The Production Line of Happiness
In the same way that Christopher Williams’ current retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery turns conventions of exhibition design on their head – half-eclipsed panels of text from the previous show remain on the walls, prints are hung lower than you might expect, and there are no panels of text to explain what the actual exhibition is about – the accompanying catalogue is equally provocative.
Utilising the same striking green for its cover and pages as the one used on the gallery walls, the publication playfully challenges expectations of what an accompanying catalogue should be. It resembles something more akin to an instruction manual, in keeping with Williams’ interest in the instructional and commercial uses of photography. In fact the catalogue does away with tradition almost entirely. Gone are the easy-to-navigate series of essays and neatly reproduced selection of exhibition images; in their place are densely written texts, separated by disruptive green pages that ruminate on areas of interest in Williams’ work – what photography is or can be, photographic production, the mechanics of filmmaking, and the architecture and history of display.
Towards the end of the book, we come across a pull-out booklet featuring images with captions, which provides a refreshing respite. Even the cover sets out to knock readers off course with the barcode on the front and paragraphs of text deconstructing what a barcode and ISBN are, where you would normally expect to see an image. Reproductions of exhibition posters and press releases are also included in the book’s pages, and poetically written texts, including those by Barbara Kruger, Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard, add an extra dimension.
In short, Williams taps into the conventions of bookmaking, of catalogue design, only to subvert them in order to create a unique experience that is different to, and yet an extension of the experience on offer in the Whitechapel Gallery. Everything is intentional when it comes to Williams’ presentation of content; nothing is accidental. And he leaves the reader to excavate the many layers he creates, which can be an enriching experience for those with patience, if not, a frustrating one.
All images courtesy of The Whitechapel Gallery. © Christopher Williams