Photography by Ngoma KaMphahlele

James Webb’s ‘3 Dreams of a Sinking World’ – reflections on the Carlton Hotel

It was at the walkabout of 3 Dreams of a Sinking World where I met artist James Webb for the first time. While explaining his methodology behind the show he stopped for a moment to remark on my Death Note bag. We had some back and forth about the manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. It was through this initial interaction that Webb set the stage for this piece. His comment on my Death Note bag and the meaning or commentary he is delivering through his work speaks in many ways to the notion of death. And here my favourite character from the manga creeps up, the god of death, otherwise known as a Shinigami.

James Webb’s 3 Dreams of a Sinking World is a filmic meditation on the Carlton Hotel. Bringing meditation and death into the same piece of writing has its own implications; in Webb’s work, much like in this piece of writing you will find many dualities. In another sense, this duality is incredibly appropriate as Webb’s meditation on this subject of a luxury that once was and has come to pass is cathartic.

The Carlton was once an icon of prestige and lavishness when it was constructed in the 1960s and symbolised Johannesburg’s aspirations to be a global metropolis during the height of apartheid South Africa. However, the hotel was never a financial success and permanently shut its doors in the 1990s. The building has remained shut for years, in pause, while the world around it has changed.

Webb’s filmic expressions uncover a measured scopic exploration of the building’s architecture and infrastructure as they meet with the contents which have died. Walls peel, doors are stripped, all the furniture has been removed. What remains is a lonely dead palm that bows onto itself in the rooftop pool area of the building – this is the subject of Webb’s first video installation. The first installation is a three-channel video projection filmed by having a drone circle the debris of the plant in a dancing motion, mimicking the act of dancing performed in the ballroom.

Walking through to the next room one is confronted by an installation that tracks the 26th floor of the hotel and as Webb explains, acts as a small homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining corridor scene. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. – confronts your eyes due to the naked door frames. A zigzag pattern emerges; this movement of light causes unease as you are made aware of a sense of haunting that travels through each installation.

In the last room is a video monitor flat screen piece left in utter isolation on the floor of the space. On the monitor plays a video shot on a cell phone in 2015 and tracks the descent of security guard Shoes Mthembu lit only by a torch. As Webb follows Mthembu down the spiralling staircase of 30 flights we are once again made to feel disorientated in a near state of vertigo. Upon watching this piece an interesting notion comes afore, it is reminiscent of the television programmes that chase ghosts, much like an opening sequence of Paranormal Survivor. In a sense, it could be assumed that not only is Webb interested in ideas surrounding getting lost but there is an equal interest in hunting the ghosts of a past somehow present through his work. Webb speaks here of a mythical descent associated with ideas of sinking.

The Carlton is an interesting space of duality and today perhaps a space of liminality. Looking into its history it is interesting to note that this space that was associated with luxury and glamour in apartheid was later used as the site for the ANC to announce their victory in the ’94 elections. Similarly, it was the venue for Nelson Mandela’s 75th birthday party… A place of immense contrast now withered and wilted by time, a ghost of a time past.

Reflecting on the title of his show James explains that as opposed to a floating world he saw a sinking world, this world that has come to pass reflected in what is left of the building. He further explains that “… I remembered that the hotel restaurant at the Carlton was called the Three Ships.”

Another element of the show is that of a sound recording which was made by placing microphones in various parts of the building – the sounds of the city filter through the husk of the building – sounds of traffic, sirens etc. “…. it’s a way to listen to the city through that architecture,” states Webb.

The final element of the show is that of headphone pieces that are responses to the work or more accurately to the Carlton itself. Written by poet Khanya Mashabela, critic Athi Mongezeleli Joja, and curator and writer Mika Conradie–voiced by Lindiwe Matshikiza they are meant to navigate you through the installations.

3 Dreams of a Sinking World runs from the 13 April – 22 June 2019 at POOL.

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