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Archive: Issue No. 46, June 2001

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Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Cover for 'The Flat Gallery'

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Stamp Collection - Imaging South Africa, 2001

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Stamp Collection - Imaging South Africa, (detail) 2001
'Hemicycle' - Corcoran Museum of Art

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Screen, 2000
VHS video-tape, steel
Installation view, White Box, New York City

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
House, 1999
Installation view, Gallery 400, Chicago
Residency Art Institute of Chicago & University of Illinois at Chicago

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Picture & Words, 1998
Sheets, cut-up comics, wood
Installation detail

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Picture & Words 2, 1998
Sheets, cut-up comics, wood

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Picture & Words 3, 1998
Sheets, cut-up comics, wood

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
La Jetée 1997
VHS Video-tape, steel
Installation view
On 'Graft', curated by Colin Richards
2nd Johannesburg Biennale, SANG, CT

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Songs for Nella 1994
Audio Installation
FLAT Gallery, Durban

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Untitled (Richmond VA) 1996
16mm film, magnetic tape, sheets, wood
Installation view with artist

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Work 1996
Siren, timer
Installation view at Generator Art Space
On 'Hitch-Hiker' curated by Clive Kellner

Siemon Allen

Siemon Allen
Stamps, 1993
Stamps, display case
ICA, Johannesburg

A feature on an artist in the public eye.

Siemon Allen
by Sue Williamson

Modus operandi:

Durban-born Siemon Allen, now working out of New York, is an artist whose work is often slightly puzzling and enigmatic but almost always admired for the architectural rigour of his structures, his elegant use of materials and, once decoded, his astute and layered concepts. Screens are used to create rooms within rooms, galleries within galleries, sometimes to reframe the surrounding art, as in the South African National Gallery for the Johannesburg Biennale, sometimes to provide a private viewing space for visitors who might be drawn in to an intimate engagement with his re-written Tintin cartoons, say - or even, on occasion, prevented from entering the enclosure altogether. The pristine surface is an important element in his work - the walls of Allen's screens may be soft, semi-translucent white muslin, tautly stretched over pine supports or perhaps video or magnetic tapes woven expertly into a black surface which can be highly reflective (the video tapes) or gleam like gunmetal (the magnetic tapes). The significance of the tapes? Encoded with information which will now never be read, the tapes keep their secrets - a reflection of a society which relied on hidden dossiers to maintain power. Asked exactly what is on the tapes, Allen prevaricates. It�s not the point.

An earlier device used by Allen to frame objects of personal significance was the display case. An early work displayed a collection of Hardy Boys books, the embodiment of childhood fantasies, while a second case showed off the family stamp collection. This piece was sold, and in later years Allen would reassemble that collection, this time adding stamps of his own. It is this collection which will form the core of his next exhibition at the Corcoran in Washington.

In an interesting comment on the earlier piece, Benjamin Weil, writing in Flash Art (January 1995), said: "In the work of South African artists, one finds strong formal ties to Western art produced over the last thirty years. However, there is a strange sense of citation and appropriation rather than of spontaneous identification, as if living in a state of complete isolation had the effect of re-creating the world as it is in the homeland. That particular issue can be found in a work by Durban-based artist Siemon Allen, who completed a display of his family's South African stamp collection depicting the country from a deliberately biased point of view."

Artist's statement:

"I investigate the idea of 'structures within structures' through the construction of culturally distinct architectural elements that reconfigure and reframe an existing site. The result is often a collision of architectural languages that confront the way in which structural forms can reflect and even dictate social realities. I often place common objects within these structures to formulate a critical view of South African culture, in an attempt to expose the hidden ideology in what appears to be the familiar or the neutral. What might be regarded as rather ordinary things are thus re-contextualised."


Allen is part of a show which finishes in early June entitled 'After the Diagram' at the White Box, an exhibition theme focused on deconstruction which seems particularly tailored to his talents. There are two Allen pieces on show. One is a large, rectangular wall piece made of woven magnetic tapes. The sober title of Elegy aptly describes the subtle effect of the vast expanse of gunmetal, the squares created by the weft and warp of the weaving technique differing minutely in tone. The other is a sound piece entitled Marais/Brand, in which offbeat statistical evidence given in the Florida hearings on the Bush/Gore recount issue by South African expat Laurentius Marais is placed against a background of music by once-exiled Dollar Brand.

Before that:

In 1999, as a project which grew out of a residency organised by the School of the Art Insitute of Chicago, Allen presented 'House' at Gallery 400. The installation formed part of a month-long open studio that was built at Gallery 400 in collaboration with UIC students. Using the blueprints from his parents' home in South Africa as a source, Allen fragmented and then reconstructed floor plans to make a barely accessible dwelling in cardboard that was 1/2 scale. Visitors to the gallery were able to walk through and experience each room of the house. Beyond being a model of the house, it became clear that the structure was also an index of the social dynamics at play inside its walls. Servants quarters were inside the house, but on an equal scale and in the same wing as the garage. The building of the cardboard model began from a position of uneasy nostalgia for his white, middle-class South African upbringing and ended in the contradictory position of a social critique of the residual effects of apartheid.

And before that:

For many years, Allen worked on a documentation of the artists and art events which emanated from a flat in Durban, the home of four young artists which also operated on a full time, always-open basis as an alternative artists' space entitled the FLAT Gallery. The remarkable result of this work is a handmade book entitled The Flat Gallery 1993-1995, and the review can be read in the current issue of ArtThrob.

Next up:

At the end of June, Allen will mount a solo show at the prestigious Hemicycle Gallery in the Corcoran Museum & College of Art in Washington, entitled 'Stamp Collection � Imaging South Africa'. The project will explore the political history and identity of South Africa through the exhibition of a complete collection of postal stamps produced in the country from the colonial era to the present, displayed within the framework of an architectural installation designed to both reference a turn of the century historical museum and engage with the architectural particulars of the Hemicycle Gallery.

Says Allen, "Historical museums offer displays of images and objects that for one reason or other are deemed significant in documenting events and achievements to create a visual history, but these common items are often remarkably transparent in the politics they reflect. The postage stamp is a particularly interesting example because it is an artifact that begins as a humble useful item, an item that is ubiquitous in everyday life, but as a collectible or artifact, resembles the work of art; its collectable market value disconnected from its printed functional value. In the context of historical museum architecture each stamp is presented as both a singular work of art with distinct aesthetic qualities and a very small and mobile record of visual propaganda that reflects how a country seeks to present itself at a given time. The images carried by the stamps range from early colonial printings made and imported from Great Britain, with inferior local editions, to images that chronicle the progression of heirs from the royal family with their sovereign heads floating omnipotent over local landscapes. There are images of the apartheid authors and their version of history through their heroes, and more recent commemoratives marking historic elections, AIDS awareness and Robben Island."

Selected curriculum vitae:

210 Varet Street #303
Brooklyn, NY, 11206
(718) 386 7115 or (202) 903 9553 (cell)

1999: Masters Degree in Technology: Fine Art, Technikon Natal, Durban, South Africa
1995/6: Artist in Residence: Sculpture Department, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
1992: National Higher Diploma: Fine Art, Technikon Natal, Durban, South Africa
Solo exhibitions
2001: 'STAMP COLLECTION - Imaging South Africa', Hemicycle/Corcoran Museum, Washington, DC
1999: 'House', Gallery 400, Chicago, IL
1996: 'FLAT INTERNATIONAL', Richmond, VA
1994: 'Songs for Nella', FLAT Gallery, Durban, South Africa
Selected group exhibitions
2001: 'After the Diagram', White Box, New York, NY, curated by Lauri Firstenberg & Douglas Cooper
2000: 'Open Circuit', NSA Gallery, Durban, South Africa
2000: 'Translation/Seduction/Displacement', White Box, New York, NY, curated by Lauri Firstenberg & John Peffer
1999: 'Import', Goethe Institute (two-person with Markus Wirthmann), Washington, DC
1998: 'Drömmar och Moln', Kulturhuset, Stockholm, Sweden
1998: Vita 98, Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
1997: 'Taking Stock', Johannesburg Stock Exchange, South Africa
1997: 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, 'Graft', curated by Colin Richards, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
1997: 'Unplugged', Rembrandt Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
1996: 'Hitch-Hiker', Generator Art Space, Johannesburg, S. Africa, curated by Clive Kellner
1996: Goethe Institute (two-person with Kendall Buster), Washington, DC
1996: Rembrandt Gallery (three-person with Thomas Barry and Jeremy Wafer), Johannesburg
1994: Vita Art Now 93, Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa
1994: First Internotional Theatre of Communication, FLAT Gallery, Durban, South Africa
1994: 'Quasi-Stella Objects', Jam 'n' Co, Durban, South Africa
1994: 'Swans', FLAT Gallery, Durban, South Africa
1994: Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) (two person with Greg Streak), Johannesburg
1992: Volkskas Atelier (Award Winner), Johannesburg
1989: Artists for Human Rights Exhibition, Community Arts Workshop, Durban, South Africa

Firstenberg, Lauri; Peffer, John (ed): "Translation/Seduction/Displacement" (catalogue), New York, 2000
Gibert, Chris: "Exile Painters", 64 Magazine, May 2000
Cassel, Valerie: " Beyond Boundaries: Rethinking Contemporary Art Exhibitions", Art Journal, Spring 2000
Israel, Nico: "Translation/Seduction/Displacement", ARTFORUM, May 2000
Cotter, Holland: "Translation/Seduction/Displacement", The New York Times, March 24, 2000
Gilbert, Chris: "Siemon Allen: Internal Affairs", Sculpture, Vol. 18 No.10, Dec. 1999
Grey Areas, (ed. Brenda Atkinson, Candice Breitz), Johannesburg, South Africa, 1999
Trade Routes History and Geography, 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, catalogue, 1997
Amory, Claudia: "Artsites 96", The Washington Review, June 1996
Weil, Benjamin: "Out of Time-South African Art", Flash Art, Jan-Feb. 1995
Geers, Kendell: "Social Critique from Young Talent", Business Day, Johannesburg, Nov. 1993

2001: Faculty, Maryland Institute College of Art
2000: Faculty, Sculpture Department, Virginia Commonwealth University
1999: Five Person Residency, Visiting Artist Program, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and University of Illinois, curated by Valerie Cassel
1995: Co-ordinator, Bartel Arts Trust, HB Democracy, Durban, South Africa
1994: Faculty, Sculpture Department, Technikon Natal, Durban, South Africa
1994: Co-ordinator for National Art's Coalition's Festival of Laughter, Durban, South Africa
1994: Co-founder of the FLAT Gallery, Durban, South Africa