Stephen Willats: Conscious – Unconscious, Oxford

Stephen Willats’ latest exhibit at Modern Art Oxford, Conscious – Unconscious, is a collection of works ranging from 1998-2013. His fourth solo exhibit at the gallery, each work addresses Willats’ persistent interest in the mediation of personal and interpersonal relationships as they manifest in a world saturated with mass production and communication technology.

Commissioned by MAO, the Oxford Community Datasteam is a new work that embodies Willats’ devotion to the use of art as a transformative practice; a facet he says is “a basic tenant of my specification of the role of the artist.” The work was a two-year collaborative process with two local disparate communities, Blackbird Leys and Kennington. Participants were tasked to capture their communities with disposable cameras and camcorders, each focusing on a specific self-defined element of interest. After capturing their images, participants met with each other, Willats and MAO in a series of workshops to edit their work. The process culminates in a series video streams, viewable on and offsite, and horizontally aligned photographs, each corresponding to their photographer. The images from both communities express concerns ranging from neglect and waste, to patriotism and the interaction between nature and the build environment. Set on a grid, the layout serves to emphasize the ongoing balancing act between individual and collective identities found in any community.

Macro to Micro is a large-scale work that both predates and anticipates the themes and structure found in the Oxford Community Datastream. Compiled between 1998-2000, the work is an early iteration of the data stream, though in this instance the streams feature a combination of actors and real people engaging in various mundane daily activities in London. The work highlights a variety of relationships and creates tension through the creation of a hyper-reality that wavers between orchestration and spontaneity. The use of actors in the work evokes concerns for the medium of photography and how it can knowingly and unknowingly be manipulated in the act of representation under the guise of authenticity. The work is almost prophetic in its anticipation of the mass-emergence of the candid image as a narrative tool circulated through social media.

The remainder of the exhibit explores Willat’s concern for the material and technological mediation of relationships in contemporary society. These works include multiple series of portraits, How the Future Looks from Here (2011), How Others See Us and How We See Ourselves (2012), Starting Fresh With a Blank Canvas (2008), superimposed with images of mass-produced objects selected by the subjects as representations of their lives and anxieties concerning mechanization, dislocation and hyper-connectivity.

Though some works may occasionally teeter towards reductionism, the engaging blend of mediums and themes with collage, vibrant colours and simple geometric shapes balances the exhibit to convey a strong sense of optimism in the midst of anxiety, change and discomfort.

Stephen Willats: Conscious – Unconscious, until 16 June, Modern Art Oxford 30 Pembroke Street Oxford OX1 1BP.

Lisa Thomson

1. Still Lifes, 2013, Nine films, Each 3 min, looped, Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, photo courtesy of Stuart Whipps.