James Webb


Courtesy the artist, blank projects, and Galerie Imane Farès

Threnody_James Webb

In Threnody, Paul McCartney’s vocal take for the song “Helter Skelter“ (The Beatles, 1968) was isolated and then reversed so as to create a backwards speech adrift from its proto-heavy metal musical accompaniment. This sonic artefact was scrutinised and used as the guide track for the vocalist Zami Mdingi to emulate. The artist worked with Mdingi, and ethnomusicologist, Cara Stacey, to transcribe the inverted melodies and lyrics − occasionally reimagining the new words in an isiXhosa framework for Mdingi to phonetically articulate and sing live. The recorded result unveiled itself as a glossolalic lamentation, quite different from the tumultuousness suggested in the “forwards” version and in stark contrast to the original’s racist associations infused by Charles Manson.

In its installation form, the artwork is staged to reference a solar eclipse visually with the audio broadcast from speakers concealed behind a back-lit, black circle in a darkened room.

Singer: Zami Mdingi

Transcription and arrangement: Cara Stacey

Recording engineer: Dave Langemann


James Webb is an interdisciplinary artist, known for his site-specific interventions and installations. His practice often involves sound, found objects, and text, invoking references to literature, cinema, and the minimalist traditions. By shifting objects, techniques, and forms beyond their original contexts and introducing them to different environments, Webb creates new spaces of tension. These spaces bind Webb’s academic background in religion, theatre, and advertising, offering poetic inquiries into the economies of belief and dynamics of communication in our contemporary world.

Webb has had solo exhibitions at, amongst others, the Art Institute of Chicago, USA, 2018; SPACES, Cleveland, USA, 2018; Norrtälje Konsthall, Norrtälje, Sweden, 2018; Galerie Imane Farès, Paris, France, 2016 and 2019; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, United Kingdom, 2016; Hordaland Kunstsenter, Bergen, Norway, 2015; blank projects, Cape Town, South Africa, 2014, 2016, and 2020; CentroCentro, Madrid, Spain, 2013; Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2012; and mac, Birmingham, United Kingdom, 2010.

Major group exhibitions include the 13th Biennial of Dakar (2018), 4th Prospect Triennial of New Orleans (2017), Documenta 14 (2017), 13th Biennial of Sharjah (2017), 12th Bienal de la Habana (2015), 55th Biennale di Venezia (2013), 3rd Marrakech Biennale (2009), Melbourne International Arts Festival (2009), and the 8th Biennale d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (2007). Other notable group shows include those at spaces such as Wanås Konst and Historiska, Sweden; MAXXI Roma, Italy; Darat al Funun, Jordan; Théâtre Graslin, France; and the Tate Modern, London.