Stephen Willats: ‘I’m Not Making Movies’

The downpour began when they normally do. Evening rush hours, typically Mondays. My umbrella turned itself inside out several times en route to the Tate Modern. Stephen Willats was there to show his work for the first time outside of a gallery context and I had no idea what to expect. It was a risky evening in that respect.  But it was the title of this event – Street Talk – that had piqued my interest.

Reading the description of Willats’ work reminded me of American urbanist and fellow Pennsylvanian William H. Whyte  and his obsession with New York City sidewalks and what happened on them. If you can tap into even a minuscule inner trainspotter tendency then the work of both of these men will fascinate you.

Willats (born in Britain, 1943) apologised throughout this night at the Tate which began at 18:30 and ended after I left.

It was a long evening, sometimes boring but still worth it in the end.

This is not the way they were meant to be seen, I hope you are not bored, people generally watch 30 seconds in a gallery, not 3 minutes. I’m not making movies!  

Willats was overly conscious of his audience but enthusiastic, talking a bit before, after and sometimes during the clips. The most interesting of his work was Assumptions and Presumptions, a video installation from 2007 at both Rayners Lane and Sudbury Town underground stations in London. Two video screens showed people arriving at both stations and on the platforms while a third, middle screen showed the footage shot with a camera affixed to the front of the tube. According to Willats people stopped dead in their tracks when they first saw the installation. It seems surprising that in the day of CCTV and reality television people will still queue for a glimpse of themselves or people they know going about the most banal of daily routines – commuting.

One of Willats’ works showed people walking in pairs on a sidewalk – friends, lovers, siblings, colleagues, etc. A field day for all of us who love studying body language. And it was this piece I felt which summed up the pure but compelling quality of Willats’ work.

Willats’ non-narrative work reminds those of us who juxtapose images to tell stories that these visual moments – these ‘data streams’ in Willats’ words – are the building blocks to those stories, the visual moments we as filmmakers have to get right in order to construct a compelling and believable whole.

The evening at the Tate marked the publication of Willats’ book Street Talk. If you are in New York then you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to see Willats’ work the way it was meant to be seen at the Reena Spaulings Gallery through 23rd October 2011. I can guarantee it probably won’t be raining.

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