Christopher Williams excels at mental gymnastics of an aesthetic nature. In his earlier photographic work the artist presented an image of plastic 1960s plates in a dishwasher, where each arrangement of dishware represented the film stock he used: 15% red and 85% yellow for Kodak; 75% green and 25% red for Fuji. For Williams, colour is presented as a readymade.
For Example: Dis-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 12) opens with another mental gambit: an image of a dissected East German camera. Splayed out to reveal its mechanics, the camera resembles Duchamp’s Bachelor Machine . Perhaps this is no coincidence; the latter artist once noted, ‘I want to grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina’. And, in For Example, Williams provides a contextualised set of details similar to Duchamp’s ‘Green Box Notes’.
Before one thinks about the specific content of an image, it is context that Williams uses to focus the viewer’s attention on the details of individual photographs. The particulars include the show’s title: in French, it reveals that this is the artist’s thirteenth attempt to explore industrialisation. The invitation card prominently states in German ‘LICHT LADEN BLITZ’, while the accompanying interpretive text is replete with suggestive fragments that describe the invite card image—a bunch of apples—as ‘romantic and swollen’, ‘firm and proud’. There is a clear sense that all these contingent materials reveal a rich backstory.
Williams’ photographs are beautiful. Well composed, incredible lighting, lush colours, the images are impeccably printed and traditionally mounted and framed. The artist notes the narrative of production can be reduced to three images: the dissected camera; an image of darkroom equipment, including chemical trays, a discoloured plastic funnel, and timers for printing; and an image of a German light-meter juxtaposed with a fashion model in mid-century modern silhouette, placed too distantly behind the device to be in focus.
A significant subplot here is the demise of analogue photography. The succulent apples on the invitation card and the press release are, upon closer inspection, bruised and slightly discoloured. A branch with bright green leaves (‘Garten in Voigtmichelshof, Alpirsback June 8th’, 2010) is lit perfectly, but again, there are imperfections. Another image, unambiguously taken in a photographic studio, depicts a model bending over to adjust the back of her sock. Is she putting it on or taking it off? No matter. More intriguing, beyond the technical information marked on the socks in German, is another imperfection, a slight brown callous on her Achilles’ heel (‘Untitled (Study in Red) Dirk Schaper Studio, Berlin, April 30th’, 2009). Such vulnerability intrigues Williams; imperfections within an ideal scene emerge as focal enticements. Williams mimics the fetish of high fashion, while bringing the corporeal back into focus. Perhaps this is why so many of his images reflect on consumerism, and by extension over-indulgence. As the artist notes, ‘it seemed agreed that photography, too, was part of the experiment’.
Williams also includes a number of black and white photographs in the show, the most potent being a formalist study of a hay bale. Saturated blacks reveal a still-life seemingly taken from another century of artistic production, while the presence of a car in the background translates to a dissonant analogue moment. Ambivalence prevails. An image of two tow-headed children climbing on a modernist sculpture taken in front of the Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, proposes a degree of optimism. And yet this image is haunted by the Nazi history of propaganda images deployed as social fascism. We are lured into the black and white tones of the image only to reconsider our standing with relationship to the details of the image. Situated apart from all the images, meanwhile, is a yellow (read Kodak yellow here) coloured mop, resting in a corner. The image is a direct reflection on the gallery space as a site of labour and exchange.
Williams’ indication of commodity culture is entwined with desire and the evocation of contemporary style. Yet his production choices reference German and Soviet era camera equipment, and exploit commercial techniques that border on the aesthetic of propaganda, thus reflecting on an era in which the image held sway over politics and culture. A potent blend of sophistication and mischief both sexy and unmistakably periodised, Williams’ work poses questions into quotidian activities and our worldview, which today is both distant from and indebted to the era of Cold War culture.
Kathleen Madden is a writer, curator and editor based in New York and London