Christopher Williams


The coming exhibition at Kunsthalle Zurich is dedicated to the U.S. conceptual artist Christopher Williams. In an expansion of the exhibition space, Williams presents his works not only in the Kunsthalle itself, where 28 photographs of the artist from the series For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision) (2003 to today) are on show. Also the radio programme Radio Danièle – that the artist conceived with the artist and critic John Kelsey, a first version of which was realized in Bologna at the beginning of 2007 – has been expanded for Zurich in collaboration with Radio LoRa and will be broadcast every night from Sunday to Wednesday for the duration of the exhibition. In addition, Christopher Williams is collaborating with Albert Oehlen and John Kelsey on a film programme, which can be seen in one of the Arthouse Cinemas.

Christopher Williams (*1956), who lives and works in Los Angeles, studied in the 1970s at the California Institute of Arts under the first generation of conceptual artists on the west coast – among others under John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler. In contrast to the first generation of conceptual photographers, however, Williams mobilizes perfection and aesthetics to enhance the impact of his works.

Williams’ photographs, videos, installations, sculptures and performances study the conditions of presentation and representation and call into question spoon-fed perception and true-to-reality reproductions: how do our communication mechanisms and aesthetic conventions influence our perception and understanding of reality?

The title of the project begun in 2003 - For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision) – alludes to the lectures "Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle" held by the French sociologist Raymond Aron and published in 1962. In them Aron had studied the growth factors of Fordist capitalism and Soviet planned economy.

Williams’ photographic procedure relates to industrial society and its short-lived nature and, at the same time, formulates a critique. In this way the artist – who sees himself as a director of his pictures and has his photographs produced by professionals – has the shots printed by a method that is hardly in use today: his black-and-whites are realized as silver gelatine or platinum prints, the colour proofs by a dye-transfer process. His choice has nothing nostalgic about it; he understands it as an attempt to fully comprehend processes that are on the verge of disappearing. This theme is reflected in his repertoire of images that borrow from advertising, fashion and architecture photography. The formal common ground of his works is the isolation of the objects against a mostly neutral background.

The proximity to New Objectivity (neue Sachlichkeit) and William’s admired predecessor, Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966), is striking. Similar to him, Williams tries to constitute the structures and phenomena of the visible world in their "essence" – via photography. However, a closer look reveals that disquieting factors have obviously and consciously been introduced. The pictures are meant to evoke a subtle shift in our perception, not least of all abetted by their titles, which are to be considered a part of the work.

At first glance the series of shower pictures Model # 105M – R59C Kestone Shower Door... (2005) seems to recall advertising photography from the 1960s. But a second glance makes apparent the fact that the model is a bit older than is normally the case in the advertising field. For the most part she smiles as she poses before the camera; on other works she stares out of the picture, lost in thought. Only one half of the image formation is given over to her face; the other half is taken up by the shower stall or colour chart stripes. That small skin blemishes remain visible is owed to the fact that Williams never refinishes the photographs.

His work Kiev 88 (2003) pictures the Russian remake of a Hasselblad, the most successful model of a middle-format camera. Williams remarked that, to him, this remake is like "using NASA technology in order to represent a harpoon." Consequently the professionalism of the "advert" stands in contrast to the simplicity of the model.

Also in the works Velosolex 2200 Nr. 2 (2005) and Tropical House (Prototyp) (2005) – along with the aesthetic concept of the objective portrayal – further references to political and geopolitical questions play a role: Triptychon Velosolex 2200 Nr. 2 shows a bicycle from three different views. In the French colonies of Africa and Asia, this bike was a popular model. Legend has it that the bicycle was imported to France from Vietnam to be then photographed in a studio in Los Angeles. Also Tropical House (Prototyp) tells of an intercontinental journey: in 1949 the French architect Jean Prouvé designed the "Tropical House" as a prototype of an easy-to-erect prefabricated house for cheap living quarters in the French colonies. There they stood proud in Brazzaville till 1999 when they were "rescued" from the civil war in the Congo and sent back to France for restoration. In 2005 one of the houses was shipped to Los Angeles for an exhibition in UCLA’s Hammer Museum, where this photograph was taken during an exhibition.

Although, formally, the aesthetic concept of objectivity is central here, Williams subverts this with the title he formulates for the picture: in an, at first, cryptic list, all possible information that can be linked to the photo was assembled – details of the photographed object, name of the photo studio, date, material and process. Yet one particular is missing – the name of the photographer who took the picture. Thus Williams puts at our disposition the question of what value the information and the authorship can possess, while he simultaneously proves to be a subtle narrator with a weakness for veiled anecdotes.

In Bologna on January 26th 1976 one of the first free radio stations in Italy went on the air: Radio Alice. In 2007, parallel to an exhibition at Bologna’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Christopher Williams together with John Kelsey organized Radio Danièle in memory of Radio Alice and as an homage to the French director Danièle Huillet (1936-2006). The two organizers invited more than 60 artists, among whom were Bernadette Corporation, Dan Graham, Paul McCarthey, Seth Price and Lawrence Weiner, to compose a contribution for the radio. These ranged from readings, music tapes and concerts, all the way to experimental sound recordings. On "Radio LoRa 97,5 – alternative local radio Zurich" this program will be taken up and continued for the duration of the exhibition in an expanded Zurich version.

Within the framework of the Cologne Film Festival 1992, Albert Oehlen and Christopher Williams were invited to design a film programme in which each film shown – like a dialogue – offered an answer to the preceding one: Albert Oehlen began the screening on September 27th with Change by Peter Wirth from 1971; it culminated in Hermann Jauk’s Stille Nacht O Tannenbaum from 1967. This dialogue will be expanded and continued in Zurich’s Arthouse Cinemas.

Kunsthalle Zurich thanks: Präsidialdepartement der Stadt Zürich, Luma Stiftung and Swiss Re.