Los Angeles

John Williams


Among the highlights of John Williams’s rockin’, twirlin’, multimedia debut solo show at Dan Bernier in Los Angeles in 1999 were hip versions of the magic lantern: harlequin-patterned combines of variegated gels and supports, placed on old phonograph albums rotating on turntables, projecting flickering patterns of light, like raucous butterflies, across the gallery, with wonky sounds wailing as the needle dropped. Aiming for sonic and visual overload, Williams would spin a number of his “records” simultaneously on different levels of his jerry-built “amp” stacks. A first glance at Sister’s white walls, disturbed only by a radiant wedge-shaped portal and a circular opening housing a bronze disc, seemed to indicate that Williams had abandoned his wild audio-pyrotechnics in favor of clerical austerity, until it became clear that they had been internalized—immured.

Bell Tower, 2005, transmuted the space of the gallery into dual acoustic chambers, silence broken every fifteen minutes by the toll of a bell that reverberated and faded over the course of two minutes or so. With all the audio gear hidden inside the walls, the only other element, hung on the gallery’s loftlike second floor, was a meticulously framed print that fuses the image of an astronaut on the moon with Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. Here, Arnolfini’s face floats behind the bubble helmet’s glass, most of his dark robes obscured by the pillowy spacesuit, while his bare hand clasps that of his wife, who stands in all her verdant finery on lunar sands. Van Eyck’s painting’s famous convex mirror, in which the artist’s face appears reflected beneath script on the wall, thus announcing his presence, is echoed in the spacesuit’s visor.

This image works as an obscure palimpsest in which it is difficult to discern which layer tops the other. The lunar emptiness and the Flemish interior are merged, while the dog becomes a sign of faithfulness to every technique the artist uses in attempting to picture the irreconcilable. Williams uncovers the potential for strange revelation in that which is normally occluding or occluded: The broad shadows of the spaceman’s bulky legs slant away from the bride’s radiant beneficence and the conjugal bed, paradoxically revealing, rather than casting into darkness, the floorboards of the Arnolfini interior. Wooden chopines wait in a corner, suddenly as space-age as a moon-boot imprint nearby.

The picture becomes a way to unlock the time travel that occurs in Bell Tower. It is almost as if Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Smithson had collaborated on a shrine, as Williams explores, in Smithson’s words, “the pre- and post-historic mind . . . go[ing] into the places where remote futures meet remote pasts” in order to provide a gendai-geki (contemporary-life portrait) of the kind for which Ozu was noted. Silence and sound; the materiality of sculpture and architectural site; the presentness of immediate surroundings and the immateriality of history’s ghosts—all are wedded. What makes this noteworthy is that for all its exactitude and allusive potential, the work remains entirely Williams’s own. While the drywall and fresh paint are earmarks of institutional critique familiar from Michael Asher to Monica Bonvicini, Williams accomplishes something more engaging and fucked-up than either. His installation becomes a critique of any art that refuses to run the risk of traveling through time and space, of transport. Time shifts, the mind reels, and the bell tones vibrate through the body of the viewer, demanding that we confront what it means to believe in something aesthetic, for art to offer a kind of covenant. Situating possibilities beyond mere irony or sincerity, the bell tolls for all who would think such attempts unworthy.

Bruce Hainley