Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Often characterized as “midcareer” awards, Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for men and women who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.

The Foundation receives between 3,500 and 4,000 applications each year. Approximately 200 Fellowships are awarded each year.

For the past twelve years Siemon 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 www.flatinternational.org.

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.

Labels (Cape) is currently on exhibition at Iziko Slave Lodge Museum, Cape Town, until July 31, 2013 and is curated by Paul Tichmann

Related Posts

Scroll to Top