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The Sounds of Coming Together

James Webb. South African, born 1975. Prayer (Chicago), 2018. Multi-channel sound installation, Variable. Rennie Collection, Vancouver and the Art Institute of Chicago, Photography Purchase Fund; promised gift of Rennie Foundation. 2018.394.

As you enter, Prayer (Chicago) fills the gallery with wondrous sound. Humbly and carefully, you remove your shoes and step on to a carpet that seems infinite. You are softly enveloped by words and song. Some, you can decipher, others you have never heard before. Your skin tingles as you walk, crawl, kneel, or sit. Here on this carpet, the right to live in peace and plurality seems attainable, something that continues to be a dream of many world leaders.

South African James Webb, an international sound and conceptual artist, shares this dream. Born in 1975, the experimental musician also holds a degree in comparative religion. Webb initiated Prayer in Cape Town in 2000, five years after his country ended its practice of apartheid. Apartheid means segregation; Webb has created a work that emphatically brings people together. Prayers articulate a basic wish for communion and often serve to solidify a community of faith in a place of worship. By deliberately gathering prayers from a variety of neighbourhoods and spiritual practices and naming each of the participants and congregations, Webb aims to join people together.

Prayer is an ongoing project, remade around the world since its first presentation. From now until spring 2020, the WAG welcomes the Chicago version, the 10th and largest to date, as well as the first in North America. The work consists of recordings of prayer from individuals who belong to dozens of faiths and spiritual affinities. You are invited to walk the length of the carpet, composing your own arrangement of voices as you go, or to lower yourself next to a speaker to listen more closely to particular prayers. Prayer invites us to come together and reflect in the midst of a Winnipeg winter.

“History has been a selection of monologues. And here, it’s very interesting that it can be polyphonous. Sound for me is sculptural, and the sound work here fills the room. One thing about sound is that it’s difficult to stop it. We can close our eyes, but it’s very difficult for us to close our ears.” says Webb. Hear him speak about Prayer (Stockholm) in this video.

The beauty of this experiential installation is that you become a part of it. In being present on the carpet, you enter into a dialogue with all the people whose voices make up the canopy of sound.

Prayer (Chicago) was made possible with the kind collaboration of over 90 community organizations, groups, and more than 260 individuals in the Chicago area of Indigenous, Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Pagan faiths.

This exhibition is made possible by the Artworkers Retirement Society. In-kind support has been provided by the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


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