By Max Glauner
A stranger? A misunderstood perhaps? Shooting after the articles in Kunstforum International, hardly. The work of Stephen Willats, born in London in 1943, has been covered regularly since 1980 (see volumes 42, 61, 126, 131, 143, 169, 183, 199, 207, 240). Nevertheless, the impression that the stubborn British artist belongs to the group of artists, undiscovered by the general public, is not deceptive. Art as research, participation and empowerment of the public, art as social practice, Willats introduced it into the art world in the early 1970s. Contrary to expectations, however, his name is missing both at Documenta and at relevant biennials, apart from the 3rd Berlin Biennial 2004. In addition to Signpost’s To The Future (2003), an investigation into the socio-structure of Berlin-Neukölln, which culminated in a multimedia installation, he showed two other works that were created between 1979 and 1980 during a DAAD scholarship as critical inventories of the Märkisches Viertel: Living in Isolation (1979 / 1980) and How I Discover That We Are Dependent on Others (1979 / 1980).
Although Willats, represented by galleries, remains present in solo and group exhibitions afterwards – the Siegen Museum of Contemporary Art is showing its first overview exhibition in 2006 – the actual breakthrough failed to materialise. All the more meritorious is the fact that the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich is organizing the retrospective exhibition Languages of Dissent for him after a long cooperation this summer. With almost 150 works, this is the largest to date. A remarkable feat of strength also for the house, which had to cope with the task without a partner institution. Thematically and chronologically, the work of the conceptualist – „The artist can no loger concern himself with illusions, he must work on a realistic basis,“ Manifesto says in 1961 – can spread from its beginnings to the present.
The required basis gives him early involvement with cybernetic models. He transformed them into suprematist concrete drawings (Maze Drawing No. 2, 1967), paintings (Democratic Surface, 1961), schematic diagrams (Drawing for a Project No. 19, 1967), and kinetic light sculptures (Visual Transmitter No.2, 1968). This shows an artist whom one did not know in this way, whose systemic approach was carried a short time later from the mathematical-aesthetic to the social sphere. At the beginning of the 1970s, Willats was not alone in bringing art and reality together. But no one succeeds in doing so so radically. While most of them were concerned with bringing the audience into the sphere of art as partners, Willats was concerned with immersing himself as an artist in artless realities. What could have led to field research, documentation and agitation led to an elaborate process, the temporary conclusion of which was not a work of art, but the self-empowerment of the people involved, its audience. The artist compiled handouts from the process in the form of brochures or placards that reflected the entire process. A sociological evaluation was also omitted. Everyone had their say. Commonalities and differences became visible and enabled communication and communities where isolation had previously been programmed. In contrast to a widespread notion of artistic research, Willats not only reveals differences, but keeps them open. He leaves it to his partners to make them fruitful. Already in his first participative projects in 1971, The Social Resource Project for Tennis Clubs: Nottingham, and The West London Social Resource Project: London, 1972 / 1973, the latter documented in the exhibition with photographs and questionnaires of the respondents, the artist saw himself not as a designer, but as an initiator of an open-ended process in precarious urban environments. His slides, collages, and videos document the essence of the transitory moment of individuation of his potential or real collaboration partners.
In no other group of works does this become as clear as in the large-format works on London’s punk scene at the beginning of the 1980s. In A to B, 1985, the fetishes of a schizoid banker revolve around his desk, under which he appears as a party bulldog. On stage-like assemblages, mannequins can also stand there as queer representatives of a community that has set out to strip itself of norms and restrictions, as in Living Like a Goya, 1983. Twenty years later, with Cathy Wilkes, they only become socially acceptable beyond the attitude of Pop Art.
So why isn’t Willats traded higher? The answer is surely in his discreet attitude. But the Zurich exhibition also suggests a second reason: his refusal to accept digital media, apart from videos. The Meta Filter, 1975, conveys the impression of a high-tech apparatus. Two test persons have the task of exchanging information on word lists and photographs. But where visitors expect computer screens today, they find slide lights, pencils and paper. Despite his affinity for system theory and cybernetics, Willat’s art remains persistently analogous, while Instagram and Tinder have long since taken over the core business.
First published in Kunstforum international Bd. 262, August 2019