Choose the Universe
September 5 – November 2, 2019
For his second solo exhibition at the Imane Farès gallery, James Webb presents a collection of works from long research and using references to the history of men, religions and thoughts. “Choose the Universe” is a call to welcome the unknown, to accept ambiguity, to consider the obstacle as something other than an impossibility, and to question the notion of mystery. A quest for the invisible, in the broadest sense of the word, seems to be at the centre of each of the works exhibited here. The history of psychoanalysis, but also various forms of spirituality (ranging from Christianity to animism, through Buddhism) are all references that the artist uses to represent what escapes our eyes and our minds.
Posted in front of the wall, a Virgin to the Child greets the visitor. Altered by time, the sculpture, named Invisibilia, undergoes a kind of return to life thanks to a sound transfusion. A recording of electromagnetic pulses produced by the Aurora Borealis is broadcast by a transducer that activates the materiality of the plaster statue and transforms it into a sounding board. The reversal of the object in front of the wall is certainly a diversion, recalling many works that have marked the history of modern art by their desecrating capacity. The scope of this gesture can, however, be translated as an artifice aimed at inducing the curiosity of the visitor. A universal and intimate figure, this Madonna embodies the relationships of love and protection, but also resilience and humility in the face of infinite mystery.
Further on, in a form not devoid of humour, James Webb used a process repeated in his practice, namely the juxtaposition of two or more elements in order to activate new possibilities. With the installation Friends of Friends, he thus takes up the surreal principle of “the chance encounter on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”. A green plastic plant and a silkscreen print by Joan Miro, both abandoned by their respective owners, were purchased by the artist in the same second-hand shop and are now gathered in the gallery space. It is both chance and fate that unite these two objects. Their “meeting” can be compared to a blind date that had to happen: they both share the same trajectory.
Indeed, the work also evokes what obstructs the view and blurs the mind. The silkscreen print of Miro is mysteriously hidden behind the plant, giving the installation a humorous dimension. The origin of this work is actually much more dramatic and can be found in the account of the sinking of a 17th century ship. Survivors of the shipwreck (French Jesuit astronomers and Buddhist monks from Siam) strayed in an attempt to find a way through the nature surrounding Cape Town in South Africa.
Combining natural landscape and imaginary landscape, the artist suggests that the outcome of this ordeal could have been happier if the survivors had shown greater openness. This story resonates particularly well with his creative process of “staying open to see and receive what lies behind the tangled groves o[son]f mind. »
The invisible and the ineffable meet in the series I do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand worlds: James Webb transcribes literary quotations in ink on soluble paper, which he dissolves in water and then presents in vials glass. These small bottles can be spilled, evaporated, or even drunk as a potion, poison or even a love potion. If poetry occupies a central place in the first works of this series begun in 2016, it is the depths of the unconscious and the unknown that the artist explores here. In 13 Dreams of Kafka, the chosen texts refer to franz Kafka’s dreams, described in his diary between 1910 and 1923. Excerpts from founding texts (the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the haikus of the Zen Buddhist monk Ryokan and Witness by Denise Levertov) constitute A comet is coming.
At the same time, since 2016, the artist has chosen to ask questions of inanimate objects that he carefully selects and considers as sentient beings capable of answering. After interviewing the bells of a medieval church in the Stockholm Historical Museum, an ambrotype from the Tallinn Museum of Photography and a Chewa mask from Malawi, he presents here two new works in this series.
In A Series of personal questions posed to a set of Rorschach Psychodiagnostic flats, a voice asks 65 questions to a set of maps designed by Hermann Rorschach in 1921. The boards used for the psychological evaluation test are considered likely to produce a narrative beyond their primary purpose, which is the interpretation of ink stains. With the work created specifically for his exhibition in Paris A Series of personal questions posed to a Roman Coin, James Webb re-injects into the money exchange circuit a coin issued in the effigy of an emperor of the Roman era and interrogates his career for 1700 years.
Finally, the sound piece What Fresh Hell is This broadcasts recorded voices throughout the gallery at unexpected moments (laughs, songs and shouts), the words “guilty” and “innocent” and the accusatory phrase “You are procrastinating” procrastinate), reminiscent of a recent dream of the artist. The spatialization of the voice in an exhibition space is a recurring motif in the work of James Webb, one of the most eminent conceptual artists on the African continent. Frequently using sound as a means of expression, he asserts that “the voice activates space.”
 “The Songs of Maldoror,” in Complete Works, Lautréamont, ed. Guy Lévis Mano, 1938, vocals VI, 1, p. 256