Reviewed: James Webb’s ‘Prayer’ & ‘MMXII’ at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
Thursday did not quite go as planned. A visit to the vet for 6-month old Re-a’Kher (meaning “War” in Middle Egyptian) turned into tragedy when the vet made her final assessment of his condition; my stripy-boy cat was suffering and had to be put down – no time for special meals, no time for extended goodbyes. I asked that he be tranquilized first so that he would not be afraid, and held him on my lap as the vet administered the anaesthetic overdose that would take his life and free his soul. Leaving his little body at the vet, the trip to the Johannesburg Art Gallery was a blur in my mind. I left and I found myself at my destination with little memory of the journey between Farrarmere and Joubert Park.
I arrived in time for an explanation of the first piece in the exhibition, ‘In Memory of What Never Happened’, speakers positioned above the public entrance to the gallery play back voices that repeat the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please: You are reminded that everything is fine” – this in alternating languages and at 5 minute intervals. I wandered what Joubert Park’s occupants made of the veiled menace hidden in the announcements. Introduction done, James Webb ushered his guests into the museum and began the walk-through of his two current exhibits at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, ‘MMXII’ and ‘Prayer’.
MMXII left me rattled. What should have been a thought-provoking series of installations left me deeply disturbed in the wake of Re-a’Kher’s passing. References to the underworld, atonal soundscapes, disembodied voices, dark exhibition areas lit only by light from screens all combining to leave me somewhat shaken and decidedly uneasy. Only two pieces, most notably ‘Aleph’, were able to question my psyche without leaving a sense of contamination. I was deeply grateful for the artist’s guidance that morning. Had Webb not been present to explain the context of each piece and assist us in rationalising it, I may well have run for the exit and the respite of daylight and open sky.
MMXII is a subtle intrusion, luring you gradually and inescapably into a void that must take from its participants in order to be complete. It does not give, it takes from you the illusion of certainty, it erases notions of a sensible world and leaves behind only questions that cannot be answered.
With great relief on my part, we moved on into the hall hosting ‘Prayer’, and there my uneasiness dissolved as Prayer returned to my soul and psyche what MMXII had taken from it.
The initial experience is one of incoherent noise – disembodied voices spew forth from metal-and-plastic speakers installed on the expanse of a red carpet, individual iterations swirling into a senseless wash – but unlike Aleph’s close-held mystery, Prayer opens up to the listener to reveal an aural tapestry, individual threads of Faith combining to form the whole. Tears flowing freely, I found myself moving from speaker to speaker, listening to a plethora of prayers and songs; the languages I could not understand, but the faith, the devotion in the tone of the speakers needed no translation.
For a moment I wandered if I would hear my submissions and those of the Tabula Rasa coven recorded in Sunward Park on a cold Winter’s evening, but it did not matter. For some reason, hearing a known element within the mass of voices became irrelevant as each of those voices was expressing the same thing that mine and those of the coven had, Faith. My Place of Lights lament, contributed with trepidation – the An Am Aram is sung after a death, to release the soul from the flesh and to release the living from grief – may as well have been the Christian Lord’s Prayer, a Muslim call-to-prayer, a Buddhist mantra, the content mattering so much less than the intentions of the owners of the voices: to lift the Living into a better place. I was lifted, and remain deeply moved by ‘Prayer’.
James Webb’s current work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery is on display from Tuesday 15th July to Sunday 14th October. The gallery is open to the public from 10h00 to 17h00 Tuesday to Sunday. No cover charge applies and secure parking is available. Make a day of it, and you’ll give yourself enough time to explore both James Webb’s works as well as enjoying the magnificent sculptures that are installed in the Gallery grounds.