James Webb is creating on a prayer


When James Webb launched his multi-channel installation Prayer in Capetown in 2000, he had no inkling of the enduring scale it might achieve. Back then, working in advertising, he was thinking about the effects of apartheid and imagined a work in which many voices could be heard together, yet independently. There have since been many iterations of the site-specific work in which people from various faith groups are recorded in prayer: now it’s Tasmania’s turn. The South African-born, Stockholm-based artist, who recently exhibited a retrospective of the various versions, says each version becomes a time capsule.

Visually, Prayer manifests as a long red carpet with audio speakers hooked up nearby. Attendees remove their shoes and must kneel close to each speaker to hear the prayers; playlists differ between each listening post. There is the overall experience of hearing many prayers at once, contrasted with hearing a specific prayer when closer to one of the speakers.

“Someone described it as a little like listening to a religious cocktail party,” Webb says. “I am always struck by the incredible humanity, generosity and connection when someone allows me to do something as intimate as an audio recording of prayer, of their personal and religious beliefs. There would be nothing, an empty, silent piece, without them being involved.”

Webb says the prayers in the work are incredibly diverse: from formal and classical prayers, to those made up on the spot, to those seeking help or (in Chicago) hoping for gun violence to abate. “One of the most heartbreaking and amazing was someone [in Sweden] saying, ‘Thank you God for letting me wake up sober this morning.’” But all the prayers, he says, are gathered under the umbrella of vocal worship.

James Webb
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
24 February—9 March

This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Andrew Stephens