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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

South African collector-artist Siemon Allen on his ''collection projects'', South African identity and the room-within-a-room


Kristine Kronjé - 2011-10-21

Untitled Document

For the past decade South African collector-artist Siemon Allen has been exploring the image of South Africa through a series of “collection projects”. Combining his passions for music and collecting, his studio practice investigates how mass-produced items – in this case record labels – function as carriers of information and operate in the construction of national identity. Siemon Allen was one of the three South African artist representing the South African Pavilion at the 45th Venice Biennale earlier this year and is currently showing at the Goodman Gallery Cape.

Labels (Cape Town) (2011)
Mixed media
38 x 3 m
Available
Installation view at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town
Labels (Cape Town) (2011)
Mixed media
38 x 3 m
Available
Labels (Cape Town) (2011)
Mixed media
38 x 3 m
Available


Walking through the sliding glass doors of the Goodman Gallery one is immediately confronted with a space within a space. Consisting of a 38-metre-long semitransparent curtain the architectural site-responsive installation Labels soundlessly takes hold of the gallery space. In an interview with Ashley Kistler you mention that your tendency to play with the idea of the “room within the room” may be connected to your love for Hamlet’s mousetrap or the “play within the play”. How does this installation mirror or attempt to “catch the conscience” of South African identity?

That is an interesting notion, to think how the play-within-the-play in Hamlet is a device to lay bare a secret by obliquely revealing that secret disguised as art. Whether my room-within-a-room operates as an attempt to “catch the conscience” of South African identity I have not really considered. But I am interested in how the room-within-a-room allows one to create a space where two oppositional narratives can coexist. South African identity is not a singularly defined thing, so if one were to try and “catch the conscience” it would always be an incomplete project. But it is not insignificant that the work has an exterior read and interior read; the exterior read behaves as a barrier and a singular presence in the space, while the interior read speaks to complexity and multiplicity through this one very particular slice of South African audio-history.

Your installations operate as revisions of the same content or “collections” within different architectural spaces. At the 54th Venice Biennale at the Torre di Porta Nuova earlier this year, for example, Labels took on a completely different form. How do the forms of these installations respectively enhance the content of the work and how does the white cube gallery space contribute to the form of the current installation?

My various collections of South African artefacts are ongoing and with each showing the display strategies change to accommodate additions and reconfigurations. But perhaps even more importantly (and this goes back to the room-within-a-room) the installation designs are in conversation with the architecture of the space. The extreme ceiling height and the shallow alcove at the Torre di Porta Nuova were site conditions that suggested to me the intervention of a semi-transparent extreme vertical curtain. The alcove had a large arched window and this behaved like stained glass. The work is very frontal. The labels are inserted into the curtain in columns chronologically reading top to bottom and left to right and the details on the labels are legible only at the bottom of the curtain. The Goodman Gallery space, which of course is more of a neutral white box, led me to a form that might read like an object in the space, the labels not immediately visible. The curtain at Goodman first appears as a cylindrical wall that almost fills the gallery, and the back of the digital prints operate like the building blocks of a uniform grid. Perhaps it appears to be a modernist gesture – a mute grid empty of reference outside itself. The interior reveals that the individual building blocks are in fact prints – no two alike – loaded with text and information. So outside the structure behaves like an autonomous object, inside it is a configuration of densely packed information units.

Labels (Cape Town) (2011)
Mixed media
38 x 3 m
Available
Labels (Torre di Porta Nuova) (2011)
2565 digital prints from the artist's South African audio archive spanning 1901–2011,
1250 x 370cm

As in Labels you have often used the circle motif referencing the Afrikaans laager as a defensive state of mind. At the same time, however, the form lures the viewer to a protected space within. The lights and hints of colour escaping the curtain in contrast with the piercing gaze of Santa (the eye), as well as the overwhelming grid of shadows on the outside, all strengthen this temptation to be inside. Could you elaborate on the two-fold effect of this form?

Yes, I have often thought of my circular display structures in terms of the laager, which is indeed about the notion of defence and walling off, and the creating of a distinct inside and outside. However, in Labels at Goodman the circle spirals inward and I think one is not walled off so much as drawn in to explore. Also, the work has a porosity between inside and outside. The colour is perceived even before the labels are completely revealed; the definitive grid of shadows is possible because the transparency of the curtain material allows light to radiate out. The inside is, I hope, a promise barely seen. Also once inside one is visible to viewers outside – so there is still a play between being viewer and being viewed.

Once inside one is faced within a flamboyant historical record of South Africa’s musical past. Although the discography is arranged chronologically, it does not merely follow history as a linear progression with a definite beginning and end, but folds in on itself. The present catches up with the past and one is trapped within an endless discography. What is the meaning behind this form?

The collection is ongoing and is arranged chronologically beginning in 1903 and ending with recent releases in 2010. Though the installation does fold in on itself the chronology is still quite linear. The idea of the overlap was a design strategy that would allow for the viewer to be fully encompassed once inside. It implies a full circle and perhaps the endlessness of that full circle. In some ways this overlapping circle could suggest the way in which the past informs the present, but also how the present slowly obscures the past.

Also included in the show is a series of prints sampled from your music archive. By scanning detailed selections of record covers and presenting them as new narratives you displace these images from their original sources. What are your thoughts behind this displacement?

I was interested in how framing small moments within a large record cover created a new image and suggested a new narrative that may have communicated something very different from the spirit of the original. Santa is merely a tightly framed eye from the debut album of a child singer, and yet for me it behaves in the show like the eye that looks back. So the very consciously constructed wholesome image seen in the original is transformed into something a bit more sinister.

Santa (2011)
Pigment inks on cotton paper
198 x 198 cm
Edition of 2
Available
Raj (2011)
Pigment inks on cotton paper
198 x 198 cm
Edition of 2
Available
Reggie (2011)
Pigment inks on cotton paper
198 x 198 cm
Edition of 2
Available
Castle (2011)
Pigment inks on cotton paper
198 x 198 cm
Edition of 2
Available

The four prints are titled very specifically: Santa (the eye), Raj (the purple curtain), Reggie (hands holding a saxophone), and Castle (the crowd). Are these titles reminiscent of their sources or purely selected as a guide by which to approach the installation?

The titles of the four prints are simply Santa, Raj, Reggie and Castle and these titles refer literally back to the original source records. The bracketed information is not meant to be part of the title, but rather is some descriptive information to identify the prints for installation purposes.

I saw each print as functioning within a theatrical space – Santa is the viewer’s gaze; Raj the curtain threshold between audience and performer; Reggie the agency of performance; and Castle the audience. Each of the four prints operates as a station within a larger narrative that leads the viewer into the final experience of the circular enclosure.

Although these prints seem photographic from a distance, up close they appear as velvety three-dimensional surfaces from grid-like pointillist paintings. Could these images be read as a further investigation into the concept of identity formation through displacement?

No, I don’t think so. As far as the printing process goes, I am very interested in how the detailed scans of the record covers reveal the language of the original printing process. From afar they appear as readable images, but up close the images dissolve into an abstract grid of the halftone CMYK dot system. In some ways, there is a play between the inkjet process of the print and the sampled dots from the original halftone process of the record cover source.


  • Images: Courtesy of Goodman Gallery Cape