Friday, January 18, 2013

Siemon Allen's "Labels" curtain at the Slave Lodge (2013)

If you are traveling to Cape Town do check out my Labels curtain on view at the Slave Lodge until July 31, 2013. The artwork chronologically documents 110 years of South African music and audio history through images of record labels from the flatinternational archive.

Many thanks to Paul Tichmann (Curator of Social History at Iziko Museums), Lalou Meltzer (Director of Social History Collections at Iziko), Glen Fouten, Kenni Molopyane, Kendall Buster, Tony East, Claire van Blerk and Goodman Gallery for making the project possible.

Below is more information about the project:

12 January – 31 July, 2013

The Slave Lodge, part of the Iziko Museums of South Africa, presents Siemon Allen’s Labels, a large-scale architectural installation. Displayed in the museum’s Music Room, the work features 5000 photographs of record labels inserted into a suspended clear plastic curtain. The installation has been configured to converse with part of the museum’s collection of historical artifacts, in this case two vintage grand pianos, two clocks and an antique gramophone.

Completed in 1679, the Slave Lodge is one of the oldest buildings in South Africa. Originally constructed to house the slaves of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the building and its function have gone through many transformations over the centuries to its current form as a museum of social and cultural history. The museum presents exhibitions that trace the long history of slavery in South Africa, as well as wide range of displays showcasing rare cultural artifacts.

When invited to present his Labels curtain in the museum Allen in collaboration with the museum curators chose to present the work in the museum’s music room. The intervention not only framed and therefore provided a new context for the artifacts in the room but also reexamined the nature of museum display.

For the past twelve years Allen has been exploring the image of South Africa through a series of collection projects. His studio practice has evolved out of an interest in how mass-produced items—newspapers, stamps, magazines, records—function as carriers of information and operate in the construction of national identity.

Records, Allen’s most recent collection project, is rooted in his extensive archive of South African audio consisting of over 2500 items including 650 rare shellac discs. The project has generated a series of varied works sourced from this ongoing audio collection including a number of site responsive installation works, a series of large-scale digital prints, and a searchable web-based database that can be viewed at

Labels functions as an historical record, a chronological discography of select labels from Allen’s archive. It is also a kind of visual memorial to South Africa’s rich musical past in that each label represents an individual recording, paying homage to that past visually by naming every artist in the archive. Some names and recordings are well known, but many more are now forgotten.

In time, as the collection grows, names and labels will be added to the curtain, but like an asymptote that never reaches its axis, the collection can never be complete. In as much as the archive can never contain all recordings, the curtain cannot represent all artists. The project is but a fragment of history and the curtain is an impossible attempt to capture that history. The curtain functions as both a tribute to decades of South African music and a memorial to those individuals named. Though Allen’s curtain is more celebratory than somber, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the sheer accumulation of ‘the individual’ transforms the collective into the monumental.

Labels is a site-responsive installation that meanders through the space amongst the musical instruments and clocks, to form a number of intimate accessible enclosures. With this piece Allen revisits a theme that has been dominant in his work for many years: the idea of a “space within a space”. The exterior surface of the curtain wall reads as a clean, almost minimalist abstract grid, while the interior becomes a colorful complex pattern of disc shapes with text and markings. Up close one is able to digest the details on each individual label. From afar the textual information begins to go out of focus and recede, only to be replaced by a tapestry-like colour-field pattern

The labels are arranged chronologically with the earliest dating from 1901 at the opening. As one enters the structure and proceeds through the interior space the chronology moves forward in time to recent CD recordings. The visual effect produces in the viewer the experience of being completely enveloped by the labels.

Labels has is roots in two installations first shown at Bank Gallery in Durban in 2009. There Allen exhibited a large grid of digital prints sourced from labels of recordings by Miriam Makeba; and a transparent curtain wall displaying record covers inserted to show both front image and rear liner notes. For the South African Pavilion at the recent 54th Venice Biennale, Allen constructed a 14 metre tall curtain wall with 2500 labels, in response to the architectural particulars of the Torre di Porta Nuova. Displayed vertically in a space of enormous height with a vaulted ceiling and backlit by an arched window, Labels resembled a stained-glass window. This current version with the labels displayed in a horizontal format and configured to create an accessible interior space was first shown at Goodman Cape in 2011. The Goodman Gallery has kindly loaned this work to the Slave Lodge for this exhibition.

Kendall Buster, Kenni Molopyane and Glen Fouten all helped install the work

Siemon Allen and Paul Tichmann, Curator of Social History at Iziko Museums

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