What Does the Jellyfish Want? Bennett Simpson on the Art of Christopher Williams

By Simpson, Bennett | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

What Does the Jellyfish Want? Bennett Simpson on the Art of Christopher Williams


Simpson, Bennett, Artforum International


I CAN'T BE ALONE IN FINDING A GREAT DEAL OF AFFECT IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS. This is dangerous to say, since affect in photography generally hews to subject matter--the pained look of a face, the pleasure or poignancy in a gesture--and it tends to be obvious, the easiest thing there is. Williams's most recent project, "For Example: Dix-Huit Lecons Sur La Societe Industrielle," is neither easy nor obvious. Its images bear no consistent theme, no singular style or technique, none of the normal signposts of a photographic body of work. Many of the photographs depict icons of twentieth-century industrial design set against monochromatic grounds--a cheap Soviet camera, a motorized French bicycle, a bright yellow Deutsche Post packing box. Images of a disassembled Jean Prouve house and a Communist-era apartment tower provide architectural motifs. Portraits of female models, in and out of the shower, resemble prototypical magazine ads. If there is an affective logic to such work, it does not depend on the subject matter's rationality, but on distinctions among images, a kind of playful noise discovered in the process of viewing.

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Williams has always used photography in a way quite distinct from other practitioners of the medium. Often he has declined to call himself a photographer at all. Since his student days at CalArts in the 1970s--where teachers such as Michael Asher, John Baldessari, Morgan Fisher, and Douglas Huebler provided a decidedly Conceptualist model for a group of young artists that also included Mike Kelley, John Miller, and Stephen Prina--Williams has approached photography as a means for responding to the material apparatus and discursive underpinnings of the medium itself. An adaptation of site-specificity's architectural prerogative to the condition of images, similar to that of his contemporary Louise Lawler, can be seen in projects that take institutional or mass media archives as both subject matter and critical object. The series "Angola to Vietnam*," 1989, for instance, takes as its starting point the Harvard Museum of Natural History's famed collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century glass flowers. With more than 3,000 life-size models of 847 species, the collection represents, in essence, a taxonomical fantasy borne of colonial reach. To determine which of these objects he would photograph, Williams reorganized the archive according to each specimen's native country. He then mobilized a rather different but no less "global" classifying system--a worst-nations report compiled by Amnesty International on political disappearance--and proceeded to photograph only those flowers corresponding to offending countries. The resultant group of twenty-seven photographs, shot as elegiac black-and-white close-ups, was submitted to one final displacement: the addition of a tear sheet of a brightly colored Elle magazine cover. Above a banner proclaiming LA PLANETE "ELLE," the clustered faces of five fashion models wearing sailor caps emblazoned with the names of countries stare out at the viewer with a mixture of blank beauty and orchestrated appeal--triumphant ciphers in the image industry's effacement of any real local or national specificity.

Since the mid-'90s, Williams's exhibitions have adopted a more disjunctive essayistic approach to their subjects, whereby disparate or distantly related photographs create a slippery, nearly opaque field of reference and association. Even when he employs documentary or objectivist modes, which he does often, one does not read a Williams photograph for its transparent portrayal of "things in themselves." The decisive moment always lies elsewhere, buried deep inside the backstory of a chosen subject or ricocheting among groupings of images within an exhibition. This simultaneous deferral of and insistence on meaning lend a certain irony to the experience of Williams's work. …

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