From the early 1960s until today, Stephen Willats has situated his pioneering practice at the intersection between art and other disciplines such as cybernetics, advertising systems research, learning theory, communications theory and computer technology. In so doing, he has constructed and developed a collaborative, interactive and participatory practice grounded in the variables of social relationships, settings and physical realities.
Willats creates multi-sensory, multi-dimensional environments to encourage viewers to engage with their own creative and cognitive processes. Using the fabric of society – the everyday – as a site of investigation, his work presents a vehicle of exchange through which viewers can re-examine and transform the way they perceive the fabric of existing reality.
For six decades, Willats has concentrated on ideas that today are ever-present in contemporary art: communication, social engagement, active spectatorship, and self-organisation, and has initiated many seminal multi-media art projects everywhere from tennis clubs and public galleries to inner city housing estates. Outside of the norms and conventions of an object-based art world, Willats has developed work which reacts against what he sees as the historical determinism within art. Rather than presenting visitors with icons of certainty he creates a random, complex environment which stimulates visitors to engage in their own creative process rather than merely submitting to passive observation.
Importantly, Willats represents particular individual relations in a generalised form, affirming that it is useful to consider social situations on both a universal and a personal level. Observations of the macro- and micro-scale, of the generic and the specific, and of engagement and distance in Willats' work serve to problematise and present various points of entry into contemporary social relationships, thereby providing a vision of how they could be community centred.
As Willats writes: 'Every cultural landscape requires its signposts, not just to get around in the present, to find out where and what things are, but to point to a vision of the future, to show a possible destiny. I see this as a consequence and a function of my practice as an artist to intervene in the status quo of the cultural infrastructure to implant signposts that will enable a perceptual transformation of existing reality.'
Born in London in 1943, Stephen Willats was one of the very few serious representatives of international Concept Art in England during the 1960s and 1970s. Solo exhibitions include: Stephen Willats: Social Resource Project for Tennis Clubs, Bonington Gallery, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham (2022); Stephen Willats: Languages of Dissent at Migros Museum, Zürich (2019); HUMAN RIGHT, mima, Middlesbrough (2017); THISWAY, INDEX, Stockholm (2016); Man from the 21st Century, Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City (2014 - 2015); Concerning our Present Way of Living, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2014); Control: Work 1962-69, Raven Row, London (2014); Conscious - Unconscious, In and Out the Reality Check, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford (2013); Stephen Willats: Surfing with the Attractor, South London Gallery, London (2012); The Strange Attractor, Gallery Reena Spaulings, New York, 2011; COUNTERCONSCIOUSNESS, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, Germany (2010); Assumptions and Presumptions, Art on the Underground, London (2007); From my Mind to Your Mind, Milton Keynes Gallery, (2007); How the World is and How it could be, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Siegen (2006); Changing Everything, South London Art Gallery, (1998); Buildings & People, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, 1993; Meta Filter and Related Works, Tate Gallery London, (1982); Concerning Our Present Way of Living, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1980; 4 Inseln, in Berlin, National Gallery, Berlin, (1980) and Concerning our Present Way of Living, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, (1979). In 1965 Willats founded the magazine Control, which is still in publication.
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