Stephen Willats

Homeostat Drawing No.1


Not on display

Stephen Willats born 1943
Graphite on paper
Support: 559 × 771 mm
frame: 580 × 785 × 30 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2017


Homeostat Drawing No.1 1969 is a landscape-format pencil drawing made up of a grid of squares, fifteen across by eleven down. Each square is linked to the next on all sides by two arrows pointing in either direction, designating a regular flow of information between the squares. The squares on the far right-hand side and in the bottom row are cropped, suggesting that what is pictured it is only a section of a larger, indefinitely repeating grid.

Willats had studied the model of homeostasis – the means of being able to adapt to a changing environment – developed by the cybernetician William Ross Ashby (1903–1972). He explored this previously in drawings such as Organic Exercise No.3, Series 1 1962 (Tate T14920) and Organic Exercise No. 3, Series No. 2 (Tower Block Drawing) 1962 (Tate T04106). Homeostat Drawing No.1 is a more developed expression of a homeostatic model whereby different sub-systems interact through behavioural equations, here designated by arrows indicating transmission, reception, feedback and behavioural response. This flow might designate a movement between ‘controller’ and ‘environment’, or alternatively between individuals within an environment or society, or competing types of information. The drawing’s even regularity displays a stable state of equilibrium achieved as a result of this active interchange – self-organising, self-correcting and without boundaries.

Significantly, Homeostat Drawing No.1 proposes an understanding of social rather than object relations: it is not so much a drawing to be looked at as a diagram to be used, as the critic Martin Rewcastle has observed, where the artwork ‘acts as a catalyst, not as an imposer of boundaries nor as a control mechanism’. (Martin Rewcastle, ‘Stephen Willats: Art Models and Art Practice’, in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1979, p.61.) Rewcastle noted further that ‘From 1968 Willats increasingly concerns himself with the work of art as a means of causing people to examine their own social environment, and to determine for themselves the alternatives’ (Rewcastle 1979, p.61).

Homeostat Drawing No.1, and the earlier Organic Exercise drawings, can be read within the context of a social organism with the potential for change. They indicate flows of information and of energy, but also how one might look at objects or an environment and be part of social networks. They are expressions of a critically inflected exchange between observer and object that was built on Willats’s belief that art revolved primarily around communication – flows of information and networks of data. From such a position, perceptual response becomes an active process, not just transforming ways in which the object might be perceived, but also encouraging a change in viewers’ awareness of their own social contexts.

Since 1962, when Willats attended cybernetic artist Roy Ascott’s course at Ealing School of Art, Willats has used drawing and the construction of diagrams as a way of conceptualising the context and purpose behind his artworks. Homeostat Drawing No.1 is a key work in this respect, and Willats worked through the implications of this diagram in much of his subsequent practice – at the heart of which was his theorised understanding of behaviour and the way this informs effective communication. While taking inspiration from a wide variety of sources and methodologies throughout his career, Willats’s approach has remained concerned with the signs and symbols of everyday life, how they are ordered and how they can be reordered and reinterpreted.

Further reading
Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1979, p.16.
Stephen Willats, Stephen Willats: Between Objects and People – Perspectives on Contemporary Living, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Gallery 1987.
Stephen Willats, Secret Language, The Code Breakers, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin 2012, p.20.

Andrew Wilson
August 2017

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