James Webb’s latest body of work ‘Three Dreams of the Sinking World’, is an animistic meditation on the dying body of the once iconic Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. It was born initially, according to Webb, from an interest in the idea of getting lost in a space, armed with a camera, which came into focus on the Carlton Hotel. The title of the exhibition makes reference to the ukiyo-e genre of Japanese art – which translates as Depictions of the Floating World – which portrayed the extravagant and hedonistic Edo-era Japan. By subverting this idea from that of floating to sinking Webb ironizes Johannesburg’s ‘good old days’ and draws our attention to questions revolving around the evolution of a contemporary Afro-urban cityscape. Webb navigates the audience from the top of this building downwards, in what he terms ‘a funneling effect’, emphasised by his usage of sound that narrows in on itself the deeper one gets into the space. ‘Every space allowed for a different approach,’ says Webb, ‘whether it was the airiness of the rooftop, humming vibration of the passageway or the staccato-like tapping in the last scene. They all serve to draw you in deeper into this building’s depths.’
This funneling not only alludes to a romantic White notion of a past Johannesburg, but also draws our attention to the evolution of a modern Afro-urban cityscape.The questions which arise from this artist’s filmic interrogation of the Carlton Hotel, take the form of murmurings inviting the viewer to complete the meanings behind the three bodies of work making up the show. The Carlton Hotel is an iconic structure has been fraught with polarizing symbolism, both within the Apartheid era and post ‘94. It epitomised the desire of Apartheid-era Johannesburg to be seen as an international city. In apparent contrast to this, the ANC declared their victory in the ’94 election at the Carlton. This aligning pivotal moments in history continued with Nelson Mandela celebrating his 75th birthday party at the Carlton Hotel too. However, since the official closing of the building in 1998, it has stood largely untouched or remembered until now.
In the first of the three video installations the camera enters the building from the formerly open rooftop pool area by drone. We take on the role of voyeur, as our arrival into the space is one of minimal contact with this entombed structure. Our focus is drawn to an expired palm tree. Its faded form alluding to the values of wealth, escapism and power that the Carlton sought to portray though its grandiosity. Apart from the decaying palm tree which now bows defeatedly, the only other trace of life are the pigeon feathers of the birds who once flew into the now enclosed rooftop, either dying within the cage of the palm tree or within the tomb of the building itself. There are instances where the drone’s ghostly presence is noticeable through the pockets of wind that lightly kick up clusters of feathers.
There is a sense of this symbolising the relocation of economic power from the CBD and the urban decay of central Johannesburg. The work, though, is purposefully more open-ended. As Webb explains, ‘It’s difficult for me to say what I think other people think, because people are going to bring their own histories and their own thoughts to this, and it says a lot about them with what they think, but it also says even more about them if they think they know what I’m thinking.’
The second video presents us with a steady-cam slowly tracking back the length of a passage on the twenty-sixth floor of the hotel. This scene is in part a homage to The Shining and its own abandoned and hotel, and part a nod to Webb’s own 2006 work The Black Passage, where he sent a microphone down an elevator of the South Deep Mine. Even though this piece is shot within the passageway it conveys a sense of plummeting or descending; much in the same way traveling in a caged mine elevator would flick with light filtering through from each level. In this instance it is the light from rooms which leaks into the passageway. The absence of doors is a glaring reminder of the stark, stripped and abandoned shell which now exists.
In this vignette comparisons can be drawn between the symbolic nature of power and wealth, and their downward spiral. Webb draws attention to the curious decision behind ‘the very powerful choice by the ANC to use it [the Carlton Hotel] to declare victory in the ‘94 elections,’ regardless of the somewhat negative magnetism surround this building. ‘I think it has a presence,’ Webb continues, ‘in the psychology of South Africa. It’s definitely an icon that we bring our own thoughts, opinions and connections too.’
The last space, sees viewers follow Webb and his guide, security guard ‘Shoes’ Mthembu, down the thirty flights of darkened stairs lit only by Mthembu’s torch from the rooftop to the ground floor shot on cellphone. We are guided into the depths of the building whilst following the moon-like orb of the torches spot light. This work is the only video piece to have evidence of life – this we see in the form of the shadow that reminds us we aren’t alone in this building. Something which makes this piece differ to the other video installations is that it appears to have upped the ante slightly with its pacing. This could, however, be due to the desaturation of the use of sound effects which gradually decrease in intensity the deeper one navigates into spaces of the Carlton Hotel. With regards to the usage of ambient sound as an element it was, according to Webb used less as a form of documentation, but rather as element to convey duality between the past and present. Here sound recorded through contact microphones serves as an element of force via that of air and stone but also of the outside world slamming against the building itself.
Another element of sound within these works come in the form of the headphone pieces which is an element commissioned by POOL Gallery, that sees the works of the three writers; Khanya Mashabela, Mika Conradie, and Athi Mongezeleli Joja, who were asked to contribute texts on the Carlton Hotel which then were then voiced by Lindiwe Matchikize. These narratives which aren’t meant to be necessarily about the exhibition, but rather about the hotel itself, but serve as associative audio guides to the exhibition. Webb expands on this by describing the benefits of this addition to his initial idea by saying ‘it exploded and became something new with the commissioning of writers. It changed and expanded from being just one person’s idea of the Carlton Hotel. It became an opportunity for this exhibition to commission new work from other people, and allow other thoughts and voices to be a part of it. This sense of collaboration and sharing is something I enjoy incorporating into my work. It allows me to consider things that I wouldn’t necessarily would have considered.’
I wonder if it is possible to view this body of work simply as a meditation on the dead body or shell which now stands vacant sans the layers of historical, political, social, economic layering which live and breathe within those walls? This work does pose, in its meditation, questions which hiss quietly through the silence inviting us to interrogate what we see and what we bring to the space, what it was and what we think about it now. It’s a meditation that allows us to consider what went on in those rooms and who visited that building. As Webb admits ‘I think those are more generative concepts and ideas that will bring up thoughts. I think it would be a curious situation if someone saw this as an ode or elegy. That would say quite a lot about where they are coming from. For me it connects to some kind of meditation on this empty shell and on what once filled it and what fills it now.’
This exhibition is much more than an inquisitive look at a building from yester-year, but is instead an interrogation of an iconic structure, now left abandoned. Presumably, because it would cost too much money to refurbish, too costly to sell off and renovate, and too expensive to demolish. This exhibition, as Webb states, opens itself up to readings which possibly extend further than those of the surface value readings which appear at first glance.