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N.'s Apparatus

  • Johannesburg City Library 57 Albertina Sisulu Rd Johannesburg, GP, 2000 South Africa (map)

N.’s Apparatus: the art of life, fantasies, and stories told by trees.

On 20 October 2018 Allen Laing launches his debut solo exhibition, N.’s Apparatus, at the Johannesburg City Library, in partial completion of his Master’s degree.

Over the past four years Laing has been investigating what happens when fantasy, play, storytelling and humour make their way into art, and life. When confronted with the absurdities of contemporary society, with politics, smart devices and social media, that all burrow their way into our private lives, Laing asks how we should react. Similar to Walter Battiss, who found his escape in Fook Island, Laing’s solution has been to create ritual machines – sculptures, inventions, contraptions, masks and tools that help one, amongst other things, to overcome procrastination; become socially responsible; or to put one’s swear-words to better use. In making his ritual machines, Laing revels in irony and cheekiness: the ‘solutions’ that he seeks through his works are often coloured, and confounded, by their own ludicrous complexity.

In the exhibition, N.’s Apparatus, we discover two fictional characters alongside Laing: the impulsive Mr. A. Nieandertaalensis (N.) from South Africa; and the enigmatic Professor Walter Roald Etterforsker from Norway. N. is a contemporary artist just like Laing, while the ethnologist, Etterforsker, has an uncanny connection with N.’s work. Like something from the pens of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., or Phillip K. Dick, Etterforsker discovers N.’s contraptions exactly 100 years before each is made. The professor travels around South Africa from 1914-1918, where he is hoping to find Afrikaners to take back to the African Village exhibit at the World’s Fair in his nation’s capital. Whether the professor is actually being transported through time, seeing visions of the future, or is merely someone losing with reality, is never revealed. However, this temporal discontinuity leads to humorous misconceptions and misunderstandings of N.’s work by the researcher. Through these characters’ letters, diaries and drawings, viewers of the exhibition may discover another layer of meaning to Laing’s ritual machines.

Besides his desire to affect reality through his artmaking, Laing is an obsessive xylophile. He almost exclusively works using wood from trees found in various public spaces. Every piece of wood is unique, and is shaped by all of the traumas, difficulties, joys and boons experienced by a tree in its lifetime of growth. Laing draws on the stories, forms and colours embedded in the wood to direct the structures of his sculptures, and draws on the traditional joinery techniques of various cultures to craft exquisite objects. Thus, what emerges is a synthesis between his fantasies and wishes, and the stories told by trees.

Laing, born in Pretoria 1990, holds a BA in Fine Art from the University of Pretoria, and is set to receive an MTech in Fine Art at the end of 2018 from the University of Johannesburg. Laing has exhibited in numerous shows around South Africa, and as a finalist in competitions such as the ABSA l’Atelier, Thami Mnyele Fine Art Awards, and Sasol New Signatures. His work is in prominent private and public collections; including the permanent collection of the WITS Art Museum. In addition to his own practice, Laing has worked alongside local and international artists privately, and via institutions such Nirox Sculpture Park (where he spent two years in extended residence) and William Kentridge Studio. In 2013 he was a resident artist at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, France; and has since been awarded the Ampersand Foundation Fellowship to take place in New York City, 2019.

N.’s Apparatus will run from Saturday 20 October to Thursday 6 December at the Johannesburg City Library (open Mon. – Sat.), corner of Albertina Sisulu and Sauer streets in Johannesburg city centre.

For more information regarding the story of Prof. Etterforsker, and for walkabout dates, visit and Instagram @allen.laing, and For any queries please contact Ronel at 083 263 5842 or email