Stephan Willats

Galerie Lumen Travo

The English artist Stephen Willats investigates identity and interpersonal relationships with the aid of diagrams, photomontages, and articles of clothing he began designing during the ’60s. In his recent solo show, he presented a number of works from his ongoing “Multiple Clothing Series,” 1992–. Rather than serve as hermetic art objects, these mix-and-match PVC garments invite viewers to participate in an interactive social experiment.

Clothing is, of course, tied to the representation of the wearer’s personality, and here the need for personal expression was pushed to the limit, not without a degree of humor. Willats displays the garments in clusters, each of which is given a title, such as Modern Dress, Free Expression Positive Feedback, or Open System. Those who wear the clothing—or others who simply visit the show—can change its message as the impulse strikes by sticking, clipping, or writing texts and words directly onto the PVC. Willats provides some of the garments with transparent pockets, into which preprinted cards can he inserted to create sentences and phrases. Notes can also be written with special colored crayons on the PVC. By quickly switching the cards, or by erasing the crayon markings with the aid of an attached sponge, the participant can register and communicate thoughts and feelings. This adaptability is also reflected in the garments’ construction. In Free Expression, 1997, for example—a group that consists of sixteen rectangular PVC panels and two PVC tops, one with sleeves and one without—attaching the panels and the tops changes them into either a coat or a dress. The clothes, which Willats produces in editions of ten, thus become unique objects through the wearers’ involvement.

Although it could be said that the garments Willats creates are as much about design as art, they are not intended to be elegant—for example, the PVC that Willats deploys as a “fabric” refuses to drape or flow over the wearer’s body—nor do they demonstrate a passive formalism. Instead, Willats’ clothing objects reflect a changing social and psychological reality. Each offers observers a means to tell a story and extend the flow of communication.

Frank-Alexander Hettig

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.