Untitled is a large colour photograph by New Zealand photographer and filmmaker Boyd Webb. The image depicts an open, cube-shaped cage that appears to hang from a thread visible at the top of the image, so that the cage’s suspended form fills the left half of the photograph. A greyish, soft-looking amorphous mass can be seen inside the cage and spilling out of its open side. This mass, which resembles hair or fabric, extends down below the cage, and hanging vertically from its lowest end is a grey aeroplane made of the same material. These elements are set against a dark backdrop with grey and white streaks or paint marks running down it, which may be intended to resemble rain.
Untitled was made in Webb’s studio in Spitalfields in London in 1987. It is a cibachrome photograph printed on resin coated photographic paper that has a pronounced surface texture. The photograph is attached to a wood panel support that has been painted white, and the artist has signed and dated the image along its bottom right edge in silver marker pen. The art critic Stuart Morgan described Webb’s working process in 1987: ‘after actors have been posed and sets arranged, the picture is taken with a plate camera – Webb sees the image upside down – then the film is developed’ (Morgan in Serota and Skipworth 1987, p.15). As with all of his works, Webb also sketched the composition as a diagram before setting it up, and he took a number of polaroid photographs of the scene before shooting the final transparency.
This work’s lack of title leaves its content open to interpretation, and Morgan has observed that a major theme of Webb’s work is a ‘sense of rupture or displacement’ and a lack of context for his subjects (Morgan in Serota and Skipworth 1987, p.11). Morgan argues further that Webb, who initially trained as a sculptor, allows the viewer to recognise that the scenes in his work are sets, created by the artist for the purpose of being photographed and displayed, with the authenticity of a particular scene often being deliberately disrupted by a single detail that reveals its true identity as a constructed environment (Morgan in Serota and Skipworth 1987, p.11). For instance, in Untitled this element could be the caged black mass, which at first looks to be painted but on closer inspection appears to be formed from fabric. Not only does this destabilise the viewer’s reading of the image, but as Morgan suggests it also constitutes ‘a critique of both photography and sculpture at the same time’ (Morgan in Serota and Skipworth 1987, p.10).
The composition of Untitled, in which a suspended object appears to hang down into the picture space, appears several times in photographs by Webb. For instance, in Scott’s Tent 1984 (Tate T04120) a man is suspended in the centre of the work, hanging down towards white ice-like panels in an oblique reference to the Arctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912). Cages and aeroplanes have also appeared in other works by the artist: Auto Strafe 1983 (Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, Lyon) features two inflatable military planes struggling to take off from a long piece of carpet-like earth below them, and Untitled 1989 (Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand) depicts a birdcage populated by rolled-up music scrolls in place of a singing bird. These repeated motifs are partly a result of the way in which Webb sources his materials, as Morgan has observed: ‘the whole internal economy of Webb’s work revolved around what exists, can be found, retrieved or made in or around his studio’ (Morgan in Serota and Skipworth 1987, pp.16–17).
Untitled was exhibited in a number of galleries shortly after it was produced, including at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in 1987 and the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, in 1988.
Nicolas Serota and Joanna Skipworth, Boyd Webb, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1987, reproduced p.103.
Boyd Webb, exhibition catalogue, British Council, London, and Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston 1994.
Jenny Harper, Boyd Webb, Auckland 1997, reproduced p.115.
Supported by Christie’s.