PRINT April 2006


I CAN’T BE ALONE IN FINDING A GREAT DEAL OF AFFECT IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS. This is dangerous to say, since affect in photography generally hews to subject matter—the pained look of a face, the pleasure or poignancy in a gesture—and it tends to be obvious, the easiest thing there is. Williams’s most recent project, “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle,” is neither easy nor obvious. Its images bear no consistent theme, no singular style or technique, none of the normal signposts of a photographic body of work. Many of the photographs depict icons of twentieth-century industrial design set against monochromatic grounds—a cheap Soviet camera, a motorized French bicycle, a bright yellow Deutsche Post packing box. Images of a disassembled Jean Prouvé house and a Communist-era apartment tower provide architectural motifs. Portraits of female models, in and out of the shower, resemble prototypical magazine ads. If there is an affective logic to such work, it does not depend on the subject matter’s rationality, but on distinctions among images, a kind of playful noise discovered in the process of viewing.

Williams has always used photography in a way quite distinct from other practitioners of the medium. Often he has declined to call himself a photographer at all. Since his student days at CalArts in the 1970s—where teachers such as Michael Asher, John Baldessari, Morgan Fisher, and Douglas Huebler provided a decidedly Conceptualist model for a group of young artists that also included Mike Kelley, John Miller, and Stephen Prina—Williams has approached photography as a means for responding to the material apparatus and discursive underpinnings of the medium itself. An adaptation of site-specificity’s architectural prerogative to the condition of images, similar to that of his contemporary Louise Lawler, can be seen in projects that take institutional or mass media archives as both subject matter and critical object. The series “Angola to Vietnam*,” 1989, for instance, takes as its starting point the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s famed collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century glass flowers. With more than 3,000 life-size models of 847 species, the collection represents, in essence, a taxonomical fantasy borne of colonial reach. To determine which of these objects he would photograph, Williams reorganized the archive according to each specimen’s native country. He then mobilized a rather different but no less “global” classifying system—a worst-nations report compiled by Amnesty International on political disappearance—and proceeded to photograph only those flowers corresponding to offending countries. The resultant group of twenty-seven photographs, shot as elegiac black-and-white close-ups, was submitted to one final displacement: the addition of a tear sheet of a brightly colored Elle magazine cover. Above a banner proclaiming LA PLANETE “ELLE,” the clustered faces of five fashion models wearing sailor caps emblazoned with the names of countries stare out at the viewer with a mixture of blank beauty and orchestrated appeal—triumphant ciphers in the image industry’s effacement of any real local or national specificity.

Since the mid-’90s, Williams’s exhibitions have adopted a more disjunctive essayistic approach to their subjects, whereby disparate or distantly related photographs create a slippery, nearly opaque field of reference and association. Even when he employs documentary or objectivist modes, which he does often, one does not read a Williams photograph for its transparent portrayal of “things in themselves.” The decisive moment always lies elsewhere, buried deep inside the backstory of a chosen subject or ricocheting among groupings of images within an exhibition. This simultaneous deferral of and insistence on meaning lend a certain irony to the experience of Williams’s work. One is overloaded with facts but significance remains a riddle.

“For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle,” which has been exhibited over the past four years in Tokyo; Vancouver, BC; Cologne; Braunschweig, Germany; and, most recently, New York, is particularly dizzying in this way. Its title alone suggests that something is to be shown, that “lessons” are to be provided, that a subject—industrial society—is in play. The bilingual phrasing implies didacticism and its opposite, a tongue-in-cheek rhetoric of intellectual performance. At New York’s David Zwirner gallery, the title bore the addendum “(Revision 4),” a factual, if humorously pedantic reminder that the show’s lessons were not as final as they sound. When one recalls that Williams’s major project from the ’90s was similarly titled “For Example: Die Welt ist schön”—an explicit reference to Albert Renger-Patzsch’s 1928 Neue Sachlichkeit classic, which in its own way portrayed “lessons of industrial society”—the echoes grow clamorous.

The first photographs to grab this viewer’s attention (perhaps because they are the most conventionally appealing) self-consciously mimic the style of commercial advertising. In two groups of what are ostensibly portraits, a female model is seen at medium-close range during and just after a shower. Curiously, the exhibition’s press release indicates that Williams selected his subject by following one of Jacques Tati’s casting calls for Playtime: “A girl about 20–25 years old, coy, a little awkward, but with intelligent eyes . . . the most important is the reserved appearance, due to a good education.” In one set of images she is seen next to a chrome-and-plastic shower door wearing a perfect crown of shampoo. In another, a bright yellow towel is piled atop her head like a turban. Studiously cheerful—what science produced that uncanny smile?—her face is a promise of honest beauty, a perfect picture of compressed ideology, like every ad you’ve ever seen.

But then, because the images invite it, close inspection reveals a world of difference. Blemishes become visible, pores are too large, she is not as young as one thinks or as Tati’s casting notes suggest. Similarly beguiling, a final triptych shows another girl apparently lost in thought beneath a hive of enormous rollers that resembles a primitive headdress. If the three-step process of treating, drying, and fixing documented in the models’ toilette suggests an analogy with the photographic process itself, one is brought to the first of Williams’s many contradictory “lessons.” In the commercial world of touch-up and postproduction, traditional printing has given way to digitization. The subject of these portraits is, then, less the model herself than a kind of obsolescence evident in the old-fashioned curlers, the dated shower door, the fetish of perfect printing coupled with a kind of predigital, physical imperfection. If this seems like interpretive license, one has only to consider the title of the towel-turban photograph: Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide, © 1968, Eastman Kodak Company, 1968. (Meiko laughing), Vancouver, B.C., April 6, 2005. Indeed, to the left of the model’s head, Kodak’s 1968 color bar intrudes on the image, an insistent material reminder of photography’s passage among eras and technologies.

Nearly all of Williams’s photographs take off from—and land the viewer in—what John Miller has described as “the displacements inherent in the ongoing struggle to become modern.” In addition to the passage from traditional to digital production, geopolitical struggles like the cold war and postcolonialism figure elliptically in a number of works. In one, Williams photographed sun shutters from Jean Prouvé’s disassembled Tropical House that were stacked on a wheeled dolly in the courtyard of the UCLA Hammer Museum in the photographer’s native Los Angeles, where the structure was exhibited last fall. An emblem of Western modernity put through the cultural and political ringer, this prototype for a failed prefab housing line was designed in the late ’40s and air-lifted from France to Brazzaville, Congo. There it stood for half a century before returning to France in the hands of restorers, only to be shipped off once more to LA, a relic of yesterday’s possibilities and an emblem of today’s most recherché vintage taste. In other photographs of the house, not taken by Williams, bullet holes sustained in the “tropics” are clearly visible.

Similarly, a triptych of images, shot in the objectivist manner that is one of Williams’s preferred styles, presents front, side, and rear views of a Solex motorized bicycle, a common mode of transport in former French colonies in Asia and Africa. Set, like his female models, against a black background, the machine retains an aura of midcentury functional design. Again, however, its title lends clues to hidden meanings: Velosolex 2200 Nr. 2 (Front, Side, and Back), Serial Number 3128819, Moteur antiparasité, Date of Production 1964, (From the collection of Hanh Dam), Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles, California, August 15, 2005. Imported from France, exported from Vietnam, photographed in Los Angeles—the bike’s final displacement may in fact be its exhibition, as a group of images ostensibly purporting to “show everything” in a gallery or museum. Or so one might think, given how acutely Williams transposes frames of reference and specificities of site.

Self-reflexivity, after all, is a guiding principle of Williams’s work. One must contend with the images themselves, but also with the dense factual gravel of their titles and the incongruencies of Williams’s careful installations, not to mention supplementary information like printed matter, exhibition graphics, and film programs, which frequently accompany his projects. At the Zwirner show, the yellow of the model’s towel—a color oddly reminiscent of Kodak’s packaging—mirrored that of a Deutsche Post packing box, and was replicated again in the vinyl lettering of the exhibition signage on the gallery’s window. At the vernissage, a handbill alerted viewers that the evening’s proceedings would include a “formal oration,” an encore performance of a salutary address composed by Williams entitled “For the Island People,” which was first delivered—in French, the language of rhetorical flourish—by the artist Michael Krebber and others at a Williams exhibition in 2000. (Yet even before the pamphlet went to press, the artist was clearly aware that the speech was never to occur; a microscopic disclaimer reads, “Due to scheduling conflicts Michael Krebber will not be performing tonight.”) The film programs Williams has organized since very early in his career add still another register of meaning (two evenings of screenings feature in the 2006 Whitney Biennial). These events, like his installations, include vastly divergent lineups, from ethnographic documentaries to avant-garde experiments, but do not so much speak to what he “likes” as perform an archive of parallel aesthetic models. In some sense they are analogous to the “Museum of Modern Art” that Martin Kippenberger built on the Greek island of Syros—a hollow container to fill with other people’s projects, a way of extending one’s own practice by deflecting it.

All this may lend the impression that the meaning of Williams’s work is fugitive—and of course it is: not unlike the value of the Soviet Hasselblad knockoffs that appear in three of the new photographs. Nevertheless, there is a kind of logic in his willingness to determine and wield frames. Unlike the systematic typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher, which admit the world only in varieties of foreclosure, the ceaseless rhythms of absence and plenitude that distinguish Williams’s practice belie a pleasure in contextualization that traditional accounts of Conceptual art rarely acknowledge. For all its displacements—indeed, because of its displacements—Williams’s work admits a level of affect that may not immediately be expected by viewers trying to “make sense” of the many contingencies each photograph contains. If a word like “pleasure” strikes the reader as trite, a structural terminology of noises, feedback, echoes, and drones might equally be employed, especially as these imply affects with a particular relevance to the modernity his work explores. The smile on his model’s face, the pop and polish of his objects, the persistent refrain of past projects within new ones—these are not merely facts or indulgences.

In one recent photograph, Cologne, November 1, 2004, the affective dimension of the industrial logic Williams has always portrayed comes to the fore. A rare “live” or snapshot-style image, it shows a forlorn flower cart on a market street of the German city. Absent any vendor or customers, bunches of yellow carnations and white daisies assume a melancholy anthropomorphic presence. Fallen leaves and stem cuttings are scattered about under warm fluorescent light. Some viewers will recall earlier photographs by Williams, such as the “Angola to Vietnam*” series or, more poignantly, Bouquet, for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo, 1991, which memorialized the practices and legacies of two disappeared artists—one by suicide, the other by drowning—in an arrangement of flowers laid on its side. What is disappeared or lost in the image of the Cologne flower cart is less clear. Perhaps the inclusion of “street work” among the many other studio-based photographs of “Dix-Huit Leçons” offsets a question of production, submitting Williams’s own methods and habits to distinction. Perhaps its imagery of commerce parallels its place in a gallery, or, more generally, the commercial framework through which all artworks must circulate. Like the flowers, these pictures are, after all, for sale. We may sentimentally absent the dealer, the collector, and the exchange, but their purchase on our illusion is no weaker for it.

Kippenberger once exclaimed that “art, taken as a science, has the same sluggish beauty as a joke without a point, but it’s full of details. It must be told well—be reported very very well!” Though he was speaking about the work of his friend Krebber, the quotation makes me think of one photograph in particular from Williams’s show. It is a picture of a jellyfish. More precisely, it is a Pacific sea nettle, Chrysaora melanaster, floating in the undifferentiated murk of the Long Beach, California, aquarium, a place one goes to see such things. The creature’s folds and tentacles give off a silver radiance that pushes toward abstraction. The photograph appears to be solarized. In a speech at his opening in New York, Williams described the animal’s appeal. It has no brain. It has no skeleton. It has no stomach, mouth, or genitals. It almost has no form. Pictures of puppies demand affection; pictures of lions require fear. Within the structure of Williams’s exhibition, where rationality and context grind out their dust, the jellyfish’s sufficiency performed like an unconscious. Here was an animal Williams could photograph because it asked for nothing. It was already complete, as an image.

Bennett Simpson is associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.