Whitechapel Gallery, London
29 April – 21 June 2015
by HARRY THORNE
For honesty’s sake, I must begin by saying that I had to spend only five minutes in Christopher Williams’s first UK retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery to realise that I did not like it. Let’s push that a little further: I cannot recall a single exhibition in the past few years that I have disliked as quickly as The Production Line of Happiness. With a previous awareness of both Williams’s photographic practice and the esteemed reputation he has garnered over the years, it is safe to say that this reaction was far from expected. I knew he was born in Los Angeles in 1956, studying under John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler at the California Institute of the Arts. I knew that he was part of the Pictures Generation group alongside artists such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. I knew that he has been a professor at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf since 2008, and that his works are held in collections at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. I knew all of this, and this led me to assume that I would immediately be bowled over by the vast exhibition, that I would feel some sort of connection to the works, the space and, by association, the artist, but, alas, nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Walking into the gallery, the visitor is met by something of an anti-gallery. Temporary panels stand with their wood and foam innards left naked, pencil marks and metal pins pockmark the permanent walls around them, and plaster is ripped away to reveal forgotten posters advertising previous exhibitions. It is a mess, an absolute mess. “A mess?” I hear you say. “Surely it is the work that is important?” The work? Of course. The work is undeniably the worst thing about the space. First, the presentation. On average, art is hung 157cm from the floor, give or take. Without fail, everything here is positioned around 20 uncomfortable centimetres below that point, far enough that natural eye level moves from the centre of a piece to the centre of the white strip that surrounds it. Second: the photographs. Williams produces unlabelled images that resemble very familiar stock photos. There is a chicken, a bunch of apples, a smiling model, a car headlight, and so on; the kind of saccharine, unblemished sample images that are placed in new photo frames. It is work that here, in this environment, is lifeless, one-dimensional and insipid, lacking any character or emotion, and it is from this that my dislike stems. I – we – have a desire to engage with and to understand art, to begin outside but ultimately to enter in and position ourselves on an equal platform to the works on show and the absent creator who stands behind them. Here, however, in this unaccommodating, desecrated white cube space, any vague proposals of exterior involvement are rebuffed. There is simply art, an audience, and nothing in between.
Did I say five minutes? Five minutes is up, and now it is time for another statement, one that illustrates the gullibility of one party and the mastery of another: I had to spend only six minutes in The Production Line of Happiness to realise that my reaction had been completely and utterly governed by the artist himself.
Williams is a subversive figure, one who is able to subtly deconstruct and undermine accepted systems in a manner that is as striking as it is oblique. Take the aesthetic of the gallery, for instance. You are meant to notice the inner emptiness of the dilapidated the walls, the hidden posters and the scrawled pencil marks of spectral gallery technicians, just as you are meant to understand that the white cube profile that you are so accustomed to, that you feel so comfortable within, is nothing but a constructed facade – a notion both physical and abstract that is utterly void of any substantial matter. A fake. Williams’s photographs continue this idea, interrogating our fallacious acceptance of the contemporary notions of “beauty” and “happiness”. For while, initially, the 88 eclectic photographs appear to be flawless, recognisable and generic forms such as a car headlight, a surly model and a stack of corn, over time you come to realise that a certain facet of each object or figure is, in fact, entirely foreign. It is a known form, but there is something wrong with it – an angle or a hue or a level of saturation. Nothing is ever as it seems.
Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide […] (Meiko Laughing) (2005), for example, is composed in the style of a conventional, commercial image. Set on a black background, there is a photographer’s reflection guide in the top-left corner and an attractive model laughing at the centre, her brunette hair and hazel eyes perfectly accenting the yellow towels that are wrapped around her head and chest. But while the image may be reminiscent of so many generic advertising headshots, the composition is abnormal. This is not the consequence of post-production, of artificial additions or tactical removals, but the result of certain pre-existing, unprocessed details that would inevitably be wiped clean from a final, commercial image, being left in: the veins in the temple and chest, the jagged teeth, the almost sickly yellow tone of the towels. Most noticeable, however, are the model’s eyes, which reflect the camera’s flash and, as a result, appear to wander absent-mindedly, as if our Meiko is looking far beyond the very boundaries of the frame. While these blemishes are completely natural, each one something that we may encounter on a day-to-day basis, their inclusion looks almost unusual and synthetic – which is absurd. It is here that Williams so tactfully makes his comment, illustrating just how skewed our understanding of beauty has become. As a result of our constant, unrelenting exposure to the tinted, saturated, contorted forms that adverts and editorials have told us are “perfect”, we have lost our ability to see the imperfect – the natural – as beautiful. They may show us what happiness is, but their image of happiness is, as Williams demonstrates, built on a “construction line”.
Just as commercial images do not present models alone, but also inanimate objects, so, too, does Williams. From car tyres and a ceiling panel to a headlight and a sock, the artist broadens his scope to communicate how this manufactured idea of happiness has corrupted just about every sector of our existence. One such work is the triptych Kiev 88, 4.6 lbs (2.1 Kg), one of the most conventionally beautiful and subtly disconcerting inclusions in the whole exhibition. Each of the three photographs depicts the same antiquated camera, a Kiev 88, and just as we would warm to the chassis of a 1950s coupé or a Monroe-esque cigarette holder, the heavy body and box-like finder hood of the Kiev indulges our strange love of the “classic”, the etched characters on the lens itself also satisfying our desire for delicacy and formalism. From each of the three angles it looks like a flawless, desirable machine: a feat of design and mechanics that enables timeless and beautiful images to be captured. But here’s the thing, the elusive fault that is the linchpin of each of Williams’s photographs: this camera is almost entirely obsolete. It is an object that purports to represent perfection, one that claims to be significant as it takes pride of place at the centre of the work, but it is an object that in reality is outdated and borderline useless.
Upstairs, the exhibition loses a little emphasis. Unlike the discursive first room where multifarious images clash and collaborate, driving Williams’s argument from one facet of everyday life to another, here we are presented with photographs in organised collections and stultifying sequences, sequences less humorous and more conventional in their depictions of emotive landscapes, ominous buildings and editorial-style portraits. If only due to its peculiarity, the one collection that is worthy of a mention is Angola to Vietnam* (1987-9), a taxonomy of black-and-white plant samples, each of which is accompanied by an identity card providing information as to its country of origin and genus number. Visually and thematically, the works appear out of place, but predictably there is a link. Just as the Kiev 88 images signified one thing but in fact represented another, while these works claim to show plant-life, intricate stamens and jagged patterns of leaves, what they actually depict are glass replicas of flowers made by Czech glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. While this collection again reiterates the earlier idea of perfidious representation, it also presents an alternative institutional critique: these are glass versions of national flowers, each one representing a country accused by Amnesty International of engaging in political disappearances. Williams strips these specimens of their scientific system of categorisation, instead reorganising them by country of origin, and in doing so creates a visual demonstration of the biased, desensitised nature of classification systems.
This is a complicated argument, and the issue here is as follows: I had to Google all of this. Whereas with the earlier works you were able to fight your way towards a point of understanding, first acknowledging the artist’s meticulously crafted “errors” and subsequently coming to question your own understanding of said natural features as “errors”, here you are comprehensively shut out by the artist himself. As in the first gallery, you approach the collection of works from the outside, but whereas before you were eventually able to claw your way in, on this occasion you remain on the threshold, unable to break through visual.
To conclude adequately, I must break from continuity and chronology and return to Untitled (Study in Yellow and Red/Berlin) (2008), a work that hangs in the first room of the exhibition. For while not the most subtle inclusion, or even the most representative of the artist’s lurid style, it is the image that best illustrates the way in which Williams comes to create such fascinating and original works in an age when, more than ever, photography is feeling the pressure of an oversaturated market. The work features another model primed for a photoshoot. Side profile, she sits in nothing but see-through underwear; legs folded to one side, arms raised over her head. With the folds of her stomach and the dirty soles of her feet turned away, the label of her knickers out of view, and her bra clipped at the side to give the impression of a perfect fit, she hides every unsightly feature from the camera that she is expecting to meet her face on. She is anticipating and facilitating the creation of a photograph that we, too, have come to expect, a photograph that hides her true appearance and provides something that is, commercially at least, “better”. What Williams does, however, just as he does throughout this entire exhibition, is move the camera slightly to the left, a minimal action but one that reveals every single inadequacy and blemish that was previously obscured. As with the Kiev 88, the model wrapped in yellow towels, the Michelin tyres, the headlight, the sock, the Blaschka glassworks and each of the other pieces that I have not had time to explore, he takes an image that years upon years of doctored visuals have conditioned us to expect, and knocks it off balance just enough for us to notice the presence of that very conditioning. He takes what are essentially ordinary aspects of reality – the clothing label, the dirty feet, the twists in the model’s stomach – and presents them as unordinary, unnatural. He shows us what we don’t see, what we should see, and in doing so reveals how incredibly comfortable and parochial we have become in a world of images and appearances that is in its very essence akin to the profile of the white cube gallery. The models, the commodities, the happiness: it all looks very nice from the outside, but at its very heart it is synthetic, compromised, and undeniably, irrefutably false.