James Webb: MMXII at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
Review by Anthea Buys
At the threshold between the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s (JAG) grounds and the city’s most notorious green space, Joubert Park, it is hard to trust the intermittent voice from above that assures the public that “everything is fine”. It is certainly not God speaking. He has no business in this neighbourhood, where the apocalypse seems already a thing of the past. The utterance is a sound intervention by James Webb titled “In Living Memory of What Never Happened”, a work that the South African artist first staged at Melbourne’s comparatively Arcadian Northbank promenade in 2009. Broadcast from two public address speakers perched above the gallery’s entrance, the full message is, “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. You are reminded that everything is fine.”
Cheek by jowl with Hillbrow, Joubert Park – and the eponymous suburb that clutches it – is a gauntlet of gangsters, petty thieves, hustlers and junkies, who break now and then from their business or languor for a game of high stakes chess. Besides two oversized chessboards at its far end, the park and museum complex is bereft of useful facilities. It is quite clear when one enters the JAG that very little is “fine”, and the unsettling irony of “In Living Memory of What Never Happened” shown in this context sets the tone of Webb’s solo exhibition – in his words, a “metrospective” – MMXII. This is a survey show that both takes stock of his artistic practice to date and peers into the catacombs of one of the world’s earliest galleries for contemporary art. Founded in 1911 as a municipal gallery for the display of current European art, the JAG surfaced from apartheid in 1994 as the centre of a feared slum. Since then, the infamy of its surrounds, like the rain, has seeped into the building itself. Rumours of disgruntled ghosts, geological banes and ancestors angered at the gallery’s collection of classical African art, colour an otherwise plain narrative of neglect.
MMXII adopts these fancies, anchoring itself in the site and its presiding mythologies. Five hidden works haunt the exhibition, as if they are emissaries of the ghost believed by some to prowl the premises after office hours. One of them is “There’s No Place Called Home” (2005-), an instance of a recurring work in which Webb displaces recordings of birdsong, installing various bird calls in alien environments around the world. Hidden in the JAG’s treed courtyard the call of a White-Bellied Drongo, a carnivorous bird indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, issues a warning to smaller resident birds in a foreign tongue.
Webb’s secret ‘meta-exhibition’ brackets the dominant motif of MMIXX, which is an oscillation between loss and containment, mediated by belief. The emptiness suggested by “Untitled (9th August)” (2005, 2010, 2012), an installation comprising only exhibition labels from the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, is counterbalanced by the auditory abundance of “Prayer, Johannesburg” (2012), a local version of the recurring city-specific work “Prayer”. In this installation, 12 floor-mounted speakers play recited prayers of every religious group with which Webb was able to make contact while working in Johannesburg. At face value, it sounds too altruistic for Webb, but the work installed in the adjacent room, “Aleph” (2011) sets the record straight.
“Aleph” is an installation of sound recordings of young Christian women speaking in “tongues”, a manifestation of glossolalia believed by Pentecostal Christians to be a secret heavenly language. The indecipherable noises spill out of four rectangular black speakers separated by vertical fluorescent lights. The stark geometric forms of the speakers and fluorescent bars and the cold artificial light foreground the alienating qualities of this mystical experience. Rather than invitational and warm, as “Prayer” seems to be, “Aleph” reminds us of the solipsism of religious experience as well as its constructed nature. Those who believe in the ability to speak in tongues also often believe that the inscrutable utterances convey secret divine messages that are hidden even to the speaker. These murmurings are occult in the true sense of the word, and suggest not only primal connections between historically opposed faith systems, but also the embedding of belief in the hidden places of the psyche.
Webb probes the latter in a room of homely proportions that has been curated as a gently hallucinogenic impression of Freud’s study. In “Autohagiography” (2007), recordings of Webb’s own utterances under hypnosis emerge from a black leather chaise longue. Surrounding the work are pieces Webb selected from the JAG’s permanent collection, including a version of Salvador Dali’s “Aphrodisiac Telephone” (1936) and a clutch of Japanese Ukyio-E and Nishiki-E woodblock prints. A pillaged Asian temple sculpture recorded by the gallery simply as “Tomb Figure (Imaginary Animal)” (undated), presides over the room, which stitches together elements of a mythical underworld and the Freudian subconscious. Now and then a child-like cough rattles almost inaudibly behind a blue velvet curtain. This is another secret work, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2012). Everyday the same phlegm gurgles, and yet each coughing fit comes as a surprise. It is masterfully creepy, and an elegant synecdoche for the whole show, perhaps for the JAG as well: the surprising persistence of something out of place.