sbya 2000 pietermaritzburg
Alborough: Conceptual and ethical dimensions

By Juliette Leeb-du Toit
Centre for Visual Arts, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg

On perusing Alan Alborough's installation in the Tatham Art Gallery, I was struck by its serenity, presence and authority. On leaving I was convinced that I had been enlightened and uplifted by a utopian and moral experience. The work tends to stabilise its subject viewer, centring one into an attitude of contemplation and silence. Such experience should perhaps not require written explication or communication, and much in the installation defies such an account. In what follows, I wish to share some of the ways in which I have come to comprehend why and how my initial experience could have arisen and, more reticently, what analogies elements in the work suggest.

The invitation to respond unconditionally to an artist's work elicits a strange recklessness in any art historian or critic. In an exercise of articulate bravura one is tempted to invoke hermetic phraseology that will provide an indication of one's own capacities and insights. I am persuaded, however, to read the work subjectively, more as a philosophical text that demands to reveal possible analogies and vocabulary.

The artist's text will always remain enigmatic to a degree, even to its creator. In the belief that art is born of conscious conceptual intent, manifest in physical activity and a metaphysical dimension, the artwork will always be informed by indefinable dimensions. It is constantly modified by the accrual of critical responses, which readings the work can resist and suppress as it remains intact, only to be read again and again by new generations and in different contexts.

The emergence of installation within the realm of conceptual art, born within modernism, especially Dada, was revived again in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of recklessness and resistance, alternating with a conservative obliviousness to current discourse. Such volatility was often channelled into both overt and covert reactionary or subversive practice, which gave rise to alternate paradigms such as feminism, anti-capitalist groups, and ecological movements. Essentially installation concerns not only alternate forms of creativity, but also a philosophical idealism, in which the artist develops an idiosyncratic vocabulary to express the inexpressible: the cyclic nature of being, the conflicts between man and nature, nature and culture, to name a few. The artist is equally concerned with redefining art and questions the function of art. As in Alborough's work, the artist challenges the viewer to engage in an exercise of discovery concerned with the essential dimensions of creation - the conceptual foundations of art.

Alborough's work conveys a compelling monumentality. Despite the fact that one is presented with a specific scale (the bayonet arced pallets are about a metre in height), the hermetic nature of the content defies a relatedness, and seems to displace itself within the space it occupies through form and light. Monumentality is also conceptually amplified by the emitted light and energy (batteries, conductors and receptors) that activate the environment in which they are placed. Further the papers that are suspended on the lateral walls of the installation ascend to a height of approximately four to five metres (and will increase as they are added to), functioning as memory receptors of the energies of electrical pulses and corrosion. The minutiae of plastic pegs, syringes, nails, coils, industrial ties, electrodes and batteries are all subject to the grandeur and scale, so that relatedness and contrast become a central source for monumentality.

In its entirety and its individual aspects, the installation - its surfaces, atmosphere, scale, cool subdued light and subtle shadows, whiteness and smoothness, intricacy and detail - is expressive of the sublime. The sublime, as concept, emerged in the writings of Dionysius Longinus (first century AD), who identified a sensation that derived, inter alia, from both attraction and repulsion, and was provoked by order and quantity, extensive and intensive qualities, or perceptually overwhelming properties. The experience of the sublime results in the realisation that we are beings that can transcend the limitations of our finite phenomenal existence, which results in the viewer being transported outside of her/himself. (Crowther:100) This experience of the aesthetic sublime, as rapturous sensation, further had an ethical dimension, in that the elated departure from the everyday enabled one to be revitalised, and to sense one's reactions to the unknown as a reflection of one's vitality. Further Longinus held that the sublime could be translated into all languages and could be sensed by all persons of understanding and judgment, regardless of their cultural origin, education, interest and party, thereby adding a liberating ideal to the sublime.

By the 18th century Edmund Burke (1757) and Immanuel Kant (1764+) appropriated the concept and identified it with specific qualities related to identifiable content that was provocative, relationships of scale, dark and light, surface, intricacy and qualities associated with the senses. The sublime is a quality that can be evoked by the literal contexts described, but in essence it remains elusive and is ultimately sensed as an experiential ďsomething' that results in awe, apprehension and stimulation in the viewer. Much of this describes the encounter with Alborough's work: one is invited to experience the constructions by being attracted to their intrinsic qualities despite being initially unaware of content or intent. Faced with the unknown or unknowable, one is left with a sense of awe, trepidation and a sense of imminence. The experience is liberating in that, according to Kant, the sublime has a finality outside of nature and the known, and is located in the subject (observer). (Crowther:83)

On seeing the Alborough exhibition I was reminded of Kant's contention that in the presence of something deemed beautiful, one foregoes all the canonical ways of making sense of that perceived (such as sensory pleasure, the desire to know what it is, and what its use is). Rather, one is uplifted to the extent that the experience is of a moral and ethical nature, and as moral experience is a matter of engaging people, so beauty is symbolic of morality. Beauty in Alborough's work is located in the banal, everyday found objects, that in their dislocation have become intrinsically transformed. The found objects, selected in terms of their subscribing to some of the qualities associated with the sublime, such as whiteness, smoothness, reflection, transparency and intricacy, are also evocative in themselves. Used in this installation, each is contextually displaced into new entities: the mandala structures, centrally placed on the white square plinths, are made of semi-transparent white pegs and syringes, and in their intricate combinations, derived from both coupling them with each other and alternate inversion, result in fragile, intricate structures which only obliquely relate to recognizable forms, their elusive meaning irrelevant as their presence predominates.

Significantly Longinus and Burke noted that order, control and regularity also precipitate the sublime. As a significant dimension in Alborough's work, order may also be used as binary opposition for either latent or desirable chaos. I suggest firstly that it functions as a reversible counterpoint to nature, with order represented by culture, or ostensible control, faced with ultimate or possible chaos (in binary opposition). It is a reversible analogy in that nature, too, appears to be dominated by order and pattern, as science has proven, with human intervention in nature representing ostensible control, but in effect ultimate chaos.

Controlled energy in the electrode attached mild steel nails and the batteries, is balanced by the partially uncontrolled pace of erosion and rust generated to form imprinted ochre mandalas on the paper placed below the coiled paper circles on the pallets. The pristine, cool light, the whiteness and the articulation of space made by the white pallets contribute to this order and control - often almost imperceptibly. The car light reflectors that surround each pallet are subtly ignited by the cool light emerging from beneath the pallets, and yet articulate a precision that dominates the pallet-islands, and equally function as a barrier confronting the viewer. Within this order there is a harmonious counterpoise between pallets arranged in alternating rows, black and white bayonets forming arcs, and energy-generating and receptor pallets.

The perceiving of reality by many ancient cultures through the metaphors of geometry and music was manifest in forms such as the mandala and other interlinked patterns. Such pattern is recognised as a reflection of knowledge that the universe is ordered and vital. On contemplation of this order as manifest in these immobile forms, one can experience the continuity of motion and timeless universal action that is hidden from us perceptually. This contemplation can become a discipline for intellectual and spiritual insight, as the act of contemplating is deemed by many cultures to be the only real manifestation of a supernatural moment. (Lawlor:6 and 13/14) The contemplation of order allows us to access and resonate with universal order: so numerical harmony functions as a metaphor for absorption within universal order. Interestingly Lawlor notes that the esoteric functional aspect of number (as opposed to the enumerative) is apprehended by right hemisphere cerebral faculty, the area said to be more usually deployed by the artist. (ibid)

With order manifest in number, Alborough has emphasised various combinations of numbers and shapes throughout his work. The extent to which this may be incidental is outweighed by the fact that Alborough is obsessively particular about positioning, number, accrual, and process. The number of coils is determined ultimately by the seven venues where the installation will be exhibited. The number seven is a combination of four and three, often associated with the female and male respectively, numerals which exude specific concepts: two, a multiple for four, is seen as signifying the infinite and fecundity, while three conveys ideas of mediation and transference.

The order of number and stereometric forms about which Plato discoursed derived from an understanding of Pythagorean geometric principles, in which multiples from one to ten were deemed to have specific conceptual values: one represented the principle of absolute unity (as manifest in the bindu or seed in the Hindu mandala), while two represents the principle of duality and the power of multiplicity (and infinity), three represents a qualitative transition from point and line to surface (it is the path from unity to polarity, the mother of form), and four represents the first-born thing and implicitly the world of nature as it represents procreation, multiplication or materialisation.

To Plato numbers suggested specific properties, many of which can be discerned in Alborough's work. On each pallet the number one is repeated in the round metal bowl below it, the circle of pegs and syringes above, the cell of batteries, and the coiled disks. To Plato the circle represented one, the godhead, and the concept of perfection. The mandala - or circular form - also represents a particular residual of energy that moves in both concentric and eccentric paths with centrifugal and centripetal energies displaced. The square pallets convey the concept of the earth but also of multiplicity and creation in their residual in the number two. In this the pallets and mandalas function as metaphors for harmony of earth, being, gender and universe.

Energy as a central dimension in acts of creation, is central to Alborough's work, where energy is both a source of order, light and reflection but is also the impulse that precipitates corrosion, the rendering effete of batteries of power and the eventual dysfunctional neon tubes. Loss of energy suggests loss of life force, in what could appear as a metaphor for death or a vast memento mori in which all that is white, bright, and momentarily energised will ultimately cease to be.

Energy is also manifest in time, a vast project in Alborough's work. Just as all objects and cultures go through cycles of genesis, growth and disintegration, these time-aligned processes, in their sequence, rhythm and balance, reflect the nature of the universe. Change cannot be prevented, with the result that everything can be regarded as impermanent. Time is conveyed in the cyclic movements of energy through the nail conductors embedded within the white coils and attached to electrodes; in the accruing stains that discolour the coils and the papers beneath them, that in turn cover the square surface of each pallet; in the active and effete batteries; in the light energy from a power plug and the time flow of light energy below each plinth and the cool light tubes on which the stained paper of previous venues in which the installation was exhibited occurs. The entire work is also located in a time frame, culminating in each location with the addition of papers that were positioned on the pallets, on which the time, electric current and corrosion generated mandalas have seeped. Here again time is manifest as a sign of impermanence, which to the Buddhist should ideally be embraced, reminding one of the ephemeral nature of self and all things.

Time is conveyed in the sheer precision involved in tying the plastic arcs that describe a domical space on the pallets, the affixing of the syringes and pegs and the time-energy emitted by light. There may even be a political dimension suggested in time: energy and time that slowly and subtly passes, energy that leaves its mark but the source of which runs dry, may allude to a period in history by a people whose presence, place, time, and energy is effete, rendered thus by its own impetus, never to be repeated but echoed in its monuments: the circular stains on the paper on the walls and the spent coiled disks on the centrally placed pallets. The tying and affixing in Alborough's work also alludes to activities associated more with pre-industrial practice, which, despite consisting of plastic, initiates a possible dialogue between industrial and pre-industrial processes, and the different value attached to time in past eras.

Alborough's installation is dominated by white plastic, except for specifically positioned black plastic rods that form part of the receptor pallet arcs. Perceived as an indispensable, inexpensive production material, plastic has more recently become associated with all that is anathema in a world concerned with ecology, biodegradable products, oestrogen-free wrapping and receptacles, and a return to bio-dynamic principles and organic materials. Plastic however represents the ultimate sign of human intervention in nature, as all plastic derives from fossil fuels (ancient decomposed organic matter) that are modified by manmade processes and transformed into plastic. Plastic remains intact and unable to be broken down through natural decomposition. In this it represents a unique transformed material which, while organic in origin, becomes virtually indestructible through human intervention. While it may slowly decompose over thousands of years, in the interim it will soon emit toxins that will contaminate the land.

On the one hand plastic represents a frightening metaphor for ecological chaos, while in a more benign reading it is a manifestation of nature (fossil-fuel derived), which through the intervention of mankind has provided countless advantages for industrial and household usage. In Alborough's work plastic must also be seen as intrinsically linked to the organic processes and the natural origin that is latent within it, while on the other hand it can be seen as a devastating metaphor for man's loss of rapport with nature. Further it is predominantly through male (culture) intervention in nature (female) that materials are processed and commodified with little foresight, the immediate pressures of profit and progress the controlling mechanisms of power.

The act of corrosion and the metal electrodes also draw on natural energies and processes and their links with human intervention: the nails, with attached plastic covered copper wire, corrode in the coils where they function as electrodes, while the process of electrolysis is precipitated by the sodium chloride (salt) and water. Here again manufactured nails, derived principally from iron, are testimony to man's use of natural minerals for functional and pragmatic purposes. Used as electrodes they quickly corrode in the saline coils, and begin to slowly disintegrate. While they never fully disintegrate, the corrosion suggests the inception of this process, another sign of impermanence. Corrosion represents natural decay, and suggests harmony with nature, as metals corrode and return to the earth relatively harmless, in contrast with plastics.

Largely absorbed by the overwhelming beauty and presence of Alborough's work as I was, it took some time before I almost reluctantly began to respond to a few more overt analogies between known forms and contexts: the pallets reminiscent of silent illuminated oil rigs, space stations or industrial sites. Or worse still, of manmade and controlled habitation sites, substitutes for known localities. Further the arcs over the plastic pallets are bound together as they cross over at right angles, with the result that the structures closely resemble the shape of the Zulu traditional dwelling, the iqhugwana or iziko. Whether this was intentional or not, I am uncertain, but such analogy extends my earlier reading of the plastic as substitute for organic materials and nature, the arcs as alternatives to wattle boughs, but clearly as functional. The plastic arcs further reflect the widespread culture of recycling in the region, where found or discarded objects are redeployed in functional constructions and in aesthetically pleasing articles.

Autonomism is rarely found in South African art. For over a century many South African artists have been determined to locate their art in cultural, social and national frameworks. Their images have largely been literal and metaphoric, but always decipherable. The more obscure, encoded vocabulary of Alborough's installation appears to disrupt the accessible and socially conscious art of the last two decades. Art is never entirely separate from human praxis, however, and this installation can be associated metaphorically with several tensions that permeate South African life today. In the work's ostensible tranquillity and order, there resides an immanence that is both disturbing and compelling. In an atmosphere reminiscent of a sacred environment, one is confronted with aberrant objects made of plastic, such as pallets, pegs and syringes, the latter evoking associations with medication, Aids and drug abuse. This negative reading seems to be extended to the electrical pulses and eventual cessation of energy (death), with the stains alluding to bodily fluids and decay.

On the other hand Alborough's art simply demands meditation, which process involves focus and contemplation without attachment to the present, past or future. It is an act without judgment in which one's affinity with the forms and their context simply evokes the interrelatedness of everything. One is physically present but metaphysically engaged.


  • Crowther, P 1989 The Kantian Sublime. From Morality to Art. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  • Lawlor, R 1982 Philosophy and Practice - Sacred Geometry. London, Thames and Hudson.
  • Levinson, J 1998 Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.