Contemporary Living 1986 consists of a slightly tapering portrait-format, wall-hung panel on which has been collaged a photograph of the texture of concrete. This acts as a ground, onto which have been collaged tinted photographs of a woman sitting at an office desk (towards the top edge) and a glass office building (at the bottom edge); also attached at top left is a small electric digital clock. In the centre of the panel is a handwritten text in black ink and around the border of the panel is Letraset text. Radiating out from the panel on the wall, but not touching it, are five smaller irregularly shaped panels, each of which is filled with a single photograph of an object from the desk of the woman in the central panel – a computer keyboard, recording tape, a computer monitor, a telephone and a pocket calculator – each tinted a different colour. Contemporary Living concentrates on the relationships set in play within the particular environment of the desk of an office worker and the objects that collect there, suggesting that there is a capacity for these objects to be coded in ways that reinforce the norm of the office or work against it, perhaps to answer the question the office worker herself asks in the work: ‘How can I escape the power of the object in contemporary living?’ – printed around the edge of the central panel. The handwritten text in the centre of the panel communicates a different tenor of alienation and social separation: ‘You look out onto the world outside but somehow you’re no longer part of it. I find it threatening. People seem to become totally obsessed. It’s a feeling between fear and awe. I just feel apprehension.’
Since the 1960s Willats has been making work that examines different kinds of socialised responses to the signs and symbols of everyday life as a way to encourage a critical attitude to these phenomena – he saw the double-coding within the objects as a way of being reflective of the ‘dominant culture … acting as a reductive, repressive, deterministic force; and then the same object I see as an agency, operating as a vehicle for social interaction, self organization and the community.’ (Quoted in Leeds City Art Gallery 1987 p.3.) By the mid-1980s Willats had moved from a subject matter found within sub-cultural environments where the objects and signs he isolated were already loaded with critical force, to familiar milieus which reflected norms – specifically modernist housing estates and the workplace. Contemporary Living is an early expression of this focus on places of work and has been exhibited several times. For Willats, ‘the office desk is the very epitome of normality. It gives a pre-determined, stereotyped role to the person sitting behind it, conditioning not only their self-image, but other people’s perceptions of them.’ (Quoted in Transformers, People’s Lives in the Modern World, exhibition catalogue, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne 1988, unpaginated.)
The corresponding shifts in meaning that the objects depicted in Contemporary Living might embody are subtle because, unlike other similar works, these objects do not describe the transformation of the subject’s office in a physical way or personalise it. These are all the tools of her job and so reinforce an institutionalised self-image. But, significantly, these are all objects suggestive of communication and so potentially wider networks – such as the computer or the telephone – that could therefore describe freedoms beyond the job. This counter-coding is also apparent in the prominence given to the office building in the central panel. This modernist building is typical of office buildings everywhere and yet, as a sign of institutional restrictive power, its architectural character can either emphasise the office-worker’s sense of alienation or connect her, through the transparency of the glass, to the outside world. From the late 1970s women have often been the subject of Willats’s work, though he has often concentrated on those that are more widely under-represented – the old age pensioner (in Living with Practical Realities 1978, [Tate T03296]), the single parent, the asylum seeker and, here, the office worker, whose position and potential within the ‘glass ceiling’ – between isolation and community – is described by the architecture of the office.
Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1979, p.16.
Stephen Willats, Between Objects and People, Perspectives on Contemporary Living, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Gallery 1987, pp.8–9.
Stephen Willats, Secret Language, The Code Breakers, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin 2012, p.20.
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