Neil Webb: The stars in us all
By: Ron Wright
[enlarge]Neil Webb, ‘The Stars in Us All’, backlit aluminium panels with surface-exciting speakers, each panel 2x1m, 2007.
Photo: Christiane Thalmann.
Bloc, Sheffield
3-18 November

The simple power of a bold and pure vision. In Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Oddysey’ the monolith encountered by Dave Bowman has become a classic of contemporary iconography – a symbol for what we do not and may never know. It places us on a threshold of awe and wonder.

In the latest of a prolific series of installations Neil Webb invites us to take this as a starting point. He uses resynthesised versions of Bowman’s final transmission (“My God, it’s full of stars”) to deliver a striking example of spatial aesthetics which considers the interrelationship of objects within given dimensions. The aim is to encourage reflection and the inner quiet espoused by authors like Paul Wilson in ‘The Quiet’, and feed the imagination so vital to David Lynch in his treatise on transcendental meditation ‘Catching the Big Fish’.

The first point that strikes the visitor is the unconventional symmetry. Webb has worked his design to suit the space. Three large glossy black aluminium panels dominate the walls and a wooden resonating bench, which gives the feel of a sanctuary or a chapel rather than a gallery.

This is definitely a strange, imposing but ultimately uplifting experience. The steel black panels framed in a thin glowing band of neon blue-white light initially offer us nothing, standing resolute, unscrupulous – daring us to gaze at them as our eyes adjust to the light and the portal-like reflections in the panels, whereby our imagination may look into or pass through. The overall experience is one of looking outward rather than inward. We soon begin to realise that it is the panels that are alive – transmitting the sound by vibration.

Objects are sonified. The panels shape the tone of the sound, giving a metallic alien sheen to the human sound elements – voices in choral form stroke the walls with spaced intervals like controlled breathing, while a heartbeat gently throbs inside the bench.

Although his approach is musical, Webb is not a typical sound artist. He is approaching work where sound is part of a total artistic vision and a transmitter of ideas. Here he is dealing with the spaces in between places, words, thoughts and actions – the territory between inertia and activity where energy forms.

Immediately on leaving the gallery I received a text from a close friend telling me that his father, after a prolonged struggle, had finally passed on. This is what we all must come to. As I dip my head against the biting cold I can only hope that, as he stood on the threshold, all he saw was stars.

Ron Wright is a sound practitioner in film and art, and is Senior Lecturer in Sound at Sheffield Hallam University, Northern Media School.

Ron Wright
First published: a-n Magazine January 2008