The first months of 1979 are remembered in Britain as the “Winter of Discontent.” The coldest weather in nearly two decades coincided with a string of economic crises that tested the Labour government and exacerbated the social unrest that had plagued the UK throughout the ’70s. Industrial actions by sanitation workers, truck drivers, gravediggers and many public sector employees strained an economy already beset by double-digit inflation and high unemployment. The government had swung between the two major political parties on a regular basis for the previous two decades. But the watershed 1979 vote that brought Margaret Thatcher to the country’s leadership ushered in 18 years of Conservative rule. Armed with a mandate to reverse the UK’s economic decline, Thatcher launched an ambitious effort to undercut trade unionism and dismantle broad swaths of the welfare state—an effort that many critics decried as a fundamental revision of Britain’s 20th-century social contract.
The relationship between the individual and society had been a central interest of Stephen Willats, one of the UK’s leading Conceptual artists. It was therefore timely that Willats’s solo exhibition, “Concerning Our Present Way of Living,” opened at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in January 1979, a bleak month on the cusp of the Thatcher era. The show presented Willats’s research into the lives of working families in the neighborhood surrounding the museum. Hanging on paperboard panels throughout were captioned photographs of the individuals whose everyday routines Willats had studied, overlaid with schematic diagrams labeled as representing different levels of “social reality.” Much of the work resembled the imagery one might encounter in a sociology textbook, and the installation itself looked more like a science museum display than a conventional art exhibition. Presented in a season of national despair, Willats’s probing of working class individuals’ attitudes toward their government, their employers and their neighbors had inherently political overtones. Yet the installation’s cool aesthetic seemed a world away from the hot tempers that prevailed on the picket lines and in tabloid op-ed pages.
Now, 35 years later, Whitechapel has re-created “Concerning Our Present Way of Living” and supplemented it with archival material related to the show’s reception and its place in Willats’s career. Revisiting the exhibition today is a timely endeavor in its own right. The updated show occasions a consideration of East London’s rapid gentrification, the changing role of Whitechapel within its neighborhood and the limits of socially engaged artwork in general.
Like many artists of his generation, Willats turned away from traditional studio practices in the early 1960s, in part as a reaction against the romantic individualism that went hand-in-hand with much abstract painting. “By 1964 it became apparent to me that the modus operandi the artist had inherited from the 1950s was not adequately able to express what was happening in society,” he wrote recently. 1 Willats identified himself instead as a “Conceptual Designer.” Adopting the Productivist rhetoric reminiscent of Soviet avant-garde manifestos, he sought to integrate his work with “what people would consider useful and familiar.” His quasi-sculptural projects of the early 1960s were based on simple designs for clothing and furniture. The Optical Shift Dress (1965), for example, is a garment made from a kit of interchangeable PVC panels. Wearers could assemble their own simple tunics out of the boldly colored plastic squares, a process that, for Willats, not only yielded a somewhat stylish outfit but also manifested the routines of self-fashioning that individuals undertake to establish their identities in the public sphere.
By the 1970s, photography, texts and diagrammatic drawings had become Willats’s primary mediums. Then-fashionable theories of cybernetics and social systems began to transform his notion of Conceptual Design. In works like Perceptions of a Married Couple (1975) he attempted to convey the complexity of interpersonal relationships. Its flowchart-like drawings link images of domestic tranquility, malaise and conflict. Incorporated captions and labels identify shifting roles played by the husband and wife—companion, guide, idealist, confidant—in response to various everyday situations. Willats’s self-described aim was to prompt viewers to project their own experiences of married life onto the generic situations he deconstructed in the work.
Willats followed a similar formula for the Whitechapel exhibition, which comprised three works, each focused on a different social type. The artist followed a group of dockworkers on the River Thames for Working Within a Defined Context (1978); he documented the lives of residents of a social housing block for Sorting Out Other People’s Lives (1978); and he interviewed local leather smiths for The Place of Work (1979). Willats presented participants with a questionnaire asking about their finances, social aspirations and cultural interests. The responses were then distilled into photo-and-text collages overlaid with descriptions of individual relationships and institutional power dynamics. Records of Willats’s own working process, including the original questionnaires, were also displayed in surrounding vitrines.
Exemplary of the entire exhibition is Sorting Out Other People’s Lives, which centers on a woman, designated “the subject” by Willats, living with her husband and six children in Ocean Estate, a large, prewar block of terraced apartments just off East London’s main arterial road. Writing in November 1978, Willats said that the housing project, “resembles a large transit camp. . . . It is now one of the biggest estates of its kind anywhere but its expansion has been matched by shrinking opportunities for employment. With the local docks and warehouses closing, the main source of jobs . . . has gone, leaving the employment level at around 25 percent.” 2 Sorting Out Other People’s Lives was created through tape recordings and visual documentation of the subject and her husband, as well as written responses registering her attitudes toward “four areas of reality: environmental, educational, economic and social.” Each panel pairs images of the woman’s home with scenes from her interactions with four public organizations of which she was a member: the Tenants Association, the Claimants Union, the Furniture Workshop and the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Aphorisms lifted from the subject’s responses are embossed in Letraset texts across some of the photographs. “You just got to cope with the means that you get from the benefit” reads one text, printed over a picture of a kitchen table. The scene is juxtaposed with a shot of the woman standing outside her home overlaid with the phrase, “Provide them with a chance to get up off the floor.” The responses suggest the woman’s overall self-assurance and determination in the face of government institutions that could be a source of immense frustration, even as they offered a lifeline to her community amid unforgiving economic conditions.
In addition to the panels on display in the gallery, the original exhibition also included a selection of similar works on view at the nearby Ocean Estate. This connection between the art gallery and the actual everyday environments depicted in the work was a key part of Willats’s conception of the exhibition. Those individuals who cooperated with Willats’s research were both subjects of the work and integral to the presumed audience for it. Indeed, while studying contemporary social patterns within an artistic context—already an unconventional task for any artist—Willats also aimed to define the position of the art gallery in its community.
Until very recently, Whitechapel Gallery was East London’s only publicly funded visual arts organization mandated to provide gallery-based education initiatives. In a symbolic coincidence, the art center’s building faces East London, turning its back to the banks and grand institutions of the affluent West End. Whitechapel and its immediate surroundings—Brick Lane, Spitalfields, Mile End—were the sites of England’s first ghettos. These neighborhoods have been a stopover for immigrants since the 18th century. Waves of Irish settled there, followed by Huguenot refugees, then Jews escaping the Eastern European pogroms. More recently, an influx of immigrants from Bangladesh gave rise to the borough’s nickname, “Banglatown.”
“Concerning Our Present Way of Living” was one of the first initiatives organized by Martin Rewcastle, who was appointed Whitechapel’s inaugural education officer in 1977. At the time, such a position, which linked exhibition-making directly with interpretative programming, was nearly unprecedented in public UK art institutions. Nicholas Serota, Whitechapel’s then-director, created the job as a means of fostering a spirit of inclusivity. Pedagogy was seen by Serota and Rewcastle as a primary means of making the art gallery accessible—and useful—to the Whitechapel community. Still, Willats’s exhibition opened at a moment when the meanings of “accessibility” and “inclusivity” were being contested.
By the mid-1960s in the UK, those terms had largely become synonymous with the Community Art Movement, which had gained significant traction among cultural leaders and liberal left-wing politicians. Led by the Association of Community Artists (ACA), the movement realized participatory creative projects such as murals and public sculptures. During a period of decolonization, the ACA’s agenda included explicit support for immigrant rights through collective action. Works such as The Floyd Road Mural, a painting on the gable wall of the end of a Victorian terrace in South East London not far from Whitechapel, was created in 1976 by the Greenwich Mural Workshop as a local landmark to halt the proposed demolition of the buildings. The colorful image, which depicts members of an ethnically diverse community working together to renovate neighborhood structures, received commercial sponsorship from a national paint company and public funding from various local and national arts councils.
However, as the 1970s progressed, the idealism embodied in the Community Art Movement, with its wholesome imagery and unrelentingly positive message, came under fire from a new generation of left-wing academics, who saw the project as aesthetically and politically compromising. The underlying spirit of “We’re All in It Together”—a Labour Party adage in the ’70s—was seen as masking the true reality of haves and have-nots, whose positions in society were cemented in part by the state bureaucracy. With Rewcastle’s appointment, the Whitechapel Gallery signaled that its mission to create exhibitions would be paired with ample resources for pedagogy. Yet the figure of an educator-curator also implied that exhibitions designed to engage the wider community would, in contrast to the immediately accessible murals, require intensive, guided interpretation, even when the exhibition’s subject was ostensibly the everyday lives of the people in the surrounding area.
The gray photographs and detached tone of “Concerning Our Present Way of Living” emerged out of this context. In Willats’s work, collective action is represented as a daily grind that stretches from the jobsite to the public sphere to the home. Still, for Willats, the unsentimental study of social structures could produce real knowledge and understanding, enough to spark substantial change. As he said in a recent interview, “The world doesn’t have to be the way it is, it could be different and one of the ways we can make it different is [by] changing our behaviors.” So we strip bare the structures that govern routines in order to explore our roles within them, and through that investigation we find the means to alter the larger, impersonal systems of oppression. 3
Or at least that’s the theory. When one views the exhibition today, in the wake of the worst economic crisis in the UK since the 1970s, Willats’s rhetoric feels less like an effective call to arms than an echo of the naive-sounding idealism of the Community Art Movement. Over the past decade, East London has become one of the most prohibitively expensive areas in which to live in the entire country. When Willats undertook the project, he also assumed a privileged position; he was the agent called to represent the growing impoverished in what was then a tight and active community and what is now a transient area for short-term, high-income renters. The working families Willats encountered 35 years ago have largely been displaced, and the social pressures his subjects coped with can appear quaint to contemporary viewers who have lived with the fallout of Thatcher’s reforms. Rather than a spur to action in the present, the exhibition may constitute only a detailed reflection on a less complex time.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living,” at Whitechapel Gallery, London, through Sept. 14.
AJAY HOTHI is a writer and curator based in London.
1. See entry for “Variable Sheets & Optical Shift Dress, 1965,” stephenwillats.com.
2. Stephen Willats, “Sorting Out Other People’s Lives,” 1978, reprinted in Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living, London, Whitechapel Publications, 2014, p.15.
3. Stephen Willats in conversation with Nayia Yiakoumaki, Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living, London, Whitechapel Publications, 2014, p. 2.