Archive: Issue No. 107, July 2006

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James Webb

James Webb
Untitled 2006
flickering lights, installation at blank projects.

James Webb at blank projects
By Robert Sloon

I haven't seen James Webb's untitled work at Blank Projects. I try and avoid wandering in the Bo-Kaap at night (even the Tamboerskloof side) after being mugged several times in the area. If I were to risk my cellphone and go down there, I'm guessing what I'd see: blank projects empty with the lights flickering on and off. This might be visually appealing for the two minutes I'd stand out in the cold. Haunting, mysterious maybe a little humorous. But, like Martin Creed's work of a similar nature The Lights Going On and Off, it is unnecessary for the viewer to actually see the work for it to have its impact. It's the conceptual nature of this type of ephemeral minimalist work that draws me in, sitting safe and warm behind my computer. Of course, having the press release to read does help one understand.

The press release says that under the cover of supposed faulty electrics the lights will be flashing a secret Morse code message, known only to the artist.

The faulty light bulbs speak of a joy in the everyday, an invitation for some masculine tinkering, but we are prevented from fixing them by the gallery windows. The only tinkering going on here is upside down: the artist is making something appear broken, not fixed. A reversal of the normal functions of technology, but reversed again because it spells out a secret message. It's a frustrating work then; we are separated from its meaning by the glass, by the artist's tinkering, and by its unintelligible Morse Code. A message being sent out that no-one can solve, or at least without a serious amount of decoding. This is a reflection of the way information works today, readily available but always needing interpretation, context and mediation.

The Morse also gives the work a spy-like spin - telegrams sent in the night from a small empty room, like a John Le Carre novel. Maybe Le Carre is an apt comparison. In his novels there is often the confidence trickster, pulling the wool over someone's eyes, the master spy. But in many of his other novels there are the ineffectual civil servant type spies, desperately trying to make meaning of the lives they have chosen, going out on missions that mean nothing to the world anymore. Sending messages to nowhere. And often it's difficult to tell the difference between these two types of spies.

Robert Sloon is the editor of South African art tabloid, ArtHeat

Opens: June 7
Closes: July 15

blank projects
198 Buitengracht Street, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town
Tel: 072 198 9221
Hours: Wed 4pm - 7pm, or by appointment