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Colleen Alborough at Standard Bank Gallery

By Anthea Buys
03 August - 18 September. 0 Comment(s)

Colleen Alborough
Balance, 2010. monotype .

A strange proclivity at the Standard Bank Gallery, something about which I have indulged in a gripe before, is the repeated outstripping of headline exhibitions upstairs by the humble but diligent efforts of artists staging small solo exhibitions downstairs. David Andrew did it to Johannes Phokela in the beginning of 2009; Natasha Christopher did it to Ephraim Ngatane early this year; and now, Colleen Alborough has done it to Louis Maqhubela, with her exhibition of monotypes and video installation, 'Balance'.

Maqhubela’s retrospective, titled ‘A Vigil of Departure’ was hardly more interesting than the catalogue Marylin Martin wrote to accompany it, whereas 'Balance' was the sort of production whose material layers and experiental measure could never be emulated in a catalogue. 

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This observation is not a reflection of the importance, perceived or real, of these artists or their work. The natures of these paired exhibitions, and the spaces they inhabit, are entirely different, and so such a comparison on the basis of significance would be fatuous. The top floor of the gallery tends to show grand old dame survey exhibitions, rooted in thorough historical research but conservative and predictable in their presentation. By contrast the downstairs space, potentially far more challenging to artists, what with the hideous blue office carpets and glass display cases all round, yields refreshingly creative responses to its peculiarities, many of these responses devised to conceal the ugly bits. If nothing more, the downstairs space forces its exhibitors into curatorial ingenuity, instead of lobotomising them with convention.

Alborough’s 'Balance', a contained and concise collection of variations on the motif of the subterranean, begins by acknowledging the stratification of the Standard Bank Gallery and her presence down below.  She has transformed the most difficult room, a gloomy hole bounded by glass display cases, into a fantastical cave, a netherworld where the possibility of fiction eclipses the sunny possibility of reality. The glass cases are filled with bundle upon bundle of cream, grey and white cotton twine, which, at one corner of the room, spill out over the ceiling. A few thick strands of the twine hang down as if they were stalactites reaching down from the roof of a cave. Nestled in this corner mass is a television screen which displays a stop-frame animation which shares a title with, and sets up the dominant narrative of, the exhibition.

In this animation, the billows of cotton twine make up an undulating and barren landscape with a city skyline reminiscent of Johannesburg’s in the distant background. The placelessness of this landscape bring to mind the vague and pointless yellow sand and eucalyptus zones between mine dumps just to the south of the city. Out of the soft earth, a headless creature emerges. He is searching for an appropriate head, and unearths several prospective ones from the ground. Trying them on one by one, he discards them on the ground, and falls back into the earth himself. He tumbles into a cave below the surface, where a strange hooded creature, his superior, reprimands him and sends him back up to the surface to continue his search. In the headless creature’s search for an identity, he gleans from what looks like the wreckage of some disastrous event. The heads he tries on must belong to decapitated bodies, but the absurdity of his search seems to transpose this scenario from the world of real bodies, blood and death. It plays out in a cartoon world, where his strange prudence is sinister more because of its unfamiliarity than its violence.

Unfamiliar threat is the central brooding theme in 'Balance'. The title of the exhibition alludes to the Edward Albee play A Delicate Balance, in which the protagonist couple, Tobias and Agnes, arrive at a neighbour’s doorstep late in the night fleeing an unknown terror. Neither character is ever able to name the thing which they flee. And this is because they are fleeing the unknowable itself. For Agnes, at least, this terrible nothing, and the fear it induces, are induced by the darkness. At one point in the play she hopes to comfort Tobias by reassuring him that, 'when daylight comes again, comes order with it.'  Alborough cites this line at the entrance to the second room of the exhibition, a far lighter environment in which a series of monotypes are displayed.

The monotypes draw persuasively from the imagery and materiality of the video installation. Human and non-human bodies float, walk, climb and fall. Splayed, sometimes detached, limbs imply both movement and dismemberment. In these monotypes, the twine used to construct the cave environment in the first room reappears in two dimensions, as an off-set printed texture. This simple translation of a single material from the context of installation to the pictorial frame of a print provides a strong visual anchor between these two sections of the exhibition. In spite of this, the powerfully immersive quality of the video installation is simply not matched in the monotype display, a contrast which was slightly disappointing at an experiential level and perhaps not entirely necessary to do justice to the prints.

The unknown fear invoked in Alborough’s reference to Albee’s play, and in the sinister activity playing out in the animation, is a condition that approximates the existential anxiety experienced by many individuals in post-apartheid South Africa. Paranoia, persistently racialised fears, uncertainty about the future political and social directions of the country, and a peculiar ongoing search for identity are the unmentionable terrors which lie just beneath the surface of acceptable social behaviour. If a term such as post-post-apartheid were not entirely at odds with the anti-post-poster in me, I would propose that 'Balance' epitomises this condition. It reflects the shallow burial of the issues which were live for debate ten, or even five, years ago, but which we perhaps expect ourselves to have transcended by now. 'Balance' suggests that they are as live as ever, but operate at the level of the subterranean, or the social sub-conscious, rupturing into the light now and then in all their dysfunctionality.

'Balance' was exciting to behold partly because it dealt with this laboured theme in an uncommonly poetic way. But what helped this exhibition to stand out was its fictional leap, its broaching of make-believe narratives at two levels – at the referential level of Albee’s play and at the level of the story-world constructed in Alborough’s animation. This flight of fancy is refreshing in an art scene in which a stultifying realism, having been expelled from our aesthetic, dominates the narratives which artists dare to explore.