The sudden and increasing relevance of the English conceptualist Stephen Willats seems to be a direct result of a mounting rage for pedagogical, structural and interdisciplinary art practices (itself in turn perhaps an extreme swing away from the wanton excesses of the art world’s recent Bacchicnalia?). Willats is, after all, one of the pioneers of such methodological art making. The founder of the irregularly published magazine/journal Control, which ‘acts as a vehicle for proposals and explanations of art practice between artists seeking to create a meaningful engagement with contemporary society’, Willats has been conducting his heavily discursive brand of immateriality since the 1960s proper. His extra-artistic frame of reference famously includes: sociology, systems analysis, cybernetics, semiotics, cognitive psychology and philosophy (if that formidable litany doesn’t preemptively disqualify you from engaging with this work, then you can give yourself a big pat on the back). Cited as an early precursor to relational aesthetics, by virtue of his sociology-heavy participatory work, Willats could hardly be more serviceable to the current moment.
For his first exhibition in France since 2001, entitled Cybernetic Still Life, he shows three new works and two older ones: a video, two video installations and two series of wall works. The general, visual mood of the show is that of an elementary school text book from the 1970s. ‘Cybernetic Still Life 1 and 2’, both 2009, consist of two video installations in which projectors are placed on white plinths of dramatically different heights, projecting imagery filmed on Super 8mm and transferred to DVD onto flow-chart wall paintings, which double as primitively limned buildings.
One projection features a pageantlike montage of couples walking down the street in an urban environment, while the other features diverse conjunctions and slow panning shots of quasi-abstract multi-coloured pottery. There seems to be a lesson to be learned here about selfawareness and how we, or things, are mutually reconfigured by one another, not to mention by the camera.
Another video, entitled ‘A Progression of Signs (Rue Rebeval)’, 2009, is simply presented on a TV set, and is comprised of a montage, not unlike, at least formally, Hollis Frampton’s ‘Zorns Lemma’, 1970, of local signs, objects and detritus. One sees holes in walls, grates, street signs, door buzzers, graffiti, trash, advertising, fragments of restaurant menus, a crushed Fanta can. At its best, the video feels like a linear compression of city space into so much surreptitious and unsung urban code; at its worst, it feels as earnestly pedagogical and humourless as an instruction manual. The two remaining groups of works, both older and entitled ‘Life in Various Forms’, 1993/94, and ‘Moving Around’, 1999, consist of two suites of framed, respectively diagrammatic and totemic, imagery of pottery and household minutia, one of which comes complete with colour-coded flow-chart. One had the sense that, much like the art that takes its cues from the likes of Willats, the deliberate naïveté and simplicity of this work’s presentation was meant to counterbalance its esoteric content, thereby rendering it less clinical and intimidating.
Faced with the specious generosity of such work (as art, as opposed to aestheticised research or pedagogical methodology), I find myself wondering what genuine generosity in art is. In the end, I think it has less, if anything, to do with an artist ‘sharing’ the fruit of a discovery with me than it does with allowing me to see that discovery happen, and as such, really participate in it myself. This is not necessarily a question of process, but rather, and I state this at the risk of sounding obscure, of being vulnerable. Maybe if there were a little less illustration and some genuine play in this kind of work, it might not feel so institutional and I might stop waiting for the bell to ring.
Chris Sharp is a writer and curator based in Paris