FNB Vita Art Prize Catalogue
In/Substantiality in the Work of Alan Alborough
By Sandra Klopper

In his highly acclaimed work, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawkins tries to answer his own (and other peoples') questions regarding the history of the universe: "Where", he asks, "did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end?" Paraphrased slightly, the same questions might be asked of Alan Alborough's work, which seems, at times, actively to defy established assumptions regarding the nature, not only of materials and the meanings we ascribe to them, but also of space and time. Travelling through South Africa's physical and artistic landscape, his installations have repeatedly confused, intrigued and frustrated audiences, challenging them at once to confront the limits of their own willingness to engage and understand the seemingly incomprehensible, and to bridge the creative gap between the production and consumption of art.

This process of interaction between the artist and his audience is underlined, most obviously, in the series of responses Alborough invited to the seven installations he produced in 2000 for his untitled travelling Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition. Unaided by any explanatory statements from the artist himself, these responses to his work varied considerably. As such, they served to affirm Alborough's evident desire both to decentre the authorial voice of the artist and to acknowledge his respect for the creative role of the viewer or critic. But while, in one sense, Alborough succeeded in marginalizing himself through this deliberate decision to redefine the relations of power and authority between the artist and his audience, he re/alerted his viewers to his creative presence at crucial moments in the history of the installation(s), in part by adding, eliminating and transforming various aspects of the show as it travelled through time and space.

Ironically, far from re/inserting Alborough at the centre of his installations, these interventions had the effect of underlining and reaffirming both the open-endedness of the work and the dynamic dialogue between the artist and his audience. The sense of flux actively cultivated through this process of interaction was further reinforced, not only through the uniqueness of the different installation spaces, but also through the gradual corrosion of some of the components included in each of the exhibitions. At times expanding, at others contracting, the work moved like a living, breathing entity through its year-long journey from Grahamstown to Johannesburg before it was finally packed up and returned to the artist.

Like some of Alborough's early works, which suggest comparison with aspects of the installations conceived for the Standard Bank Young Artist exhibitions, the present work deliberately alludes to materials, concepts and ideas already explored in the past. As always, however, the generally complex relationships Alborough establishes between his various projects goes hand in hand with a commitment to forging a path into previously uncharted territory. While Alborough himself tends to invoke tangible organic metaphors on the comparatively rare occasions he speaks about these relationships, his creative universe is not always as concrete as it may seem at first sight. Even when it suggests associations with, for example, the physical realities of violence and pain, the language of his installations threatens, repeatedly, to explode beyond the realm of our immediate, material experience, embracing the seemingly elusive frameworks of space, light and time presently preoccupying what is now commonly termed 'post-normal' science. Here, as in (recent responses to) Alborough's installations, facts are uncertain and values are often in dispute. As Christopher Horrocks, author of Postmodernism and Big Science, points out: "In these circumstances, seeking truth is a diversion...".

Alborough's universe parallels the paradoxes facing that of post-normal science in other, equally important respects, for, while the artist himself affirms the conceptual density/complexity of his works, their physicality is often suggested spatially rather than materially, as is his most recent installation for the Photo/Art group show at the University of Stellenbosch's Sasol Museum, where he strung a lattice-work oculus across the large well piercing through the ceiling of the ground floor gallery. This is certainly not to imply that the im/materiality of Alborough's universe serves to visualize a metaphysical realm or reality. Instead, his approach bears comparison, most obviously, with that of post-colonial scientists who have dared to question the linearity of Western thought. Like the logic of Hinduism, which can be fourfold or even sevenfold, that of Alborough's works is always complex and layered. This logic, which is informed by the artist's repeated attempts to decentre himself - and, in the FNB Vita Art Prize 2002 installation, to confine himself, quite literally, to the margins of the Goodman Gallery - constantly challenges received assumptions and perceptions. As such, Alborough's quest brings to mind Deepak Kumar's deconstruction of European science in Science and the Raj. In India, Kumar argues, Western science progressed not through the pursuit of disinterested truths, but primarily because of British economic, military and political needs. It is arguably above all his desire to escape this Western imperative, this instrumental logic, that underlies and informs much of Alborough's recent work.