroy the other: the Tortoise cannot be crushed and the Dragon is inaccessible. In the context of current eco-awareness, I can't think of anything stronger or more enduring than the industrial plastic from which these artworks were made. It resists the attack of acids, alkalis and solvents; when bent it springs back into shape; it is an excellent insulator and has a high strength-to-density ratio. Perhaps the archeologists of some distant civilisation will one day excavate Alan Alborough's artwork, which will have retained its original layout, colour and shape, and declare excitedly, "These people worshipped tortoises!"
The Chinese also associated the Tortoise with the cold northern regions, the element water and the feminine principle (Yin). The Queen of Heaven, Hsi Wang-mu (Xi Wangmu), is the Controller of Time, Space and Death and so is the bestower of long life. She kept an orchard in heaven with a thousand peach trees which only bloomed once every thousand years. Anyone who ate one of her peaches would attain immortality. It may be for this reason that she is sometimes also referred to as the Golden Mother of the Tortoise. The sinuous beauty of much contemporary design can be attributed to the Yin adaptability of plastic: it will accept any shape, through extrusion, moulding, casting or spinning, and accepts any colour or finish. Attractive plastic commodities now dominate a woman's life. How many households do not possess cupboards full of brightly-coloured, dome-shaped plastic containers with tightly-fitting lids? How many housewives do not fight as if their very identity depended on it to regain possession of their favourite plastic cake bin from the school cake sale or local fête? The same archeologists of the future might also find the embalmed remains of some tasty leftover meal perfectly preserved in its Tupperware vessel surrounded by the barely-perceptible oxidised fragments of the fridge that once housed it. An offering to the Tortoise god, perhaps?
I Nurture, Therefore I Am
Part of growing up in the Fifties involved a steady bombardment of gender propaganda which depicted the average family as consisting of a manly, lantern-jawed, double-breasted-jacketed daddy and a petite, feminine, wasp-waisted mummy who was usually depicted wearing a frilly apron and shoes with impossibly high heels, presenting an elaborately prepared meal to daddy and their 2.3 children. If the publications of the day are to be believed, mummy proved her devotion by slaving over the production of goodies such as shrimps stuffed into carved cucumber cups, crown roast of lamb with paper tassels arranged over the ends of the bones, macaroni and broad bean casserole with heart-shaped croutons dipped in chopped parsley, iced petits fours, and angel cake filled with strawberries. Actually my mother (who was a very good cook) did none of these things because she didn't believe in recipe books and so remained uninfluenced. She possessed only two, neither of which was ever consulted. The one was a 1947 edition of Mrs Beeton (a wedding present) which was used to press wild flowers because it was so fat and heavy, and the second was A Good Housekeeping Cookery Compendium which I poured over in my room because then, as now, I was obsessed by anything to do with food. My most frequently recurring nightmare as a small child was that my mother would die and I would never eat baked custard again. (I wasn't so worried about father because he only knew how to make burnt toast and watery scrambled eggs.) This anxiety found a creative outlet when, at the age of seven, I decided to construct my own recipe book by scrounging recipes cut out of newspapers and magazines which I pasted into a foolscap scrap book. This now runs into several volumes and is accompanied by many thousands of the printed variety. (One can never have too many books about food, and I can now make my own custard.)
The most extraordinary, unbelievable creation in the Good Housekeeping Compendium was the Wedding Cake [Fig 2] and the instructions for icing it [Fig 3]. These include elaborate shapes in royal icing piped from a choice of over 40 nozzles, realistic white roses, and, best of all, domed trellis nets which were shaped over a variety of plastic moulds. [Fig 4] The time and care that this kind of work must have involved was awesome and a little worrying. Was this what the world expected from a girl when she eventually became a woman? Would she have to prove her worth by toiling endlessly to produce domed trellis nets that would be smashed and consumed in an instant, over and over again? Just as she would wield clothes pegs to hang out washing that would just get dirty, over and over again? And change batteries that powered tools that would die and have to be replaced, over and over again? And maintain a shining white kitchen to prove that she cared ... over and over and over ...?
This came back to me as I observed the white plastic structures on exhibition, as elaborate and delicate as any wedding cake, but, typically masculine, made out of something completely indigestible (and therefore useless) that would last in order to be admired ... over and over again.
Earth Mother Meets Plastic Father
It is ironic that much women's work is ephemeral and yet the very essence of permanence is expressed in a term such as "Mother Earth". Even the computer term "motherboard" suggests the steady, reliable foundation on which the machine with all its complicated artificial synapses depends. Indeed, the world is now completely dependent on all those millions of motherboards and microchips. The recent Y2K hysteria is ample witness to that. And isn't it ironic that the personal computer, with its international adaptability, has begun to empower female labour by forcing office workers to adopt multi-tasking, a traditionally feminine skill? (No more typing pool, no more armies of compliant nubile secretaries working happily in the background?)
Another irony is that, in spite of the proliferation of automatic machines, drip-dry fabrics and microwave ovens, women's work is still never done. The beautiful, white, plastic clothes pegs do the same job as the old wooden ones, and, even if one has been rescued from the mental and physical purgatory of beating your washing in the river with a stone, modern fabrics have their own maintenance problems with which to enslave the unwary. Once absorbed by consumerism there is really no escape. Those who wish to return to a "simple" way of life will soon learn that this involves endless physical drudgery or the necessity of paying someone to carry it out on one's behalf. These people are soon reduced to maintaining futile symbols of their disapproval (eating too much roughage, spurning machine-made fibres, walking to work) while exploiting all the advantages of the consumer society (burglar alarm systems, cellphones, antibiotics). Being able to turn these symbols of female servitude into works of art is the ultimate luxury, perhaps a symbol in itself of one's acceptance of life embedded in labour-saving technology: safe in the arms of the motherboard if not of Mother Earth.
The identity of the plastic components (their "real" use) is not really at variance with their new identity as art components. One senses that one may decode, Duchamp-like, the clasps, clothes pegs, syringes, and so on, but, unlike Duchamp's numerous imitators, Alborough has employed their resemblance to related artefacts to create magic. This reminded me immediately of the adaptations made in traditional Xhosa society where, for example, nursing mothers, who used to wear necklaces made out of aromatic woods, roots, powders and medicinal substances [Fig 5], have substituted the original materials for carefully matched plastic debris that resembles the originals [Fig 6]. When asked whether the new materials have the same efficacy, contemporary mothers say that they are simply copying their grandmothers. (Information supplied by Stephen Long.) Despite losing their original medicinal value, the necklaces still have symbolic power, because the women are instantly recognised as nursing mothers and will be treated with due consideration.
I Create, Therefore I Am (Come on up to the lab and see what's on the slab!)
I was once in a children's playground with some friends looking at a very unusual sand pit. It was rectangular and had a frame constructed over it that may have been the beginning of a pergola. Children had been playing in it and there were buckets and toys lying around. A few of us identified it immediately as a big dishevelled four-poster bed and played the fool with this possibility. The others looked at us pityingly and said, "It's a sand pit, you idiots".
The first scenario that sprang to mind when I saw Alborough's exhibition in Grahamstown was that it was night, I was on the roof of the shopping mall, my hands were full of shopping and my car had been stolen. Perhaps it was the context of the Festival that generated such a theatrical, melodramatic impression. When I shared this with various acquaintances they were either scandalised by my frivolity or scornful: "It's just a lot of plastic stuff, you idiot."
There must be something extraordinarily frightening about the creative mind of the artist to provoke so many knees to jerk, either offensively or defensively. Maybe, as Chanel dress designer Carl Lagerfeld points out, you must always include references in your work because people are afraid of anything new. The absence of traditional artistic materials in any exhibition is enough to produce a collective frisson of disapproval. And yet, if the stained cloths on the wall had been presented neatly framed and behind glass (like painted canvases), they would probably have been recognised and accepted as "art". The fact that an artist planned the corrosion and meticulously positioned the components that would create them is not as important as the lack of recognisable presentation. And the use of "ordinary" artefacts to make art is apparently still as controversial as Duchamp's urinal, placed on its pedestal nearly a hundred years ago.
Strange that art and science should employ the same alchemical processes and yet be viewed as separate and unrelated. Alchemists were credited with wanting to turn lead into gold and were the forerunners of modern chemists and pharmacists. It was also the Alchemists' Guild that artists and painters were obliged to join in order to practise their craft. Actually, the lead-gold business was just a metaphor for turning the useless into the useful. Like a modern factory turning sludgy petrochemical by-products into plastic.
Another thing that puzzles me is the tendency of visitors to refer to the exhibition as "futuristic". Plastic exists now, doesn't it? Perhaps they have seen too many bad sci-fi movies where the art director has cobbled together various recognisable metal and plastic components to make unlikely spaceships, ray guns and magic machines. Plastic isn't precious, like gold or diamonds or marble, or futuristic. The idea that High Art must be constructed out of rare or difficult or unknown materials is only an indication of the mind-set of those who think it should be. Quite apart from its fascinating layers of meaning this exhibition is as beautiful as any medieval stained glass window or contemporary porcelain sculpture which utilises light and translucency in exactly the same way. Like most art it relies on the beguiling sensuality of its materials and forms, carefully stage-managed illusions and the imagination of the spectator.
Perhaps most disturbing of all to the spectator is the realisation that s/he has the responsibility of completing the creative process. The artist has taken a base material (alchemical lead), destroyed it, manipulated it, reconstructed it, and presented it to the viewer to harvest its reward (alchemical gold). Like a surrogate mother carrying somebody else's baby, the viewer can either be excited by the prospect of sharing the birth, or resentful of the effort required.
I Grieve, Therefore I Am
The apparent insensitivity of this remark is understandable given the daily bombardment from the mass media of painful bad news: war, hijacking, armed robbery, murder, rape, AIDS, and so on. We live in a desensitised society that can discuss violent crime and mass murder delivered to us by a third party, but not the immediate realities of personal loss and death.
This might be a good time to reconsider Hsi Wang-mu (Xi Wangmu), the Chinese Queen Mother of the West who was also the Controller of Time, Space and Death. She originated as a shamanic Great Mother in Chinese pre-history and possibly has the same roots as Kali, the Indian goddess of death and retribution. Like Kali, she protected her devotees and ruthlessly destroyed their enemies. When the Chinese adopted the Yin-Yang system and religious Taoism absorbed ancient shamanistic practices, it became necessary to provide the Queen Mother (Yin) with a King Father (Yang) to maintain a balance. So the August Emperor of Jade was born: the King Father of the West. But, as in most cultures that replace a matriarchy with a patriarchy, the Jade Emperor soon took control and reduced the Queen Mother to a folk goddess, flying prettily around on her phoenix, jealously guarding her orchard of peaches, and wondering, like her Roman equivalent, Juno, what the Jade Emperor saw in all those younger goddesses.
The past two thousand years of aggressive monotheism have seen the complete oppression of any matriarchal deities and their (usually sexual) values. After centuries of neglect Mother is now very angry. No wonder the collective unconscious has spent the last century of the second millennium CE producing excessively masculine atrocities like the Nazi holocaust, pogroms throughout Africa, cruel dictatorships in South America and vicious religious conflicts. Perhaps the New Agers are right and we are about to enter a millennium that will be dominated by neither male nor female values. In the interim, though, it is necessary to have a period of mourning for the death of the old millennium, and, before mourning can be completed, one must deal with old grievances and the confession of sins.
The sombreness of a funeral permeates this exhibition, from the subdued lighting to the grave-like plastic slabs with their wreathes of pegs and syringes. Many visitors respond instinctively by talking in whispers as if they are in a funeral parlour or morgue. There is something of the antiseptic callousness of a hospital where the terminally-ill go to die, and the piles of dead batteries could be so many corpses in a mass grave. Stained sheets are laid out like forensic evidence pinned up and lit from behind like an X-ray. Did the person die of some incurable disease that caused them to soil their linen, or was their death caused by something more sinister - illicit drugs, perhaps, or murder?
The Useful Uselessness Of Art
The quest for beauty is still of vital concern, despite its ostensible uselessness. Like Chuang Tzu's tree this exhibition has no "use". The clothes pegs have been wired together, the batteries are dead, the electric fittings shed a non-functional light and the gradual accumulation of discoloured discs will eventually kill even that residual light. Even if the artefacts are eventually turned into a kind of meditation chamber, this implies that you will merely share its space and not do anything "useful".
Liberating one's ability to enter an imaginary world is as difficult for some people as it was for Alice to enter the beautiful garden in Wonderland. And Alice, despite being a child with all the requisite freshness and innocence and lack of preconceptions, still needed a potion marked "drink me" and bits of magic mushroom to get there. Alice's journey has been interpreted in many ways, but most commonly as a metaphor for birth, death and rebirth. Alice enters Wonderland as a child by falling through a narrow tunnel, she endures physical and psychological changes, and wakes up on the threshold of adulthood. Significant artworks, like Wonderland, should effect a change in the participant. It must provide a catharsis to cleanse and refresh one's mind, or, better still, an opportunity to wake up and wonder who you really are: Melanie dreaming that she is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that she is Melanie?