Galerie Seippel, Cologne
It is hard to resist taking snapshots of the verdant rural landscape that flashes past on the train ride between Bayreuth and Berlin. Journeys somehow compel documentation. Photographing them is not simply for posterity but eases the path between A and B, presenting a way of processing the discomfort of being in limbo. On my first trip to Germany, on a trip to Kassel, to attend Documenta, I was taken aback by how picturesque the German countryside is – it is not a feature that is well publicised. Much to the Germans’ chagrin, popular perceptions of their country is limited to World War II films, documentaries and books. Germans might be tired of this culture, but they too are fixated with this specific period of their history. A case in point is a current exhibition dedicated to German history at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, which only maps the pre and post WW2 period.
It is a period of world history that we will probably never be done with scrutinizing and maybe we shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, this phenomenon has instilled a kind of twisted relationship to Germany and its landscape that is impossible to shake, particularly for visitors who have no personal history with the country. For example it is hard to take any of these idyllic bucolic scenes at face value as belying them you imagine horrific, unspeakable events. Historical paranoia, is there a word to describe this condition?
Visitors to South Africa, Joburg, probably experience the urban and rural landscape similarly, though built-up centres are so layered and as such appear to present ‘the facts’ about the past up-front. Buildings tend to wear their histories on their veritable sleeves what with the exterior design and features betraying the era in which they were erected, but, like the rural landscape they too withhold history, conceal the stories of what has taken place on the site. Perhaps even more so given architecture is rooted in this interplay between the outside and the inside; suggesting that buildings are designed with concealment in mind.
You could say that Colleen Alborough’s art has been about penetrating the urban landscape of Joburg, her hometown. It is not as if she is seeking out buried trauma – she doesn’t have to dig far to find it – and isolating particular events. She appears to be concerned with the act of digging, being caught up in this fascination for getting beyond the surface, for which she finds the perfect metaphor in the cotton waste material she uses in Balance, a stop frame animation set in Joburg, delineated by the skyline in the background. The work features a headless character whose limbs are trapped in this knotted material. As a visual artist she is caught up in that ironic pursuit of probing beyond the visual. This lends her practice a certain kind of universality and could account for interest in her work outside of South Africa. However, that her Joburg centred show, dubbed Joburg: Place beyond Fear, which has been showing at Gallerie Seippel in Cologne, has been well received in this country suggests that the themes underpinning it resonate in Germany in ways that they might not elsewhere.
The parallels between Germany and South Africa are striking; both countries have been torn apart by deep rooted forms of prejudice taken to extreme and irrational conclusions, causing displacement, violence and levels of psychic trauma that may beyond ‘healing’ as we know it. The spatial or pscho-geographic conditions are similar too; invisible and visible lines were drawn through cities and politically there is a strong communist link too. Landmark changes or turns ‘wende’ (as the Germans dub it) to correct our ‘ill’ and fractured societies – in South Africa, the dismantling of Apartheid and in Germany the defeat of the Nazi’s and the unification period – have also seen both countries undergo periods of great and traumatic transition.
Indeed cultural links have been forged. And in very unlikely places – such as Bayreuth, a small town with a young university, which oddly boasts a venue dedicated to presenting African visual culture. Iwalewahaus was established by Ulli Beier, a German researcher, academic with an interest in advancing African material culture as art. This is, of course, a highly contentious pursuit and needless to say the centre, which is now run by The Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, has become a hub for contemporary African expression. The programmes they run are varied and the focus does not appear to be on exploring the political or social similarities say that South Africa or Germany might share, which is interesting to consider. This emphasis on advancing contemporary culture on the continent has a slightly paternalistic quality to it that echoes that of Beier’s generation.
Perhaps South Africans are more keen for reflection given our vexed history feels so fresh and the wound is gaping open. German society may be at a different place in relation to their national trauma. Nevertheless, Alborough was invited to present a talk about her exhibition in Cologne and its focus on buried trauma at Iwalewahaus. It is hard to imagine how it was contextualised within their current fashionable programme: Future Africa Visions in Time. This theme seems to have more traction with Europeans than Africans. Is everyone tired of dealing with the past squarely and not through some faux forward looking backwards glance?
Alborough appears as eager to get beyond the past, history – the title of her Cologne exhibition implies a desire, possibility for being released from it. Or is it just the fear of confronting it? It is interesting to observe how she goes about sifting through it, or situating a self-reflexive gaze on the act of sifting – this could signal a state of paralysis and an unwillingness to look forward. Is she trapped like the headless man stuck in cotton waste in Balance?
The legendary Carlton Centre, a 50-storey building erected in Joburg’s city centre when it was still considered a desirable and safe part of the city, is the focus of the work 50 Stories. In an attempt to tease out the invisible histories tied to this building she presents reproductions of newspaper articles isolating different events that took place around it. It is tricky negotiating nostalgia tied to Joburg’s supposed hey-day, when this building was a symbol of progress and not of a failed-city, given it was during the apartheid era. Alborough uses this opportunity to identify ways in which Joburg’s tenacious citizens defied the oppressive conservatism that political ideology set. She does this via accounts of women jettisoning bras, or the establishment of a multi-racial Wimpy, a budget burger and fast food outlet. It was originally commissioned for the Maboneng 12 Decades hotel, which is situated in a pocket of gentrification in the east side of Joburg, where the new dreams attached to this city are taking shape, creating a full-circle of sorts. The installation was intended to offer a panoramic view of the city that cannot be seen out of a hotel window, or from a speeding train.
Whereas 50 Stories complicates the ‘surface’ of the urban landscape, by offering so many different perspectives, in Balance and her new installation, Weighing of the hearts, she doesn’t necessarily probe layers rather than evoke them, drawing attention to their existence. As outlined earlier, the former presents a character bobbing up and down through layers of cotton waste (a by product of the printing process), before it eventually is sucked into this subterranean level below the city that could refer to the mines – the foundations of Joburg’s wealth and exploitative policies – but also a deeper layer in the landscape where seemingly all the unseen trauma is buried. What does trauma look like? It doesn’t have a shape or form; it’s a bundle of cotton that simply cannot be disentangled. What is particularly striking about this cotton waste is that it in its association with bandages it evokes healing too. For Alborough the wound is the source of healing, which is why she encourages confrontation, though this is never enacted in her work.
Depicted in the Weighing of the hearts it’s the African Sacred Ibis, the bird that flies across Joburg’s northern suburb’s to the outskirts of the city to scavenge for food on the rubbish dumps that sorts through the city’s literal and imagined waste. In this new installation work, which appears as both a map and a skyline, collapsing the exterior with the interior, Alborough maps the journey of this bird and the multiple layers that make up the urban landscape. The bird is the ideal character for this journey, for not only does it sort through the detritus of the city, but also traverses it from above – enjoys both the literal bird’s eye view but also the unseen mess that is generated, thereby having the most thorough perspective on the city. This work might be rooted in cartography but it is not a neat map; it is large, consisting of many materials. It can’t be folded up and transported; it takes up space and is an environment in and of itself, presenting the sensory experience of a journey between two points. The steel rods that run through it are like train tracks. It is an unpractical artwork, Alborough has to build it in situ; its appearance at the Seippel gallery was different to its first iteration in her Joburg studio. It’s a living map that doesn’t just document a journey, it is a journey, a piece of Joburg that can only be enjoyed by visitors to this German gallery, entreating them to think beyond Joburg’s stereotype but also taking them deeper into this messy space that sometimes feels so tied up in Germany
– IncorrigibleCorrigall text subsidised by the artist