Stephen Willats pioneered the concept of making portraits of people and communities by assembling objects of significance to them and collecting their own thoughts about their context. This way of thinking about materials and memory is a key to much late 20th century art.
In 1980 Stephen Willats returned from Berlin where he had been working for two years to revisit the Avondale Housing Estate at Hayes in West London. Here he met one of the occupants, Pat Purdy. Together they initiated a new strategy for Stephen's practice. His work with these sites had always entailed tracing social systems and documenting people's attempts to escape the determinism of a planned environment.
For six years prior to this Stephen had been photographing the working or living environment of ordinary people often focusing on objects that they collected or placed on their desk. These personal effects were presented as the effort of an individual to differentiate their personal spaces and tell their own stories. Stephen's previously application of this research took the form of graphic structures incorporating photographs and texts often quoted directly by his 'collaborators'. Pat Purdy pointed out that instead of photographing objects he could apply them directly and that the text could be written directly and unedited onto the design.
The resulting work, 'Pat Purdy and the glue sniffers camp', is an exemplary case of the index in contemporary art. The context was a residential tower block originally built to rehouse families displaced by slum clearance at the other end of London. The site chosen for the tower was an isolated area in the middle of a wasteland typical of urban fringes. Between the wasteland and the housing project there was a cyclone wire fence. The work takes the form of a photographic triptych with an image from the estate on one side, the wasteland which Pat called the 'Lurky Place' on the other. In the middle is a smaller panel with a close up of a hole in the fence. Attached to the middle panel are objects that had some special significance for the community and their use of the space.
Pat described how the kids on the estate would crawl through the fence and create camps in the 'Lurky Place'. In these camps they escaped the deterministic environment of the project by inhaling the fumes from heated glue cans. A can of 'Evo-stick' applied to the image of the hole in the fence could be seen to have reversed its meaning. In the determined world of the towers it would be a pragmatic object associated with binding and restoring objects while once it passed through the fence into the 'Lurky Place' it became the centre of a dysfunctional ritual of fragmentation.
12 photographic prints, photographic dye, gouache, Letraset text, ink, fibre-tipped pen and found objects from the 'Lurky Place'
installation dimensions varaible according to wall size :
a - 'Which direction can we take to find a way out, ..; 76.5 x 102 cm; panel
b - spark plug; 66 x 51 cm; panel
c - 'When I first heard it...'; 76.5 x 102 cm; panel
d - 'How can we express what we want, ...'; 76.5 x 102 cm; panel
e - hose; 66 x 51 cm; panel
f - 'There's a sort of little stream...'; 76.5 x 102 cm; panel
g - 'Where can we go to find our own identity, ...'; 76.5 x 102 cm; panel
h - purse; 66 x 51 cm; panel
i - 'We didn't take any personal belongings...'; 76.5 x 102 cm; panel
j - 'What can we do to meet and mix with each other, .; 76.5 x 102 cm; panel
k - lighter fluid; 66 x 51 cm; panel
l - 'Between the ages of eleven...'; 76.5 x 102 cm; panel
Signature & date
Signed c. verso large panels, pencil ".../ Willats". Not dated.
Not on display
© Stephen Willats
Shown in 9 exhibitions
The new reality, The Orchard Gallery, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 29 Oct 1982–20 Nov 1982
Under cover, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, Bristol, May 1983–Jun 1983
Means of escape, Rochdale Art Gallery, England, 07 Jul 1984–04 Aug 1984
The British show:
- Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth 19 Feb 1985–24 Mar 1985
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 23 Apr 1985–09 Jun 1985
- Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane 05 Jul 1985–11 Aug 1985
- Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Melbourne 26 Sep 1985–05 Nov 1985
- National Art Gallery, Wellington, Wellington 05 Dec 1985–26 Jan 1986
Striking back, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, England, 21 Mar 1986–27 Apr 1986
City of concrete, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, Birmingham, 01 Nov 1986–29 Nov 1986
Transformers, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle- Upon-Tyne, England, 28 Apr 1988–05 Jun 1988
The edge of town, Joseloff Art Gallery, University of Hartford, Connecticut, Nov 1995–Dec 1995
Trace, 1st Liverpool Biennale of Contemporary Art (1999), Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, 24 Sep 1999–07 Nov 1999
Referenced in 11 publications
Stephen Bann, The boundary rider: 9th Biennale of Sydney, 'A hole in the wire', pp.25-28, Sydney, 1992, 26 (colour illus.), 27, 28 (illus.). This work is not in this exhibition but is mentioned in the catalogue. Colour reproduction is of panel a
Anthony Bond, Trace, 1st Liverpool Biennale of Contemporary Art, 'Trace: a historical contextualisation of the theme', pg.12-21, Liverpool, 1999, 20 (illus.), 21, 151 (colour illus.). Reproduction of panels g, h, i and colour reproduction of panel e
Tony Bond, Artscribe, 'Stephen Willats at Rochdale', pg.62-63, London, 1984, 62-63.
Richard Francis, The British show, 'Stephen Willats: Rites de marge', pg.121-125, Sydney, 1985, 123, 124 (illus.). Reproduction of panels j, k and l
Michael Gibbs and Claudia Kölgen, Innocence and experience: installation by Michael Gibbs and Claudia Kölgen, Amsterdam, 1992, (illus.). This work is not in this exhibition but is reproduced in the catalogue.
Grant Kester, Afterimage, Vol. 19; No. 10, 'Pragmatics of public art' interview with Stephen Willats, Rochester, 1992, (illus.).
Michael Wardell, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Ideas and actions', pg.60-107, Sydney, 2006, 106, 107 (colour illus.).
Stephen Willats and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, City of concrete, Birmingham, 1986, (illus.).
Stephen Willats and Rochdale Art Gallery, Means of escape, Rochdale, 1984, (illus.).
Stephen Willats and The Orchard Gallery, Londonderry, The new reality, Londonderry, 1982, (illus.).
Stephen Willats, Between buildings and people, London, 1996, (illus.).