The Production Line of Happiness by Christopher Williams at Whitechapel Gallery, London, (until 21 June 2015) is not an exhibition to wander into unprepared. The images span the period 1981 to 2015 (though some expropriated images are older) and Williams demands as much from the viewer as he has put in over the 34 years he has been compiling this work. But with some work on the viewer’s part it is a thought-provoking and worthwhile visit.
Williams’s long-term enquiry into what makes us happy/unhappy and how consumerism is designed to give us the illusion of happiness is wide-ranging and, like all good art, is intended to provoke questions rather than provide answers. There is an integrity and consistency to this work and I empathise with Williams’s skepticism concerning consumerism. In the end the work leaves me dissatisfied (and I don’t mean this in a negative sense): okay,I get that happiness is an emotion that we attempt in vain to satisfy by spending on more and more stuff. But happiness is transient anyway – it is always balanced to a greater or lesser extent with, for example, sadness and longing.
For me the void at the end of this work is that it doesn’t continue by addressing the issue of how to substitute a quest for contentment (which I take as a long-term stable state) for the pursuit of happiness. This has set me questioning how I would approach this as a photographic project with a title like “The Hand-crafted Line of Contentment”. Food for thought – thanks Christopher!