It would be difficult not to notice Christopher Williams: The Production Line of Happiness at the Art Institute of Chicago. Yellow walls line the galleries of the Modern Wing, covered with Williams’ images and text excerpts from writings on his work—some of it intentionally made impossible to read by being too high up to see. This sets the tone for a potentially frustrating viewer experience. Aside from being split into three galleries, the tombstones appear haphazardly organized at the wall-ends, and provide relatively little information about Williams’ work. Visitors are left to fend for themselves—and purposefully, as the curatorial plan and Williams’ photographs coalesce to jolt a viewer out of her everyday routine. Aptly, much of the work comments on our daily choices as consumers by (re)presenting images and objects (products) that we ingest on a daily basis. Having become so accustomed to image bombardment, singularly viewing artworks that could pass as ads against stark white walls feels suitably abnormal.
As the title implies, Williams wants us to recall that images engineer and manufacture emotions. This paradigm is repeated formally in the upper galleries of the Modern Wing. These rooms show Williams’ most recognizable photographs of pleasing and appealing readymade objects and familiar advertising scenes. Williams reminds his audience of the camera’s role as a mediator and agent in orchestrating an advertisement. He often leaves in color correction bars and photo-shoot equipment as harbingers of the relative ease of evoking emotions through ad-like imagery. For example Williams offers a car whose title has a lengthy name that lists the manufacturer and materials of the object. It floats freely in space sans car. It’s either an orchestrated advertisement for a tire product, or a part of a strange dream sequence—and in both cases becomes conceptual and iconographic.
Absent of context and slogans, the images of tires, cameras, dewy apples, women smiling with their hair in a towel for no apparent reason, all appear bizarre. The curator (Matthew Witkovsky for the AIC iteration) does not seem keen to provide much stabilizing context for those less familiar with conceptual photography. While potentially frustrating for an uninformed visitor, the AIC’s lack of interjection does stay true to conceptual work. The photographs are meant to engender a critical dialogue, and perhaps the museum—particularly one as didactic as the Art Institute—should refrain from boldly dictating the parameters of potentially fruitful discussions.
Clockwise from Manufacturer Name (Outer Ring), Michelin zX, Treadwear 200, Traction A, Temperature B, Clockwise from Tire Size (Inner Ring), 135 SR 15, 723 E2 0177523, Tubeless, Radial X, Made In France, TN 2148 20-2044, Tread: 1 Polyester Ply, + 2 Steel Plies, Sidewall: 1 Polyester Ply, DOT FH PI AID X0607, Canada and U.S. Codes Only, Max Load 355 Kg (780 Lbs), Max Press. 350 kPa (51 PSI), V-1, Photography by the Douglas M. Parker Studio, Glendale, California, December 27, 2007– January 2, 2008