blank projects, Cape Town
I’ve long held the view that James Webb is the most concise artist working in South Africa right now. There is rarely anything superfluous in his work, his materials intentionally chosen and minimal, his references direct and carefully considered. Perhaps this accounts for why he has tended to sound and monochrome Modernist references, both favour direct and uncomplicated means of conveying things which are often anything but.
In many ways, Webb’s current exhibition at blank projects ‘Ecstatic Interference’ comes across as a sibling to the excellent 2014 exhibition ‘The Two Insomnias’ at the same gallery. This is largely due to the impression that two of the new works Untitled (with the sound of its own making) and Threnody seem to have germinated from the political bend of Children of the Revolution in the earlier exhibition.
As a quick recap, Children of the Revolution was a reworking of T.Rex’s 1972 glam rock anthem as an isiXhosa protest song which proved quite prophetic of the following year’s political climate. The piece was simultaneously very funny and extremely powerful, preserving most of Marc Bolan’s original fluff lyrics –‘You won’t fool the children of the revolution’– but giving them weight through the delivery (especially a loudspeaker refrain added to the ending). Turns out the medium is the message. The work was broadcast through nine custom speaker cabinets that resembled the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori experimental noise instruments.
Back to the current exhibition, the obvious descendant of Children of the Revolution is Threnody. As with Children, Threnody is a reworking of a classic rock song, Paul McCartney’s vocal take for the 1968 Beatles track Helter Skelter, presented through a speaker which references early 20th century Modernist aesthetics, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Circle (1915). Webb reversed McCartney’s vocals and, with the help of ethnomusicologist Cara Stacey, phonetically transcribed them for Zami Mdingi (from the band CODA) to perform. The result is a decidedly schizoid vocal solo with passages that come across as intensely mourning (consistent with the title) and occasionally raging. Every so often a hint of the original comes through. (I shamefacedly confess to a sneaky re-reversal of Threnody to see how close they got it. The result is a gloriously David Lynch-approved take on Helter Skelter, Mdingi is phenomenal!)
As someone obsessed with the idea of the canvas as a site of ‘transmission,’ the reference to Malevich with the speaker is spot on, typifying Webb’s use of quotation. With the audio however, a far greater degree of ambiguity presents itself. Helter Skelter is a loaded reference. Obviously one of the more bizarre and chaotic Beatles tracks, it will forever be haunted by Charles Manson’s ludicrous interpretation that it prophesied an apocalyptic race war. Mapping the reversed vocals into phonetics may take it away from that to some extent, but the question of choice of song still lingers. We’re obviously long past the point of demanding specific artist statements on the meaning of works, it is just that within the context of James Webb’s work this opacity is unusual and strikingly apparent as a result.
This impression continues into Untitled (with the sound of its own making). While Threnody sticks closer to the visual formula of Children of the Revolution, Untitled is the work’s spiritual successor. Taking up the majority of blank’s first exhibition space, Untitled is the monolithic centrepiece of this current exhibition and is at first as confounding as it is powerful.
Untitled takes the form of 15 speaker cabinets (visually recalling the ‘wall of amps’ mainstay of rock/metal concert stage prop posturing) through which the sound of drummers beating their hands on doors is broadcast. While the rhythmic beat is initially infectious it soon becomes increasingly overwhelming as the intensity of the drumming and tempo increase during the work’s 18 minute duration. The experience of viewing it in isolation as it reverberates in the otherwise empty room is intense and often uncomfortable. I think the poor blank gallery staff may have a serious case of PTSD following the exhibition’s run.
While undoubtedly visceral, the work is also a bit obscure initially. After all, Robert Morris’ box (to which the title refers) contained recordings of the construction of the box itself, begging the question as to what exactly we are hearing being made in Webb’s incarnation. At times it seems like something is bursting to be released from the boxes, at others the consistency of the rhythmic beating takes on an alarmingly industrial quality. It also recalls the stomping feet at the end of Webb’s Children of the Revolution. If that work was a call to action, frenzied sounds of hands beating on doors comes across as a rallying cry.
As a whole, ‘Ecstatic Interference’ feels a bit like a bridging exhibition. Due to the greater ambiguity, it comes across as looser than Webb’s previous exhibitions; intended to connect with the viewer first and foremost on an abstract, emotive level. While a bit rougher around the edges, it also resolutely asserts itself. It is not specifically clear what we are hearing coming into being in the centrepiece or what is being mourned in Threnody, but it is difficult not to read them in relation to the political climate of South Africa in the present. This is why it is going to be interesting to see where Webb arrives at next. The core distinction between Robert Morris’ box and Webb’s wall of speakers is that Morris’ box was concluded, whereas whatever we are hearing being made feels like it is still to come.