Stephen Willats

New York

at Reena Spaulings


Data collection and organization is an art form at which the British conceptualist Stephen Willats excels. His solo exhibition “The Strange Attractor,” the first in New York for this sexagenarian artist, included a series of charts and diagrams relating to observations made on New York City streets. In addition to a number of works on paper, Willats produced a group of videos, some of which were screened in neighborhood shops, and a large installation that served as the show’s centerpiece.

Willats’s information-based work tends to have a tripartite nature; projects are often oriented to social and civic engagement, informed by scientific discourse and organized according to Willats’s esthetic sensibility. His installation Data Stream: A Portrait of New York (Delancey Street/Fifth Avenue), 2011, exemplifies this approach. First, Willats sent a team of data collectors (Spaulings staff and a few artists from the gallery’s stable) to gather visual and auditory samples from two Manhattan streets. He then assigned each sample to one of 10 categories, or streams, such as facial expressions, ambient sounds or description of atmosphere. Eight-inch-square cards, each printed with an image or a text from the samples, were arranged in a grid on both sides of a freestanding wall that bisected the gallery. To portray New York as a grid is logical enough; what gave the piece character were the isolated bits of sensory data, quotidian and poetic, that were assembled into a richly defined landscape.

The term “strange attractor” comes from physics and abstract mathematics, where it is understood as the focus of a chaotically behaving pattern; one example could be the activity on a city sidewalk. While Data Stream engages with the activity on the streets, the works on paper serve more as sketches or blueprints. Using Letraset text, ink and pencil on paper, The Strange Attractor (2010) shows the movement of a square traveling inward on a spiral. As it does so, the space inside the square is continuously divided by multiplying lines into ever-smaller subsections. When the square reaches the center of the spiral there is no longer any divisible space; the lines have filled the square.

The video series “People in Pairs (with Diagrams),” 2011, captures unsuspecting and unrelated passersby as they stroll down a sidewalk. Willats overlaid the footage with squares and arrows, creating visual relationships between the pedestrians. These “pairs” were purely a function of who happened to walk into the frame-a further example of a pattern built from randomness. In the variations that appeared in windows of three nearby storefronts, Willats brought his relationship to sidewalk amblers full circle; instead of the cameraman selecting random subjects to film, people happened upon the film at random. In these instances Willats’s work went further than portraying or employing a scientific phenomenon; by attracting the attention of people who were not planning to stop, he participated in the pattern of seemingly chaotic behavior that is pedestrian life in New York City.

Photo: Stephen Willats: Data Stream: A Portrait of New York (Delancey Street/Fifth Avenue), detail, 2011, 1,140 cards, each 8 inches square; at Reena Spaulings.