Alan Alborough

Hazel Friedman.              Art South Africa, Vol.06 Issue 01 Spring 2007

An entire Thesaurus' worth of adjectives could describe the work of Alan Alborough, but prolific isn't one of them. In fact if one were to measure the quantity of material monuments that serve as individual odes to artistry, the physical traces of Alborough's prowess would be scant indeed. Yet since he slid into prominence on the contemporary art scene15 years ago, with his labyrinthine installations and deft lexicon, Alborough has been hailed as one of the most intelligent, profound conceptualists this country has produced. His problem, if one can call it that, has been his ethical intractability (borne in equal parts from integrity and stubbornness), his refusal to pander to the expedient imperatives of contemporary visibility.

He generally doesn't make small works and his labour-intensive installations do not lend themselves to the status of collectables. Visually they are too domineering, with their meticulous mix of engineering, science, philosophy and art; they are also too semantically unsettling to sit still and behave. Consequently, many of his greatest works have been dismantled or recycled, their traces visible only on his website.

Size Ten, his latest body of works, evokes a Zen-like simplicity both in terms of concept and display. The interactivity between Alborough's exhibits and Joáo Ferreira's deliberately sanitised "white cube" exhibition space is particularly noteworthy given the fact that the gallery as locus and transmitter of visual information has constituted, arguably, the archetypal image of art in the last century. But this does not imply a nostalgic peregrination back to a modernist paradigm on the part of the Alborough. Rather, it signifies a re-evaluation of how the imperturbable, opaque art space and the art object function within shifting, sometimes conflicting value systems.

Unlike Alborough's previous installations, there is nothing physically intrusive about Size Ten, with its interlaced waves of blue on white against white walls. Yet within the flatness of its configuration Alborough plays with notions of objecthood, and of stasis and flux. Briefly, the show consists of ten unframed sheets of white Tyvek, a proprietary brand of paper used for protective packaging and banners. Each sheet is decorated with embossed colour fields created by repetitive spirals made by standard blue ballpoint pens, which are controlled by a machine designed and operated by the artist. The works are displayed in numerical order, in two rows, odd numbers on one side, even numbers opposite. It is truly a no mess, low maintenance exhibition: the folded works fit neatly into cardboard boxes, which in turn are stacked in a size-ten shoebox.

The apparent simplicity of this process is beguiling. Alborough's finely tuned psyche is adept at playing ontological games, particularly with mundane materials that set up unexpectedly interlinked associations. The blue colour fields are distinctly topological, archetypal and geometric. The folded paper unavoidably recalls the art of origami. The numerological significance of the number ten (the perfect number) augments the semantic possibilities of the show into metaphysical and spiritual realms. Alborough has further folded each sheet into 25 squares, which in terms of numerological calculations (adding the 2 and the 5) equals seven, the number of the Universe, evoking both spiritual and temporal realms.

But one must guard against making superficial analogies between worlds and grains of sand in Alborough's work. If one could encapsulate recurring refrains in his oeuvre, some of which are most certainly subliminally articulated, one might apply the somewhat unwieldy phrase "artistic homeostasis". Coined in 1932 by Walter Bradford Cannon, the philosophy of homeostasis refers to the belief in regulating diverse systems by rigorously controlling and modifying interdependent regulation mechanisms.

Even a cursory glance at the litany of Alborough's (mainly) dissembled installations underscores an almost compulsive imperative on the part of the artist to organise and control, while setting in motion disturbances that implode our expectations. These bipolar properties of Alborough's work suggest an equal commitment to intense, rigorous regulation of medium and the encouragement of free semantic association. Alborough has achieved this through the combination of an almost scientific detachment coupled with a passionate hands-on approach.

But Size Ten, one senses, constitutes a rite of passage for Alborough too. It might not have the gravitas of his previous monumental installations, but it is refreshingly unencumbered by baggage. It suggests not levity but, rather, a lightening of the load.

Hazel Friedman is an art critic, investigative journalist and documentary producer.