A chair ignites and something seeps in from beyond the border- it’s all unsettled. A sudden awareness of the force of the floor when it flat-catches your foot reaching for a stair that isn’t there. In preparation for this article, I was sent a video documenting Andrew Aitchison’s ‘Containing Space’, a body of work produced while he was studying at a prominent art institution in Cape Town. In the back of the video, from some strange place, a voice certainly pitches; “You’ll notice how shitty the standard is… like… ya.” And I couldn’t get rid of this… had to replay it over and over. Because although it wasn’t a part of the actual exhibition or didn’t specifically relate to Aitchison’s work (as only one of the graduates presenting), there’s something there that speaks to his deliberately unfinished interrogation, to the beauty of an ugly accident, to the ungraceful arm-in-arm of making and unmaking, of success and failure; the rough and unsubmissive sketch of it all. What does it mean to occupy the space of the ‘artist’, to have the privilege of some kind of investment in, and access to, this title, even before the production begins and then to go through that process, the physical labour of it, only to have that all reduced to an object whose viability is ‘authoritatively’ designated by fleeting glances that fail to see the splinters in your hands?
Aitchison’s exhibition persistently questions the subtleties of structures of power. How does a home come to be such a thing? Can the violence of settling somehow be traced in the way that a person reclines? The way bricks can be read as a single smooth surface? Aitchison’s work forces an immediate encounter with all the ambiguities of the construction site, both internal and external to the educational institution; the precarity of scaffolding, the vulnerabilities of guarding, the designation of value through particular projections necessitated only through a blind-eye to what’s already there, the ways in which creating one structures breaks others apart, the way the unfinished is often marked-off by screens intending to exclude it from sight… the ugly, awkward creature of it all. Aitchison deliberately leaves these gut-wires exposed, frays the polish of the object by calling attention to the abrasive act involved.
‘Containing Space’ is a product of its contemporary context in its refusal to avoid that which can’t be neatly resolved. What does it mean to be producing from a particular kind of machine, at a particular time, and in a particular context where the redundancy of the ‘post-racial’ hits you square-in-the-face? How can the pressure to define a specific identity be navigated when properly acknowledging your own positionality demands multiple degrees of effacement? Is there a way to speak without actually occupying the space you are required to surrender? Aitchison’s work grapples with some of these complexities, unfixing an authoritative stance through the use of multiple materials and mediums that muddy the exhibition format and bring into account the rich textures of worlds that already far exceed the stuffiness of the established. You can’t master the things that are there, tell exactly where they should start and where they should end, disconnect the eye they engage when walking back into the streets, take them home with the open-click of a wallet.
In its strange uses of scale, its appropriations and its repurposings, even in its title; ‘Containing Space’ plays authenticity as a kind of running joke- it radically gambles with its own success and bears witness to ways in which structure can both starve and feed itself. There is something unsettling in Aitchison’s refusal to simply inherit that which has been given, and it is this quality that is perhaps the most exciting- a sense that his commitment to the labour of production will continue to be played out in both formal and informal settings; that the grain of the work will continue to be its own exoneration, undeterred by the dull force of designations or the stagnant borders of cultural inaugurations. The collection flares with a powerful question; how can we survive this if we aren’t sincerely willing to risk our own, almost impossible, self-combustion?