Later travelling to MoMA and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Christopher Williams’ first major retrospective opens at the Art Institute of Chicago, bringing the conceptual photographer full circle from his museum premiere here in 1982. The works are spread over three galleries in the museum’s photography and contemporary art sections, taking up an appropriately extensive and non-adjacent space for an overview of a 35-year career.
In his early work Williams relied on archival found photographs, with titles that echoed the names of exotic places, such as those listed in Amnesty International’s 1986 report on countries that abuse the human rights of their citizens in ‘Angola to Vietnam*’. This series pairs countries from the list with photographs of handmade glass flowers in Harvard’s archive, grafting together disparate knowledge hierarchies and forging a political statement that is mournful and elegant, although oblique. The botanical specimens overlay more clichéd or violent images that might spring to mind while contemplating the political history of the named regions, while reminding the viewer that overly systematised knowledge can elide political and human experience.
Nowadays, Williams has quit the archive and travels widely with a studio team to construct highly produced, advertising-quality images that both make use of and expose industry tricks. A model’s bra is held back by crocodile clips, usually photoshopped or framed out of a finished image, and a Kodak colour control strip appears in a corner. The strips and clips themselves become design elements, elevating the otherwise kitschy, glossy images to something deconstructed and strange. In a long-running series Nikons are cut in half and photographed with all the care afforded to gorgeous publicity objects. This taut balance between Williams’ obvious love of spit and polish and his urge to deconstruct everything - including the gallery and camera - provides the conceptual charge necessary to carry this exhibition through the enormous floor-space and three decades of competing themes and interests.
The political conscience on display in ‘Angola to Vietnam*’ never quite vacates these images, even at their most aestheticised. Part of a series of 11, ‘Model: 1964 Renault Dauphine-Four, 5-1095…’, shows a vintage car turned on its side in glossy black and white, and reminds only the historically and politically attuned of the French riots of 1968, when such cars were overturned and burnt by students. In ‘Mustafa Kinte (Gambia)’’ a Gambian man smiles as he poses in a German-made shirt holding a German-made camera, in a portrait that questions the freedom of post-colonial nations to make their own images, and underscores their continuing reliance on the markets and technologies of colonising nations.
Williams’ most straightforward comment on systems of display comes in his rearrangement of the AIC’s photography gallery with jury-rigged, moveable walls and dollies, perhaps in an attempt to draw the themes of a diverse exhibition together. All of the walls bearing images can be moved around freely, although it does not appear that the casual visitor is able to do so. The gesture does, however, dramatically underline Williams’ career-long commitment to deconstructing the politics of display technologies, industrial techniques of illusion, and systems of vision.