Stephen Willats

Living with Practical Realities


Not on display

Stephen Willats born 1943
Photographs, gelatin silver prints on paper, gouache and transfer lettering on board
Frame, each: 1112 × 772 × 35 mm
Purchased 1981

Display caption

Across three panels, Stephen Willats explores the realities of living in a 1970s British tower block. The work centres on Mrs Moran, an elderly woman who lived at Skeffington Court in Hayes, West London. Willats photographed and interviewed Mrs Moran over the course of six months. The text in the work is based on these interviews. In his composition, Willats highlights the physical, social, and economic constraints that Mrs Moran experienced. Each panel also features a question. These invite the viewer to participate directly in Mrs Moran’s lived experiences.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Mounted black and white photographs and transfer lettering on card, framed, 3 frames each 43 1/4×30 1/4 (110×77)
Purchased from the Lisson Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Exh: Stephen Willats: Living within Contained Conditions, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, May–June 1978 (works not numbered, repr.); Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living, Whitechapel Art Gallery, January–February 1979, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, May–June 1980 (works not numbered, repr.)
Lit: Stephen Willats: Living within Contained Conditions (exh. catalogue), Oxford 1978, p.16, repr.pp.17–19
Repr: Art Monthly, no.23, 1979, p.18 (two panels only); Stephen Willats: Leben in vorgegebenen Grenzen-4 Inseln in Berlin (exh. catalogue), Nationalgalerie, Berlin, December 1980–January 1981, pp.40–41

'Living with Practical Realities’ is the first work in which, as the title implies, Willats used the real environment of his subject rather than enacting or reconstructing events for the photographs in the work. He had been concerned for several years with the ways in which people construct their own worlds in relation to the social or physical constraints put upon them. In this work he was anxious to investigate the way in which buildings represent, or are symbols for, the culture we live in. The tower block seemed an obvious candidate for study.

Willats, who was brought up in West London, chose Skeffington Court in Hayes because it was a model development in the local authority's eyes and had been opened by Harold Wilson in a spirit of confidence about this form of housing. It was also close to a high density low-rise development with which he hoped to make comparisons. He began by photographing the outside of the block and through this introduced himself to several of the tenants. (He used this material for another work ‘Vertical Living’ concurrent with ‘Living with Practical Realities’).

The theme that Willats had in mind was the discovery and portrayal of the isolation of people within the tower block. He was introduced to Mrs Moran, who lived alone, and who was, in addition, elderly and thus further disadvantaged in relation to the society around her. Willats explained his work to her and began a collaboration which involved him photographing the flat and her, and tape recording interviews: this process continued for six months.

Willats evolved a system for analysing his material which divided it into three approximate subject areas, economic, social and physical, each viewed as creators or instigators of the isolation of the subject. He was keen in the recording and presentation not to suggest an overt political or ideological viewpoint; he wished simply to represent the reality of the old lady's position. He wanted to offer the viewer, through the apparently objective imagery, the opportunity imaginatively to remodel the symbolic world that he had represented. He hoped that the work would act as a freeing agent to allow the viewer to ‘reach into the experience’ of isolation in the tower block, and view ‘aspects of their own cultural situation by viewing someone else's’.

The panels are divided horizontally into two ‘concept frames’: these consist of photographs of Mrs Moran above four photographs of objects from her environment, with fragments of text from tape transcripts between them. (The importance of the objects to her was discovered through discussion and from the tapes.) The discrepancy between image and text calls upon an active involvement by the audience to reconcile them. This unit is the concept frame; the top unit is the reality as it exists, the bottom (written by Willats) suggests a possible future. The work is read from top to bottom, viz. the title of the work, or ‘area of attention’, the subject of the work (Mrs Moran) and a question aimed at the viewer, and below that the descriptive ‘concept frame’ (the four images) above Willat's prescriptive ‘concept frame’. This is superimposed on a large image of Mrs Moran used for formal reasons. The work was made in collaboration with Mrs Moran from working drawings made by Willats and modified by the subject.

Willats intended to show the work to Mrs Moran exhibited in a gallery, but unfortunately she died before he was able to do so. He is anxious that works such as this should be viewed within an art context, feeling that art should be an agent for social change.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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