James Webb

THE READER: James Webb

Artist James Webb reveals his literary side to Sophy Kohler


James Webb is a South African artist and experimental musician born in Kimberley in 1975. His work, framed in large-scale installations in galleries and museums, or as unannounced interventions in public spaces, often makes use of ellipsis, displacement and humour to explore the nature of belief and the dynamics of communication in our contemporary world. One of his most recent works, the permanent installation “Let Me Lose Myself”, is an abstract audio guide to the Skogskrykogården cemetery in Stockholm, and was curated by CCseven.

Webb’s work has been presented around the world at institutions such as the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, CCA Kitakyushu in Japan and the Darat al Funun in Amman, Jordan, as well as in major international exhibitions including the 2013 Venice Biennale, the 2010 Marrakech Biennale, the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival and the 2007 Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art. His work is represented in the collections of the Iziko South African National Gallery, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, the Darat al Funun, Amman, and Vranken Pommery in France.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am waist-deep in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide To Getting Lost. It was originally recommended to me for a recent project I was doing on the subject of uncertainty for Stockholm’s Skogskyrkogården cemetery. The book is a series of poetic essays on the value of getting lost, and it indulges in the unexplored and the unexpected through lenses like anthropology, art history and walking. It is a wonderful and essential book.

And then there is Morrissey’s Autobiography, which is a delight. The descriptions of Manchester are moody and atmospheric, and his accounts fizzle with pathos and biting observations, while often being very, very funny. It is interesting to read his prose and compare it to the elegant economy of his lyrics.

Lastly, I am thumbing my way through Lonely Planet: India. I am planning how best to get lost.

How do you decide what to read next?

It all depends what I am working on and what I feel will inspire or distract me in the best possible fashion. I have a heap of books baying for my attention, and I think I have the next few months well taken care of with Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language by Robin Dunbar and Stuart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse is one of those texts that rewards repeatedly, and remains pertinent and dynamic on every reading.

Is there a particular novel that resonates with you more than others?

I often return to the pulsating imagery of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima.

What were your favourite books as a child?

Fantastic Mr. Fox was a highlight. The fairy stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm also featured in my early childhood.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Crow from Ted Hughes’s “The Life and Songs of the Crow”. J. Alfred Prufrock comes an enviable second.

What was the last book you gave as a gift?

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. Grosz is a psychoanalyst and has here put together a collection of vignettes, each a case study of a patient dealing with a particular issue. It’s thought provoking and, at the same time, comforting and easily readable.

What book have you never been able to finish?

Felon Fitness by William S. Krogel. Don’t ask.

What book do you turn to for advice?

Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World takes a folkloric and art historical look at how mischief acts as a productive form of culture making. It is an inspiring book for artists wanting to comprehend working in a contingent universe.

Which writer would be most likely to write you into their fiction?

I feel a sense of belonging in China Mieville’s Kraken and in Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies, so those two writers would do me well.

What book best describes you?

Probably the DSM-IV…

When last did you visit the library?

I tend to buy more than borrow. I shop a lot at Blank Books in Woodstock. I do like libraries a lot though and the library of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Kitakyushu, Japan, is the site of a small, secret intervention I created there in 2005. I was once reprimanded by the Cape Town library for not returning a book that I hadn’t taken out in the first place. The librarian didn’t understand when I calmly explained that I am not the type of person to loan a book on the subject of rugby, and that the list of returned books in my name should prove that.

What is the best inscription anyone has written in a book for you?

“This diary is the private property of (name withheld).”

What book can we get you for Hanukkah?

Antigonick by Anne Carson would make me happy and keep me indoors for a while.

If you could have dinner with a dead writer, who would you dine with and where?

I would like to have dinner with Anaïs Nin at the Le Hollandais Restaurant of Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover”. Failing that, Sei Shonagon at Tori Hide in Yahatahigashiku would be a great date.

Image courtesy Blank Projects



Leave a Comment