“The art context is one of the few places where speculative thought and disinterested observation can still happen,” the artist and Kunstakademie Düsseldorf professor Christopher Williams has said. This is a useful delusion; while there has never been such a thing as “disinterested observation,” pretending that there is continues to pay dividends, especially for Christopher Williams, who is the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): The Production Line of Happiness.
Numbering nearly 100, the photographs in Williams’s exhibition are accompanied by extensive titles, e.g. “Cutaway model Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15 ZM / Focal length: 15mm. Aperture range: 2.8 – 22. No. of elements/groups: 11/9 / Focusing range: 0.3 m–infinity. Image ratio at close range: 1:18 / Coverage at close range: 43 cm × 65 cm. Angular field, diag./horiz./vert.: / 110/100/77˚ / Filter: M 72 × 0.75. Weight: 500 g. Length: 86 mm / Product no. black: 30 82016. Serial no.: 15555891. / (Subject to change.) / Manufactured by Carl Zeiss AG, Camera Lens Division, Oberkochen, Germany / Studio Rhein Verlag, Düsseldorf / January 18, 2013.” (2013), measuring out in language the technical content of the images themselves. But far from cipher and key, image and text here coexist uneasily, a sort of scientism that hints at its own pitfalls but never fully engages them.
The exhibition consists of the aforementioned glut of pictures, printed at modest scale and hung noticeably lower to the ground than usual, along with actual and reconstructed walls from various other venues where Williams has and will show. There is no wall text, though; for that one must consult an indexical pamphlet placed in the gallery. Yet unlike his curatorial effort earlier this year at Artists Space, a largely historical exhibition of ephemera and artworks related to German Capitalist Realism that also contained a pamphlet in lieu of wall text, the gesture here feels less archival and more cartographic: the show is the territory, the diagrammatical index its map.
The pseudo-didactic cutaways and carefully posed shots depicting the mechanics and process of photographic production fully encapsulate this approach, a retrograde scientism that colonizes the image, further circumscribing, rather than questioning, its limits. In a passage from the Frieze interview immediately preceding the opening quotation above, the artist describes his project as follows:
In terms of the political implications of what I’m doing, it would be about creating the context for a certain kind of looking: to use an image associated with advertising, but create the conditions to slow down and look at it in a way that industrial images are almost never looked at.
This kind of work is perfect for MoMA, a museum increasingly concerned with the spectacle-value of its own production, but of course only on its own terms: as a sort of institutional disclaimer qualifying the task of exhibition making and display. These are not new questions — Brian O’Doherty described the exhibition’s walls as “the locus of contending ideologies” decades ago. So when Williams hangs his pictures a little low, or includes physical sections of walls, it seems like nostalgia rather than critique or even provocation. It is a minor thrill, industry trivia for those who practice and envision art through the rose-colored glasses of a classical field. Which is strange, considering that Williams was a student of Michael Asher at CalArts, a conceptual artist who understood better than most that art and its institutions are neither disinterested nor neutral.
Even beyond its unsophisticated scientism, the attitude Williams conveys toward the commercial image, produced by solidly middle-class workers, is here structurally imbued with meaning by leisure. Christopher Williams wants to “slow down” with the advertising image, a type of high-art slumming not practiced so baldly since 1980s Jeff Koons, though Williams knows how to go through the appropriate intellectual motions to avoid any immediate unsavory associations. And while Williams and his enablers are indeed equipped with the time for such antics, they should know better than to appreciate this sort of domineering rationalist colonization of aesthetics.
On the matter of titles, or the title-as-clinical-description: the trouble with leaning on language to elucidate the contingency of image, to call into question its signification, is that instead of gesturing beyond the image, language as deployed by Williams — with great precision, like an accountant cataloguing an inventory or a technician recording lab results — operates in tandem with the photographic project to construct an at-best naive discourse of rational assimilation. Williams breaks down the photograph into “elementary and simple components,” to borrow the Italian theorist and mathematician Giuseppe Longo’s formulation:
The alphabet is extraordinarily effective: it forces into shape, it canalizes and organizes thought, it structures knowledge. Firstly, it introduces an original form of dualism: here notation, there, signification, linked by means of the phoneme, but also independent (with the ideogram, signification is immanent to the drawing). Then, there is the conception according to which, in order to understand the world, it is necessary to fraction it into elementary and simple components.
This is how Williams’s conceptualism assumes the classical mantle, which Longo traces to Democritus’s designation of atoms with letters and leads into dangerous universalist discourses:
And man projects, once more, this manner of reconstructing and of talking about the world, onto the absolute: he says that God (or evolution) invented the world and life in the way he constructs meaning himself with alphabetic reading, by juxtaposing signs with no signification. Once more, the alphabet is very effective and extraordinary, but it is not a neutral instrument, it imposes by its own force the paradigms which will be at the origin of western science and which are still revisited today in contemporary science.
This type of discourse is then deployed to imbue the arcana of pictures and exhibition space with the authority of the natural history museum, an association Williams perhaps intends to skirt with his photographs of glass flowers from Harvard’s natural history museum. Williams plays with the didacticism of the image in the same way he purports to play with the didacticism of language, but in the end the exercise reifies the same paradigms it attempts to critique. Consider the highly subtle maneuvers Williams carries out at the level of the photograph, for example with yellow reference tones or the appropriation of a work by Daniel Buren in what appears to be a simple image of green and white stripes. These seem harmless, if manneristic, exercises, but a black-and-white portrait of a smiling man identified in the title as “Mustafa Kinte (Gambia)” brings such lofty play down to earth as queasy racial formalism. These manipulations do not interrogate the process of signification, in the same way that moving around the pieces of a puzzle does not change the structure or premise of the puzzle.
The supposed neutrality of the camera and language as instruments for structuring knowledge is never renegotiated; instead they are — despite Williams’s best efforts — mystified as high art, remaining within the system of their functioning by appealing instead to the false savvy of an audience that tallies such arcana with the aplomb of a game of Bingo. This point is driven home in a passage quoted in the catalogue, which is itself formatted in the same logistical deadpan that is superficially attuned to yet fundamentally ignorant of its context. The text, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, has the Italian director asking rhetorically: “How can the cinema be brought to the level of ‘forced aristocraticness’ of poetry (and thus struggle, in some way or other, against the false democracy of mass culture)?” Pasolini continues:
… I have become old-fashioned. I don’t really believe in action, unless it be action in the real sense of the term, i.e., furious blows and a physical overturning of institutions. I prefer to follow the classical paths of formal invention (but not formalist, certainly not formalist; even though a mannerism or two can sometimes be a divine temptation). [Extracts from interviews with Pier Paolo Pasolini by Sandro Zambtti and the editors of Cinema nuovo, 1969]
While it is true that mass culture is falsely democratic, the “forced aristocraticness” proposed by Pasolini and co-signed in the catalogue Williams produced himself is a problematic sort of conservatism — not because it insists on scholarliness, but because it is an unexamined form of pedantry. (For the record, I do not believe this critique is applicable to Pasolini’s work.) In many ways this pose is successful at intimidating its critics: responding to the exhibition in artnet News, Ben Davis dismissed The Production Line of Happiness as an “aesthetics of smartypants,” whose chief concern is the delivery of the message that Christopher Williams is “so, so, so smart.”
I contend that the problem is just the opposite, that the clinical and self-reflexive atomism of Williams is in fact hopelessly reductive and simplistic, one that sees in a means — the particularization of the photographic image — an end. This conceptual scientism is at best art-historical and art-institutional fan fiction, with vague political and formal allusions sprinkled in for flavor— an ethos that, rather than being overly challenging, as Davis suggests, is in fact hopelessly basic. Williams describes himself as a proponent of an “elitism for everyone,” which is the definition of pretentious: arrogance accessibly coded as such. It is bad not because it is sophisticated; it is bad because it is a lie which forces a sedate orthodoxy upon the world under the guise of nuanced criticality.
Curiously, a number of the subjects invoked in Christopher Williams’s work appear in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, an art-world novel released to mainstream acclaim last year. Many of the same totems addressed by Williams surface in Kushner’s story: the “China girl,” a photographic calibration task Kushner’s protagonist engages in as an employee at a photo studio in Manhattan (for more on this, see Girls on Film, a 2005 exhibition at Harvard’s Sert Gallery organized by Karin Segal and Julie Buck); 1970s Communist riots in Italy (one of Christopher Williams’s more interesting exhibitions engaged this subject); the production of tire rubber in Vietnam, something alluded to in Williams’s photograph of a Michelin tire containing rubber made in Vietnam in 1968. Given their interest in the same periods in Western art history and culture, it’s no surprise that Williams and Kushner would so overlap, but what comes alive in fiction by Kushner never surpasses empty signification in artwork by Williams, whose project becomes just another bland museum exhibition with a title from Jean-Luc Godard.
The Production Line of Happiness continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 2.
Thanks to Mohammad Salemy for bringing Giuseppe Longo’s “Critique of Computational Reason in the Natural Sciences” to my attention.