Christopher Williams

MAGASIN - Centre National d'Art Contemporain

For example: What relationship is there between a French car from the ’60s—a Japanese student posing for a fashion photo in 1993, papayas (of the Carica papaya Linné sort), and a dishwasher tray filled with brightly colored plates? This is the sort of question raised by Christopher Williams’s first solo exhibition in a French institution, “Couleur Européenne, Couleur Soviétique, Couleur Chinoise” (European color, Soviet color, Chinese color)—a title that is already somewhat confusing in light of the images presented. What was found on the walls of Le Magasin’s rooms, hung (“orchestrated,” one wants to say) at reduced height and with irregular spacing, were sixty or so photographs in black-and-white and color. (I counted sixty-one, though the brochure available at the entrance to the space mentioned sixty-four, an ambiguity that could no doubt be easily resolved but that gives some sense of how difficult it is to come up with a reliable reconstruction of the show.) Some of the photographs have previously been shown and/or reproduced, others have not. Hence the feeling that one is in the presence of a “state” of a project—in the sense of, say, the nth “state” of an engraving—that is undergoing constant expansion and modification, rather than a totality that has been completed once and for all. What this might be, then, is an extension of For Example: Die Welt ist schön, the work undertaken by Williams in 1993 (whose title refers to the famous book published by Albert Renger-Patzsch in 1928), which had several versions and notably gave rise to “For Example: Die Welt ist schön” at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, and the Kunsthalle Basel in 1997. (The aforementioned papayas were pictured in one of the images shown there that reappear in Grenoble.) Let’s accept this hypothesis and try to grasp a few strands of the narrative that seems to have been assembled here.

The first room, perhaps, constituted the core from which the viewer could begin to deduce or develop the rest of this “album mural.” It contained four photographs, each to varying degrees emblematic of the whole construction it introduces, each endowed with its own reflexivity. Mobile wall system, 1996–I am abbreviating the often extremely long inscriptions that serve as titles to Williams’s works, which are meticulously presented in their entirety on small cards next to the images—is an interior view of the Boijmans, showing how the arrangement of some of the institution’s partitions can be transformed at will. The image alludes at once to the artist’s 1997 exhibition as well as to the modularity with which the work is endowed, each image or group of images forming a cell that can be integrated and reintegrated into a new set of connections. This figure of a general, ineluctable nomadism finds echoes in the nearby Main Staircase for the Arts Club of Chicago, 1998. The image features the eponymous element from Mies van der Rohe’s corpus, built between 1948 and 1951 and later moved to another part of Chicago. To these displacements of people, works, even places themselves, the Calder sculpture represented here superimposed a notion of in situ (a reminder of the great Calder installed in front of the Grenoble train station). As for Folding stool of steel with yellow nylon seat, 1998, subject and title of the third photograph, the respective card pointed out that this was the model for the seat designed by Jorgen Gammelgaard that Michael Asher—one of Williams’s teachers, and a figure to whom his artistic strategy is deeply indebted-used for the intervention that comprised his contribution to the 1976 Venice Biennale. Finally, we find ourselves face to face with an industrial icon of postwar France, Model: 1964, 5 Renuult Dauphine-Four, 2000. The car—with California license plates—was photographed turned over on its right side, thereby suggesting at once movement and the interruption of movement (or of the possibility of movement), both travel and stasis.

Setting out from this ensemble—and transformed in the process into a character lifted from a Robbe-Grillet novel—one could bring together a few threads of the fable in which one found oneself dropped, as it were (provided of course that the viewer was willing to play along, which meant accepting the fact that the puzzle would remain obstinately full of holes and the enterprise of elucidation doomed from the start). Connected—for example—via the photographic medium to the open or closed Boeing stowage bins, to the portico marking the entrance to a Chinese movie theater in Havana, or the Grande Dixence dam in Switzerland, the Renault and the Gammelgaard/Asher stool, which reappeared throughout the rooms in photographs that differed almost imperceptibly in angle and lighting, composed a narrative at multiple levels (autobiographical, aesthetic, historical, political) where the motifs of impermanence, metamorphosis, and the irremediably illusory character of appearances dominate. In this herbarium of the contemporary world, which may be beautiful or ugly by virtue of the same objects or faces, I make out certain principles, certain recurring motifs. Others elude me and scarcely provide a handle on interpretation. What should one make of E.A. (Billy) Hankins III, M.D., Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, 1999, hunched over, pencil in hand, before a giant and turgescent plant (unless the answer is simply-that, a Icopy this title in my notebook, I assume the same posture in front of his portrait)? I have no idea, but—an obvious sign of the pleasure afforded by Williams’s work—I’m still wondering.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is an art historian, critic, and frequent contributor to Artforum. He is editor in chief of Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, published by the Centre Georges Pompidou.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.