‘Superstition brings bad luck.’ That’s James Webb quoting Raymond Smullyan as he is taking a walk around a Lake in Sweden. I’m on the phone to him from my kitchen in Putney deconstructing a chicken. Tellingly I can’t find the wishbone. I think I sliced through it.
We’re talking about the way ideas become artworks. I’m circling concepts of distillation and layering of symbols. But an unknown force is guiding me in a different direction. Maybe it is the same vague sense of unease that is pushing me (and seemingly everyone else) to take on more and more elaborate cooking tasks. I find myself interrupting and asking about the elements of his work that gesture towards the numinous presence of fate or magic or chance.
His current show ‘What Fresh Hell Is This’, at blank projects in Woodstock, incorporates its most overt element of the supernatural through a piece called The Skipping Needle in which Webb consulted with an astrologer to determine a cosmically appropriate time to close the gallery. The astrologer mandated it be shut for a period of 30 hours and 42 minutes based on a triangulation of itinerant planets. Perhaps saying it should be shut almost permanently in line with government/coronavirus lockdown was too risky a prophecy (albeit one that would have bolstered the profession).
There’s a wry sense of irony that sits somewhat uncomfortably with Webb’s genuine absorption and enjoyment of the occult and mysterious. Perhaps it’s their contrast with his near-mathematically minimalist presentation. Interestingly the realms of Physics and Maths have long been dogged by associations with the occult due to Johann Zöllner’s ‘Transcendental Physics’,1Zöllner on Wikipedia a text in which he used the idea of a fourth dimension as a way of explaining the impressive illusions of magician and charlatan Henry Slade in 1879. This example serves to emphasize just how much of our intellectual (as well as emotional) endeavour is abstract and ephemeral. Some (if not all) numbers are imaginary.
Webb’s appeal to the supernatural realm is emblematic of his attempts to conjure the realization that this isn’t it; that there is more here than that which we can sense or explain. Previous titles, such as There Is a Voice Other Than the One You’re Hearing, I Do Not Live in This World Alone, but in a Thousand Worlds and The Dreamer in Me Meets the Dreamer in You, poetically suggest that real experience spills beyond physical reality, like love emerging from sex or dreams from sleep.
In his process, Webb disregards scepticism so that his experiments can run their course, it is a simulation that, technically real or not, yields results. Like Nobel-prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr’s lucky horseshoe (apparently when asked by a fellow scientist why he kept it above his door, he rebuked ‘I don’t believe in it either. I have it there because I was told that it works even when one doesn’t believe in it at all’). At this point I am also reminded of Rosa Lyster’s zodiac sign profiles2See on The Hairpin. I re-read all of them. They have titles like: ‘Astrology Is Fake, But Brad Pitt Got Owned By A Gemini’, ‘Astrology is Fake but Pisceans Love Weed’ and ‘Astrology Is Fake But Sagittariuses [like James Webb] Are Trying Their Best’.
It makes sense that no one is more superstitious than the seafarer; he who gives himself (women were bad luck) over to the whims of the weather and the waves. And so tempestuous was the rounding of the Cape that a monstrous demigod, Adamastor, was invented by Luís de Camões in 1572 to personify the wreck-hungry seas at the tip of Africa.
Webb’s work This is Where I Leave You comprises statues in vitrines made of clear fluted glass. The corrugations distort the figurines – some are of the Virgin Mary and the Buddha – making them appear shimmering theological visions. They relate to the shipwreck of the Nossa Senhora dos Milagros (Portuguese for ‘Our Lady of Miracles’) which foundered among the many carcasses of merchant ships just off Struisbaai. Thinking they had passed the Cape, the crew turned too early and the ship was wrecked in 1686. As well as a cargo of jewels and spices, the ship carried religious envoys of ‘French Catholic priests sent to study the astronomy of SouthEast Asia, as well as a group of Siamese Buddhist monks’ on a journey from Goa to Lisbon. Apparently clergymen are also bad luck, and given the moniker ‘Jonahs’.
Survivors made it to shore and trekked to the VOC settlement in the Cape. The passage was perilous and the survivors were so hungry and exposed that ‘the Mandarins were compelled to eat their shoes’. The artwork’s title This is Where I Leave You sees the journeys of the items left on the ship diverge from those of the travellers. Some found themselves at the bottom of the ocean while others were salvaged by the Dutch East India Company. A gold cross embedded with diamonds, a silver filigree scent ball and a rosary were stolen by Lieutenant Olaf Bergh of the VOC and sold to an unknown Capetonian (Bergh was detained on Robben Island for his crime). Webb’s vitrines present us with figures chosen for their relevance to the parties on the ship and their ideologies. Ambassadors, maybe even distant cousins, representing secret voyages and faith kept.
The theme of experience, memory and wisdom being actively present in inanimate objects carries through into A Series of Personal Questions Addressed to Five Liters of Nigerian Crude Oil, the latest in a series of such interviews. The oil and all of its embedded memories fill a glass cube which is interrogated by a disembodied voice. The questions relate to the experience of the oil, it’s origin story and how it feels about its change of location. Among the 107 questions are: ‘What do you remember of prehistoric sunlight?’, ‘What can you tell us about the underworld?’ And ‘What will yet surface that we have not anticipated?’
Kathryn Smith writes that ‘the artwork proposes that each object is more than the sum of its parts’ in an essay in ‘…’, Webb’s new monograph. Stacks of the books are drumming their fingers impatiently at the gallery – their coming-out party absorbed into the disappointing parade of shut-downs. The crude oil has waited since the Mesozoic era to say its piece – it doesn’t mind a few more weeks.
Another of Blank Project’s artists layering unseen dimensions into their work is Donna Kukama. Kukama’s text-covered canvases are the result of secretive performances which leave their traces in her list of materials; coded unassumingly into the information about the artworks. Where one expects to see only a date, size and ‘oil on canvas’, Kusama includes ‘sunshine’ or ‘curses’. I missed them the first two times that I perused the catalogue of her show ‘Mooood’, held in 2019.
The repetition of white on black has the look of the chalkboard about it, evincing the repetitive detention punishment that Bart Simpson performs in every Simpsons intro and John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art3(clearly incantations can take banal and punitive forms). Her coiled cursive script is meditatively repetitive, looping widely so that the letters link arms and create a chicken-wire mesh. The visual effect and her poetic register rely on language to both conjure and to create a defence of the works’. Uniting Kukama and Webb is an appreciation of language’s ability to change gear, to present a picture of the world as different from day-to-day vernacular as scientific jargon. They implore a way of thinking that is also a way of feeling and believing.
As a result of Zöllner’s book, Einstein was at first unwilling to call what we now accept as the fourth dimension (spacetime) by that title. Kukama’s works occupy this literal fourth dimension in that she considers her artworks dynamic across time. On the surface a text requires a different kind of time and attention than does an image, but further than that she considers them able to figuratively time travel, to jump between moments and reactivate them. She describes her words as: ‘thoughts that act as tools for transporting (myself) between past and present, and at other times for imagining futures. Sometimes I see them as a series of events where I can arrive at a point where time is flattened, and other less visible interventions can take place and travel with the work.’
Her work Sizobaloya kwa Mai-Mai (which is made up of ‘Graphite, oil pastel, acrylic, spells and smoke on canvas’) translates to ‘We will cast spells on them (from) Kwa Mai-Mai.’ (Kwa Mai-Mai being a well known muti-market in Johannesburg, with healers’ consultation rooms on-site). In this work Kukama revisits Miriam Makeba’s 1963 song ‘Dubula’, an anti-Apartheid track with a celebratory danceable rhythm. In the chorus Makeba’s sunny operatic voice sings ‘Sizoba dubula nge mbayimbayi’, isiXhosa for ‘we will shoot them with a rifle’. Like Webb’s interrogated objects, Kukama sees the song as something with desire and agency. She muses:
Where would [this song] time-travel to? Where would it find collaborators? What would it take away? Most importantly, how would it transform, and what weapon would it use? Those who can read into the title’s references and “invisible” material can access the work at a different level. Not everyone is meant to go there. The spell is produced through time-travel and reorganizing desires for revenge, in forms that disarm all types of fuckery without always being “seen”.
I don’t speak isiXhosa, so I didn’t initially comprehend the lyrics – in this case I am ignorant of the full rationale of the work not because of secrecy but access. An access that is immediately granted to those who remember the music and speak the language. In this way she encodes an ardently political message within the work’s restrained palette and benignly contemporary abstraction.
In our email exchanges, I often felt like I was asking someone who had just blown out their birthday candles what they wished for, suspecting that if they told me it wouldn’t come true. Good-naturedly, Kukama would not budge on the form her process takes. She told me what I already knew, that the works provide ‘A key into a world that [viewers] may not access?’ I bump up against the limits of my lexicon as an art journalist, asking for DISTILLATION, REDUCTION, EXPLANATION. But with this vocabulary I became the enemy of the numinous by demanding to know how it works (I had come armed with words like ‘palimpsest’ but nothing that could stand in for ‘God’ or ‘magic’). I felt hypocognitive 4the phenomenon that describes the way ignorance of a word or term means that one is less likely to notice or understand that which it describes – a fascinating example of language shaping our reality. I consider that perhaps our appropriation of terms relating to the magical or religious are ways of trying to pin down abstract experience through language, trying to grasp the diaphanous will-o-the-wisps of the world that elude us. ‘As cognitive psychology affirms, having a verbal label can distill a nebulous phenomenon into an experience that’s more immediate and concrete.’
The mingling of castaways and colonists at the Cape is only the tip of South Africa’s theological and cosmological bounty and as such there is an abundance of artists incorporating the ‘holy’, ‘magical’ and ‘superstitious’ into their work. From Mary Sabande’s purple plushies and Penny Siopis’s retelling of the frightening urban legend, Pinky Pinky, to Roger Ballen’s wretched and brooding photographs that delve into the unrepressed human psyche. From Buhlebezwe Siwani’s incorporation of her practice as a Sangoma into her work to Sabelo Mlungeni poignant photographs of the Church of Zion. From Dineo Bopape’s intuitively produced landscapes to Willem Boshoff’s carpentry crucifixes and druidic practice. And perhaps our most famously divinely-inspired artist, Jackson Hlungwani, whose church ‘Yesu Galeliya One Aposto in Sayoni Alt and Omega’ melded his Tsonga heritage with devout and playful christianity. As exemplified in art the unlikely emergence of Consciousness, Language, Religion, Imagination, Humour, Dreams and Hallucinations make up an altogether a paranormal synergy that reminds me of a quote by neuroscientist Paul Broks: ‘When we see the brain we realize that we are, at one level, no more than meat; and, on another, no more than fiction.’ I think it should be changed to: ‘…at one level, no more than meat; and, on another, no more than magic.’