From 1960 until today , Stephen Willats has developed a pioneering practice based on collaboration, interactivity and participation within the variables of social relationships and settings. Willats creates multi-sensory, multi-dimensional environments to encourage viewers to engage with their own creative and cognitive processes, to re-examine and transform the way they perceive existing reality.
The show, which comprises more than forty works and is presented on all floors of the Badischer Kunstverein, concentrates on Willats’ works on the post-punk, night life and Wasteland scene of the 1980s. Several of these works have only been shown rarely or never at all and were selected together with the artist in a collaborative process.
The exhibited artworks range from photo, text and object collages to diagrams and large spatial installations. One room is especially devoted to Willats’ text production as an important component of his work. Seminal books and texts by the artist are displayed here along with issues of the magazine Control, which he has edited and published since 1965. The exhibition is augmented with documentary audio and film material created in the context of his projects.
The central focus of Willats’ works is the investigation of processes of communication, network formation and self-organisation. The influences for his interactive and participative projects are situated at the interface between art and other scientific disciplines such as cybernetics, computer technology, theories of behaviour and learning. With reference to the methods of these disciplines, Willats develops a specific visual and semiotic language that analyses and illustrates various systems of social interaction. The relationships of people to each other, to their private and professional environments and to the architecture of the residential buildings which surround them are investigated in close collaboration with the protagonists of his works in different directions and subsequently presented in exhibition spaces. This gives concrete form to parallel or “symbolic worlds” that arise beyond the bounds of planning and organisation: housing projects, office buildings, shopping centres or allotment gardens are the sites where Willats defines the possibilities of individual expression.
The artist is especially interested in “counter-cultures” as specific movements contrary to the dominant system – such as the post-punk scene during the Thatcher era, the creatures of the night in London or the occupants of various wastelands. The previously little known works created in this context of different counter-proposals offer a new and current perspective of the artist’s manner of working, as they are characterised less by the order and precision that he is well known for, than by an expressive handling of diverse colours, objects and materials. Priority is given here to the technique of collage: photographs are combined with texts and found materials, they are framed by coloured surfaces or developed sculpturally – as in Living Like A Goya or Secret Prima Donna – from the surface into the space.
A repeatedly occurring visual quotation consists of the towering facades of modern tower block architecture, which represent a counter-image to the collective and individual needs of their residents. Thus the biographies of the punks or glue sniffers are often linked to the reality of their lives in the tower blocks, and it is from there that they set out on their “journeys” to the parallel worlds in the clubs and wastelands. In the work A Difficult Boy In A Concrete Block, concrete as a material is even directly included in the wall installation. Once icons of the future, the tower blocks now epitomise ghettoisation and isolation, but also give rise to new processes of transformation: In Willats’ works on the phenomenon of the Doppelgänger the architecture is, for instance, the backdrop for a daily metamorphosis of demure office workers into bizarre creatures of the night.
In addition to the Night- and Wasteland Drawings which are collected together for the first time, the Kunstverein is displaying further determinative works of this context such as From The Day Into The Night And From The Night Into The Day, Model Dwellings or Taboo Housing on Club- and Post-Punk-culture, as wells as Four Pressures, Four Freedoms, Two Worlds. Camps or It Was Somewhere Where We Could All Go to the wastelands.
Cooperation partners for this project are the Centre d'art passerelle in Brest and Le Quartier, Centre d'art contemporain de Quimper, which will present their exhibitions with Stephen Willats in early 2011. Together with the presentation in the Badischer Kunstverein, the three institutions convey an extensive, yet also specific focus on the work by the British artist.