A crucial impulse behind early Conceptual art of the 1960s and ’70s was a sense of frustration with the solipsism of 1950s formalist painting and sculpture. The painted square had come to seem a cage; objectivity, logic, rationality would be its key. British Conceptualist Stephen Willats, whose work reflects this transition, is still drawing squares but asking them to signify something. And yet, if his eerie 1960s gouaches – perhaps the highlight of a selection of his early work at Raven Row in London last year – are formalist studies looking for a narrative, his subsequent social, interactive works are still haunted by a formalistic indeterminacy, the sense that a shape’s capacity to signify cannot be taken for granted. Willats has always been as much a romantic artist as an autodidact sociologist/inventor. He speaks of how ‘relativistic’ is the ‘certainty’ we impose upon ‘a random world’. The subjectivity of empirical representation might be his central theme. Indeed, the look of his work, stranded in a pre-digital version of modernist design (hand-coloured grids, curved-screen consoles, half-tone printing), is as indica-tive of the partiality of any representational language, as it is a precise index of early Conceptual aesthetics; that is, both a critique of the limitation of aesthetics and an aesthetic in itself. After all, wasn’t this look invented in the 1960s as a sign of anti-aesthetic objectivity?
In How Tomorrow Looks From Here – Willat’s show at the daadgalerie – a pamphlet which accompanies his Imaginary Journey (2006) instructs us to: ‘imagine starting a journey from this place. Describe the scene in front of you’ – the first of seven prompts issued, one to each of seven participants who were asked to take a short journey across west London with a recording device of their choosing. The results, comprised of short descriptions and unartistic snapshots of urban flux, were displayed on the wall in a grid of seven columns, in conjunction with a column of stills from Willat’s own filmic record of the journey. At their foot were three monitors showing black-and-white film footage the participants had shot. Willats’s instructions have a metaphysical solemnity absurdly out of proportion to a short trip across the suburbs, but this incongruity is typical of an early conceptualist method – both its emphasis on the local as universal (now so refreshingly jarring, given the currently fashionable rhetoric of globalization), and its staunch obliviousness to the irony its gestures appear calculated to inspire. Willats writes that the work’s destination is ‘a symbolic world’, and we should probably resist a postmodern-ironic appraisal, and take him at face value. Wearing his romantic hat, he is directing us to a potential for transcendence in these quotidian scenes.
But such expansiveness is held in check by the gridding of the tinted photographs, each containing its anonymous passersby. The figures are both isolated and placed into the framework of a community, like the inhabitants of a tower block – a central Willats motif. We are, each in our own box, matrixed by the larger infrastructures which connect us. The twin, baby-blue, interactive consoles of Free Zone (1997) resemble the set of a low-budget TV game show, circa 1975; but for all its absurdity, the work is a sorry enactment of social disconnection masquerading as a tool for comparing and sharing perceptions. Two participants, asked to make their virtual way along London’s Oxford Street by answering a series of questions, are separated by a wall which offers them a range of possible answers. Only when they happen to agree can they progress, but the likelihood of that, given the 300 possible answers to choose from, is pitiably slight.
At Berlin Local – Willat’s concurrent show at MD 72 – the equivalent of these separated compartments is a series of twin monitors, two to a room, each pair showing Super-8 images of the area surrounding the gallery, as filmed by the proprietors of local establishments – a bookshop, a garden centre – with whom Willats collaborated, and at whose premises he has installed an ‘intervention’ (Berlin Local, 2014). But the effect of this relativizing of views of the locale is to confine each perceptual locus to its monitor. The participants are pictured on suspended vinyl posters, overlaid by networks of symbols – a calculator (technology!), a classical bust (art!) – along with a few, worthy, social-democratic soundbites. A poster diagram on the wall shows the gallery’s relation to its satellite sites in what looks like a group of space shuttles launched from a home station. The telling contrast is between this cod-scientific (or cod-science-fictional) earnestness, which proposes a diagrammatic order to the world’s contingency, and the monitors flashing at various off-sites, like marooned beacons of meaning. In the window of a second-hand car dealership around the corner from the gallery, the quirky positivism of two screens of neighbourhood footage seemed belied by the old cars ranged behind them like lonely mannequins.