The parking lot, a sloping, uneven plot of land on the Forrest Town side of the Johannesburg Zoo, is empty. I steer my car across its paved surface, the loosened bricks humming an unvarying constructivist dirge. A man wearing a yellow bib conducts the regimented choir; his flailing arms also guide me to a standstill. I’m late. I pay the zoo’s entry fee, R41, drop the change (nine R1 coins) into my satchel, and jog (coins jingling) to the open-air restaurant. James Webb is already seated. He is much taller than I anticipated, his wan complexion and stiff shock of grey hair contradicting my mental picture of him. He looks a bit like David Byrne, I think, or possibly Jim Jarmusch. I pant an apology.
“Cream soda,” he responds to my query.
I place a sweating can in front of him, watch in silence as he decants the green drink into a glass. His first sip is slow, disinterested.
“So how do we start this?” he asks.
I dig into my satchel, produce a digital microphone and creased list of questions.
“Do you mind?” I point at the microphone.
“If that’s how you do these things.” He takes another measured sip.
“Have you been following all the fuss around the new Kapuściński biography?”
“The Guardian says he fabricated some of his stories – like meeting Patrice Lumumba.”
“Have you read any of his writing?”
I shake my head.
“That’s a shame.”
“Apparently he never recorded any of his interviews, simply jotted down notes at night. He believed that what he couldn’t remember afterwards wasn’t important.”
“Is he Russian?” I ask, pushing aside the milky broth described as a cappuccino on the menu.
“He was Polish – he died three years ago.”
“Oh,” I jerkily respond. “I suppose, if you want me to compare, I’d describe myself as a lazy journalist. I record most of my interviews.”
I lift the microphone, which the artist appraises with indifferent grey blue eyes.
“It’s not so much the truth of things that I’m after – it’s the intonation and pace. I mean, speaking… as opposed to writing, you know, is a gregarious activity. Email interviews are too deliberate. There are no ums and ahs, or… ”
“We’re like birds, aren’t we,” he cuts in.
“Birds are gregarious too.”
“Yes, I suppose they are.”
“Before you arrived I took a stroll around here. Nice idea, by the way, meeting here. My new favourite bird is the Crested Screamer.”
“Any particular reason?”
“The name, that’s all.”
He drains the last of the green liquid.
“Why’d you choose the zoo to do this?”
The Johannesburg Zoo is absurdly green in summer, and empty on weekday mornings in February. Like many public places in Johannesburg, it is also surreal and melancholic, although unlike Santarama Miniland, on the southern side of the city, there is no Michael Jackson statue here, nor a marooned replica of the Dromedaris, just the chiselled silence of that angel on the nearby War Memorial. As a site, the zoo appeals for other reasons. Like the frugal parking lot outside, it is a curious threshold space, a gateway to the enclosed garden republics of Johannesburg’s north. Sonically, it is also a vast polyphonic sprawl where animals squeak, hoot and roar, sometimes trumpet too. All said, a fitting venue to interview a visual artist, especially one who is principally engaged with sound as medium.
Can sound be a visual medium? Can a black square be a painting? The one question does not answer the other. Arguably, there is no equivalence. So, another question, albeit a rhetorical one. In 1967, Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, in a affirmative piece of writing that recalled Kazimir Malevich’s selfstyled “zero form” squares and Michael Snow’s slowyielding cinema, wondered whether an ultimate zero point had been arrived at with black paintings, white paintings, light beams, transparent film, silent concerts and invisible sculpture. Their conclusion: “It hardly seems likely.” Otherwise put, and to crudely paraphrase art history: yes, sound can be a visual medium.
In 2006, responding to the possibility of a prize, the Cape Town-based artist James Webb created a sound work that sits in a continuum of practice in search of a “zero of forms”, an expression used by Malevich to describe his iconoclastic break with the figurative tradition in painting. Especially made for the 2006 MTN New Contemporaries Award exhibition, The Black Passage is an achromatic sound installation that replays, at high volume in a darkened room, the grating, mechanical passage of an empty elevator cage descending 3km into the earth at South Deep, the world’s deepest goldmine. Visually, Webb’s piece is a nullity; sound totally trumps sight.
Amongst the many obvious precursors one can look to for insight, Ad Reinhardt, a progressive, left-leaning artist who believed black could evoke a monastic silence and consequently devoted the final decade of his life rendering this nothing on canvas, offers the necessary language with which to engage Webb’s work. Nominally. Reinhardt did not see his work as existing in a continuum of practice; instead, it represented the endgame of the genre – “the last paintings which anyone can make”. Webb does not paint. However, like Reinhardt, he has produced a work that in the words of the ascetic American painter is “a free, unmanipulated, unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icon”. Reinhardt’s description of his impenetrable black paintings reads like something the French wit Nicolas Chamfort might have written, although it could just as easily be read as a statement of what art is, or wants to be: free, unmanipulated, unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible and inexplicable.
F-U-U-U-U-I-U-U-I. The Black Passage is F-U-UU- U-I-U-U-I.
Not that much has been said or written about this funereal and strange work to counter or buttress my opinion, perhaps because his cacophonic sound environment offers very little visually. An absence meditating on an ephemeral sound presence, this invisible sound sculpture is also a black nothing. Since my first encounter with The Black Passage in 2006, a surprise encounter that prompted me to later nominate the work for inclusion on the 2007 Lyon Biennial, I have repeatedly returned to it, occasionally in writing, but mostly in thought. Why?
One narrative arc, which I won’t fully explore here, concerns the work’s Aristotlean logic. According to Aristotle, sight – unlike touch or taste – continues to operate in the absence of anything visible. Wrote Aristotle: “Even when we are not seeing, it is by sight that we discriminate darkness from light, though not in the same way as we distinguish one colour from another.” Black, then, is not so much a nullity as a necessity. In this regard, the American novelist and essayist Paul La Farge offers the following by way of a qualification: “We ‘see’ in total darkness because sight itself has a colour… and that colour is black”. For La Farge, black is “the feedback hum that lets us know the machine is still on”.
This is one possibility. But, perhaps because of the way they shuttle between literary and discursive possibilities, I am more drawn to the unreliable and climactic statements of artists and writers, especially those who have expressed kinship with the colour black. Charles Baudelaire, for instance, regarded black as emblematic of “the soul of the age” – his age that is. He described black as a bourgeois colour, and fittingly wore as much of it as possible. I’ve already mentioned Reinhardt, should mention William Kentridge (“There is a sense of the Highveld landscape, particularly in winter, as literally a charcoal drawing”) and Glenn Ligon (“I think Reinhardt had more of a sense of humour than people give him credit for”), could even reference Anselm Kiefer and Michael Krebber – but I won’t. Instead, I’ll limit myself to a Kiev-born Pole whose unreliable meditations on black injected a new anti-bourgeois thrust into an appreciation of this quintessentially modern colour.
In 1923, the same year Henk Pierneef resigned as a lecturer and became a full-time painter, and eight years after Kazimir Malevich first exhibited his iconoclastic black square – painted entirely freehand and displayed like a Russian Orthodox icon high up in the top corner of Madame Nadezhda Dobychina’s avant-garde gallery space, Art Bureau, which overlooked, the Field of Mars, one of the largest open spaces in Petrograd – Malevich declared of his emphatic full-stop to the figurative tradition: “I envisaged the revolution as having no colour. Colour belongs to the past. Revolution is not decked out in colours, not ablaze with them. Colour is the fire of the ancien regime… Anarchy is coloured black.” For his part, Pierneef was happy to go chasing after a landscape, half real but also imagined, rendering it in pencil and linocut. At night he dreamt in colour.
“What’s that he said about revolution and anarchy?” James Webb asks after I read him the statement by Malevich. A second tin of cream soda sweats in the late summer heat.
“Revolution is not decked out in colours,” I repeat. “
Anarchy is coloured black.”
I pause. He says nothing. His look is uninterested, distant. I press ahead.
“I was thinking that, in way, he is stating the obvious. I mean pirate flags have always been black.”
“In Somalia too?”
“I’m not sure about Somalia, but I know that in 1999, in Seattle, the unrest was largely instigated by a group of anarchists called the Black Bloc.”
His index finger traces a zigzag line through the condensation on his can’s surface. Slowly, without haste, his rubs his thumb and forefinger, observing the process like a scientist.
“Okay, I see what you mean, it’s that whole dilettante vibe people associate with the colour.”
“You mean dilettante as in amateurish?” I ask.
A cleaner walks past. She is followed by the sound of the stiff-bristled broom dragged behind her.
“I’m not sure. To be honest, the first thing that came into my head when you were reading that statement was Prince. I’m not even sure why.”
“The musician – I love his stuff. All the critics love you in New York.”
James Webb cannot sing in falsetto.
“Why did you call your work The Black Passage?” I ask.
“It sounded like a title David Lynch would use. I also enjoyed its pun on “back passage,” which is quite appropriate given the image. As Pieter-Dirk Uys said when he heard about the work, ‘Fuck, man, you’ve given God an enema!’”
His laughter is a sonorous eruption of sound, air and cream soda. I imagine a khaki-clad zookeeper peeping up from behind his computer monitor with revived interest in his fiefdom and its taxonomy of weird animal noises. He apologises and dabs at his chest with a paper napkin.
“I read somewhere that you were inspired by the sonic mischief of The Goons. Is this true?”
“Yes,” he says, tentatively retreating into his indifference.
“Occasionally I would stay in Kimberly during the winter holidays with my grandparents. There was not much to do so I watched an astonishing amounts of video, which is a huge influence on my work – my absolute love of the cinema, the power and atmosphere it conveys. I also listened to LPs and cassettes The Goons. I loved the playfulness and sheer confusion of everything, that something you take as given is exploded by them. It was a world where things could be quite different, where nothing was boring. I found that infinitely more exciting than the world I was in.”
Two ibis, their dull plumage shimmering in the sharp afternoon light, squawk their upset as the artist arches his back, arms outstretched like in that scene from Titanic.
“You grew up mostly on a wine farm though, near Stellenbosch, right?”
“In a way this work is quite biographical then.”
“If you take me to be a black mineworker, or Orpheus.”
He aims a sudden irritated burst of energy at the birds. They leave in an agitation of sound, which he curiously follows with a mischievous smile.
“If not biographical then at least geological?”
“I suppose. Growing up on Thelema – that’s the wine farm’s name – was certainly a big influence. It introduced me to sound, not just performed music or music coming from a CD, but the idea of surround sound. Being in a forest, of which there are plenty on the southern slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, I often found myself in situations where sound was coming from all spaces. A forest is a complete environment.” “Where exactly is Thelema?”
“It is on the Helshoogte Pass, which is another nice reference. It was drawn up in the year of the Salem witch trials and named Thelema the same year Aleister Crowley was born, who subsequently went on to form a religion of the same name.”
“Would you say that any of this dark mythology is relevant to The Black Passage?”
“I suppose if this were chess, you’d be calling out check.”
“I don’t really play much chess.”
“I can see that.”
“So you’re not going to answer my question.”
“There are certain things I can do for you, like offer you a discreet view of my biography, but I don’t think it is my role to connect the dots for you or your readers.”
“Is that you saying check to me?” I ask.
“Maybe.” He smiles.
“I suppose all I’m saying is that where you want the reliability of plot, depth and content, my interest lies in angles, arcs and intervals. And that, I’m afraid, is all I’m willing to offer.”
Sean O’Toole is journalist, writer and editor of Art South Africa
Linda S. Boersma, 0,10: The last futurist exhibition of painting (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1994).
T.J. Clark, ‘Madame Matisse’s Hat’, in London Review of Books, August 14, 2008, Vol. 30(16), pp. 29-32.
Luke Harding, ‘Poland’s ace reporter Ryszard Kapuściński accused of fiction-writing’ March 2, 2010, http://www. guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/02/ryszard-kapuscinskiaccused- fiction-biography. Accessed March 23, 2010.
William Kentridge, interview with artist, July 5, 2005, Johannesburg.
Paul La Farge, ‘Colors / Black’, in Cabinet, Winter 2009/10, No. 36.
Glenn Ligon, interview with artist, April 23, 2010, Cape Town.
Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’, in Conceptual Art: a critical anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), pp.44-50.
Tom McCarthy, ‘Stabbing the Olive’, in London Review of Books, February 11, 2010, Vol. 32(3), pp. 26-28.
Robert MacKey, ‘Fact, Fiction and Kapuscinski’, March 8, 2010, http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/08/factfiction- and-kapuscinski/. Accessed March 23, 2010.
Bob Nickas, Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting (London: Phaidon Press, 2009). Nancy Spector, ‘Ad Reinhardt: Biography’, www.guggenheim. org. Accessed March 23, 2010.
James Webb, interview with artist, February 4, 2007, Johannesburg.