View of “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness,” 2014, Art Institute of Chicago.

View of “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness,” 2014, Art Institute of Chicago.

Christopher Williams

View of “Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness,” 2014, Art Institute of Chicago.

“THE PRODUCTION LINE OF HAPPINESS,” Christopher Williams’s first retrospective, made its debut as a three-part installation mounted in discrete, noncontiguous spaces within the Art Institute of Chicago’s complex of exhibition areas: the lower level of the stately Allerton Building that fronts on Michigan Avenue, the capacious ground floor of Renzo Piano’s nearby Modern Wing, and that wing’s second floor. Approaching each of these separate and separated spaces, visitors were addressed by large vinyl wall coverings displaying supersize reproductions of pages from the show’s catalogue. These billboard-scale tableaux, which feature texts set in large black sans serif Swiss type against bright Kodak-yellow grounds, reveal their provenance with page numbers at the upper right or left. At the Modern Wing, a section of vinyl-covered exhibition wall lay face up on the ground floor, causing something of a pedestrian jam as a guard busily guided visitors around and past it.

Williams took exceptionally broad responsibility for conceiving and executing this retrospective—designing and installing the exhibition, helping to design its catalogue, and choosing the contents of both. (Matthew Witkovsky, Roxana Marcoci, and Mark Godfrey, the curators at the exhibition’s three venues, also contributed thoughtful essays to the catalogue.) The show spans roughly thirty-five years, from 1979, when Williams was an MFA student at the California Institute of the Arts, through 2013. It includes five rarely exhibited Super 8 shorts and surveys his major projects, including the complete set of twenty-seven prints that form Angola to Vietnam*, 1987–89; a large selection of prints from “For Example: Die Welt ist schön,” 1993–2001; the elegiac, single-print/single-room installation Bouquet for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D’Arcangelo, 1991; and a number of prints from “For Example: Dix-huit leçons sur la société industrielle,” 2003–. It’s difficult to resist thinking of the undertaking as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk.

Williams takes the show’s title from a segment of the six-part TV program Six fois deux (1976), directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville. In an interview with Marcel, an amateur Super 8 filmmaker who earns his living in a watch factory, Godard asks about filmmaking and how it differs from working with still photography:

Marcel: With movies I’m less free because I have to choose a way. It’s like writing a book . . . things have to follow on from one another.

Godard: It’s a bit like a production line, then?

Marcel: Yes, a production line—a marvelous production line. The production line of happiness.

Detaching the phrase from the context of its utterance endows it with many possible valences, from the rationalized, staged, industrial modes of assemblage to the technological utopianism of modernism, each of which Williams wants. Yet as if to suppress these plural valences, the catalogue’s Kodak-yellow dust jacket changes the subject. Beneath the title, which appears at the top of the jacket, Williams has printed a voluminous twenty-nine-line exposition of bar codes and ISBN codes. “Barcodes that use EAN/UPC symbology (including the UPC-A, UPC-E, EAN-13 and EAN-8 barcodes) are the only barcodes allowed for products scanned at retail point of sale. EAN/UPC barcodes ensure that all products are properly identified at any retail point of sale . . .” A bar code (the book’s actual barcode) is printed at the bottom of the jacket.

Listing such definitions, procedures, and rules of the road (and of the game) is one of Williams’s trademarked rhetorical strategies: He overwhelms the viewer or reader with something that looks like arcane, expert knowledge, in much the way that informational brochures for high-and even low-end tech products (and museums’ wall texts) do—with specifications, manufacturers’ product details, process identifications (“gelatin silver print,” “chromogenic print,” “dye transfer print,” “digital pigment print”), exact sizes of works, and, in select instances, the sizes of the mat and frame (given in both centimeters and inches). All of this may make (in one restricted sense) perfectly good sense, but because of the indiscriminacy and exoticism of the details, it leaves a viewer/reader hopelessly overinformed (if informed is the right word), and uncomfortably aware of that fact. I refuse here the temptation embraced by some critics to elaborate on Williams’s strategy by embedding it in the rhetoric of the Cold War and CIA/KGB programs of disinformation. Although disinformation is in play, it is very much rooted in the frantic, overwhelming present—in the loose and free availability, via the Internet, of just the kind of data that appears in his titles. Data alone isn’t always or often knowledge.

Williams took overwhelming the audience to a hilarious but simultaneously irritating extreme by failing, in some cases, to situate labels close to the works they accompany. The alert, educated, and well-habituated museumgoer felt compelled to seek the label, which may have been located out of sight on a wall fifteen feet or more away, and perhaps around a corner or two. But finding the label addressed only the tip of the knowledge deficit. Once located, the label might have been stacked with three or four others, and each was likely overloaded with confounding specifics. In my own case, I was able to read and retain a mound of particulars about a single print while I returned to it, filled with far more words than when I began my hike, so that I could attempt an “informed” viewing of the relevant print on the wall, but this proved impossible to do with two, three, or four richly elaborated sets of product descriptors. I understand the point of this exercise—its investigation of photography and linguistic reference—and have (I say this sincerely) benefited from it, but perhaps less exercise in these cases would have proved healthier.

WILLIAMS’S DEFINITION of his topics and the means he uses to elaborate them has consistently varied with the aims of each. Angola to Vietnam* is a suite of photographs of glass flowers, each representing a species native to one of the twenty-seven countries listed in a 1986 Amnesty International report published by a working group of the United Nations that identified enforced disappearance as a state-sponsored “Technique of Terror.” The rule for the grouping of the photographs is avowedly political. Williams chose his photographic subjects from the extraordinary collection of three thousand glass flowers in Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History. Made between 1887 and 1936 by the German glass artisans Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, these flowers were used as vivid models in teaching botany at a time when this instruction placed major emphasis on the clear and accurate drawing of plants and flowers. They are marvels of detail and color; their accuracy, tactile surfaces, and coloration are uncanny. They are, despite their fragility, unchanging copies of plants and their flowers—they could easily be mistaken for live examples of the specimens they replicate. They do not decay.

Williams’s plan was to identify each of the countries with a photograph of a native flower: a simple act of substitution. But why match flowers to countries, especially when the subject is the terror performed by state-sponsored death squads who erased frightening numbers of citizens from their countries? For the first time, Williams commissioned a photographer to take his pictures and to print them. The photographs were made on black-and-white film using a 35-mm camera. Had he wanted to, Williams could have instructed the photographer to use a 4 x 5" sheet-film camera with fine-grained film exposed and developed in the manner of Paul Strand. But that style was not Williams’s goal; to use a 35-mm camera and black-and-white film with the aim of producing Strand-like results would be daft. Williams got the prints he wanted, and they are grainy, with lifeless shadows, and often muddy too, the sort of print that chemical-darkroom printers refer to as “dead.” The stunning glass flowers are thus presented as natures mortes; they are exanimate, their vitality lost in dingy tones, just as vitality was abruptly taken from the disappeared. These pictures deliberately fail their models, don’t live up to them, while Williams’s later work—say, the prints included in “For Example: Die Welt ist schön” and those in the draft and revisions of “For Example: Dix-huit leçons sur la société industrielle”—can be understood as having exceeded their models. The Angola to Vietnam* photos might best be thought of as putting a new twist on the ancient vanitas or memento mori motifs, which trace back to medieval Christian art and forward to seventeenth-century Dutch Calvinist painting and graphic production. Williams’s works are variously allegories of immutability and decay.

THE RELATIONSHIP between this exhibition and its catalogue is an intriguing one. My sense is that they are related reciprocally and not merely as words to pictures. The experience of re-viewing the exhibition after having struggled with the catalogue is very different from simply returning for a second look at the installations. The difference results from gaining a sense of Williams’s love of misdirection and puzzles, and of his acknowledged debt to other artists.

Removing the catalogue’s dust jacket (which takes some doing) reveals a white book cover, roughly as thick as two-ply Bristol board. On the cover, the exhibition’s title is located in the same place that it appears on the dust jacket, in the same black sans serif type, but the artist’s name, absent from the jacket, appears above it. In lieu of the jacket’s explication of ISBN identifiers and barcodes, the cover features the liner notes to an obscure 1978 record titled Skank Bloc Bologna, a self-produced single by the British band Scritti Politti. The liner notes (which are printed a second time on page 28 of the catalogue) list the services and costs of making the song into a product for sale, much in the same way that Williams’s prolix wall labels document the technical and material conditions of a given photograph’s production. But unlike the liner notes, which were intended to make transparent the hidden mechanics and costs of record production for the rock public, Williams uses his notes to make it more difficult for the viewer/reader to comprehend his work.

A group of disaffected art student–cum–London rockers adopted the name Scritti Politti as a mark of endorsement of and respect for Antonio Gramsci, the activist Italian Marxist philosopher, whose posthumously published political essays, or scritti politici in Italian, had been translated into English in the 1970s and were routinely used as classroom texts in British art schools. Skank refers to the drums-and-bass reggae beat of the song, bloc to Gramsci’s revolutionary notion of the “historical bloc”—understood here as the unification of the oppressed to form a revolutionary mass—and Bologna, the site of a failed revolution in 1977–78, when a loose confederation of anarchists and left-wing radicals, “Il movimento,” seized local power in an attempt to destroy the civic government. By secreting the liner notes beneath the dust jacket and leaving their discovery to curious, committed catalogue readers to find and wonder about, Williams provides what I take to be an emblem of his search for an audience. He makes his work resistant—it doesn’t yield easily to being understood—while at the same time, his photographs couldn’t be more transparent. He invites the friction his pictures engender as they rub against the installation walls, his wall labels, his texts, and the art criticism they generate.

The catalogue includes selections of works by, among other well-known left- or leftish-wing intellectuals, artists, and philosophers, Bertolt Brecht, Barbara Kruger, and Daniel Buren; together these readings sketch the intellectual and conceptual crucible in which Williams’s political and artistic character was formed. But none is as moving or as useful for trying to make sense of the artist’s work as a 1969 interview with Pier Paolo Pasolini, which begins with a painful admission:

The world as Gramsci knew it, and as I knew it until a short time ago, has changed.

In the days when Gramsci was about and made his influence felt there was a clear distinction between the people and the bourgeoisie. There was a clear division between the culture of the dominated class and that of the ruling class. But in recent years in Italy this distinction has disappeared, because the people have become bourgeoisified.

For many years I believed in the wonderful illusion that the cinema—at long last—was the means for realizing Gramsci’s ideal of “national popular” works. But “mass culture,” has, at a stroke, relegated Gramsci to the past, complete with his “people,” with the “people” of our youth: a revolutionary social class, dissociated from the ruling class by historical, political and, I should say, racial characteristics.

Pasolini speaks of losing his hope by losing his audience. His audience has disappeared, leaving a new one that might “consume” his films but which has neither the taste for nor the capacity to digest them. An awful fate for an artist.

What does Williams make of his audience, the one he not only has gained for himself but, through no fault of his own, has also inherited? The catalogue and exhibition suggest that he is still engaged in locating it. Pasolini talks about launching a “struggle, in some way or other, against the false democracy of mass culture,” but he admits that he is too old to struggle, absent the hope of winning. He has lost the audience of his dreams. Today, we are all victims not only of mass culture but also of data overload. Eternal verities are constantly dismissed by those who know better than we do: Eggs, salt, and animal fat were dangerous yesterday, but are no longer today, and who knows about tomorrow? Is Williams adding to the din, caught endlessly worrying about the predicament, or advancing the cause of creating a new community? Is it possible that his work is the ultimate allegory of vanitas?

Travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 27–Nov. 2; Whitechapel Gallery, London, Apr.–June, 2015.

Joel Snyder is a professor of art history and cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago.