The first thing you see when you enter the Christopher Williams exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (through Nov. 2) is a finger hovering over a button. For a show that mixes the enigmatic and the demonstrative with something that amounts to cruelty to the visitor, this is as clear as it gets. You are entering a visual field where the relationship between humans and machines is central.
The finger is actually not pushing the button. It is poised with all the elegance and compositional care of a fashion shoot. The photograph itself is excellent, but in such a way that it makes you question its skill. Everything, from the lighting, to the amount of detail, to the coloring and the composition is so perfectly poised that it makes you forget the absurdity of the image of this finger pointing out the button in the way the picture points out its own skill.
This is the world of Williams: one in which both machines and humans are subject to the technology of depiction to such a degree that we become aware of the ways in which the training of the photographer, his equipment, the accoutrements of the studio (backdrops, lighting, even cleanliness), and the ways in which we see photographs, or how they are used, all come together to make you aware of yourself consuming that final product. The finger is indeed not pushing the button, nor is the photographer. We are all part of the same complex.
Williams delights in showing you the elements of the “photography complex,” presenting expensive cameras cut in half so we can see all the parts. He shows a woman in both profiles, from the back, and full face. He takes photographs of dishwashers filled with colored plates to show the ways in which different films react to colors (as well as using the conventions of documentation common in catalogs, technical manuals, and advertising), uses posters he has found and makes them his own, and shows us a meaningless doodle photographed with the same perfection as a radial tire suspended against a white backdrop.
The artist makes sure we understand that the complex includes both the exhibition and the catalog. The former includes walls taken from other exhibitions of his work plunked into the middle of MoMA’s supposedly neutral space and uses tricks like hanging the photographs low enough that most of us have to crouch to inspect their beauty. The catalog, meanwhile, is a collection of rambling essays and quotations, leaving a loose insert of a few pages in the pack to document the images in the exhibition. Their titles, by the way, are invariably summations of not only everything you see in the image, including the clothes the models wear, but also the equipment Williams used in the production and even the film and paper that brings the photograph to reality.
It all might be a one-liner. I get it, photography and all artificial images are products subject to technology and the social forces embodied in equipment, not works of a genius expressing a free spirit—except that the stuff Williams, who remains the author of the photographs, makes is just so ravishing. As the exhibit title says, this is “The Production Line of Happiness.” He keeps seducing you with dishwashers, empty display cases, tires, and even a bunch of apples seemingly so ripe that they rival anything you see in a gourmet food magazine. Beauty is the ultimate opiate of the discerning class, and Christopher Williams is one of its most successful pushers.
What does this means for architecture? Mario Gandelsonas, FAIA, once pointed out, in the introduction to Peter Eisenman, FAIA’s solipsistic book on his even more self-referential House X project, that architecture is the one art that both represents and is present. What would it take for an architect to make that simple observation into something we can know, with all the beauty, complexity, and contradiction that Williams has applied to the ultimate act of mechanic representation?
Next up: Jeff Koons and why there is no pop architecture.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.