Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living at Whitechapel Gallery
This free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery offers an interesting insight into the London Docklands area in the late 1970s when artist Stephen Willats conducted his research with a particular focus on the Ocean housing estate. Of course, over the past few decades the London Docklands has transformed dramatically having been subsumed into Canary Wharf. The demise of the shipping industry left those employed from surrounding areas like the Ocean estate out of work.
The British artist assembles the Ocean estate with sociological abstractness and captures a community in the late 1970s,that has long since gone, struggling to adapt to the changes around them. In this exhibition Willats gathers together an ensemble of voices, and various domains from within the estate. There is a cold detachment to the project and the artistry is heavily influenced by theory from a range of disciplines from sociology to cybernetics. In Willats’ model, institutional society forms the perimeter with personal reality at the centre. His scrupulous concentration on systems of power, organisation and interaction, seeks to connect the world of objects to the world of people. In doing so Willats offers a view into the everyday reality of life within the confines of the Ocean estate.
While there is a detached objectivity in this work, there is still evidence in his commitment toward community-engaged art, of a reciprocal exchange and rapport between artist and subject. The residents of the Ocean estate are active producers as well as suppliers, and not merely subjects to the artist’s end goal. In one of the sections labelled “Inside an Ocean”, Willats focuses in on the residents, framing them in a movie poster-like display, highlighting their individuality within their own unique domains. Moreover, the words that supplement each photograph give a voice to each resident. What is most admirable about Willats’ work is that this exchange between artist and subject is the key focal point of his art, and this is clearly exhibited in the work on display in the Whitechapel Gallery. Overall it is an extremely self-reflexive study that examines the artists’ role in society, and whether art can act as the outlet for a community to gather around to engage with change. In this regard, Willats was a pioneer.
Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living is at Whitechapel Gallery from March 4th until 14th September 2014. For further information visit the gallery’s website here.