New York

Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams’ installation Angola to Vietnam, 1989, appears at first to be nothing more than a group of 27 black and white photographs depicting botanical themes. Each image, representing a distinct genus and species of flora, consists of a magnified and centrally focused cluster of leaves and branches.This format, stylized by Karl Blossfeldt’s scientific botanical photography, emphasizes objectivity. Although the plants appear to be seen in their natural state, close inspection reveals that some are tethered by wire attachments, while others show seams and broken joints repaired with glue. It gradually becomes evident that these botanical samples are not alive at all, but synthetic replicas of nature on display in vitrines. The images are, in fact, photographs of glass botanical models made to scale by the 19th-century artisan Blaschka. These plantlike artifacts are the codified remains of a culture obsessed with preserving nature by transforming it into information. The specimens, objectified and rendered in glass 100 years ago, are now relics. They document a sustained moment with no hope for regeneration.

Labels accompany each image, offering taxonomic descriptions of both the plants’ and the photographs’ composition. This information shifts the viewer’s visual perception of the installation to include a conceptual, textual one as well. Williams includes the Blaschka glass specimen number, the physical composition of the photograph, and most conspicuously, as its heading, the name of the nation where the depicted plant grows indigenously. By giving priority to the national over the taxonomic name in labeling a plant specimen, Williams introduces a sociopolitical dimension into the concept of nature. He implies that naming a natural entity is the first step in cultivating and then recontextualizing it into a cultured environment. Today, when less and less virgin land is extant, nature is but an arboretum: it exists as a living archive.

The work’s title, Angola to Vietnam, is conspicuous for the connotations of civil war and foreign intervention that it prompts. The remaining 25 photographs represent nations with similar political and economic situations. A particular species of flora, when identified with a Third World nation, represents the exploitation of that country by foreign interests. For Ethiopia, Williams chooses coffee, for Nicaragua the cashew, for Angola the cola nut. Items such as these are commodities in the world economy, pirated and controlled by imperialist nations. They suggest the corruption of nature and its reduction to a commercial use.

The work, an ever expanding set of subsets, acts as a metaphor for the dilemma of interpretation, as aptly described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay, Circles: “Every ultimate fact is only the first in a new series. Every general law only a particular fact of some more general law presently to disclose itself. There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us. The man finishes his story—how how final! . . . On the other side rises also a man and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced. . . . Then already is our first speaker not a man, but only a first speaker. His only redress is forthwith to draw a circle outside of his antagonist.”

Kirby Gookin