Stephen Willats

European Kunsthalle

The name “European Kunsthalle c/o Ebertplatz” sounds grand, but Ebertplatz is a rather blank underpass lined with shops, built in the 1970s, in which a formerly empty storefront has been temporarily occupied. The interloper is an organization created several years ago by a group of artists, architects, curators, critics, and designers who came together when the Kunsthalle am Josef-Haubrich-Hof—a cultural center born out of the spirit of the ’70s—was torn down. There probably aren’t many artists who would be better suited to exhibit in this space than Stephen Willats, who came of age then: “At the time,” the British artist has said, “buildings like this were particularly fraught symbolically, as allegories of the new age.” But when it soon became clear to him that the expectations and projections of the planners were going to remain unfulfilled, Willats began, as an artist, to subject such urban sites to meticulous analysis, and his works took not only their motifs but also their pictorial language from the conflict between actual city life and this futuristic, utopian architecture.

For Willats’s show “In and Out the Underworld,” Ebertplatz was not only an exhibition locus, it was the site of on-location filming as well. Willats showed photographs and DVD projections presenting the results of his fieldwork in this underworld, starting with a thorough exploration of the various “do not” notices, signs, and other bits of posted information, looped on a monitor (Signs and Messages from Ebertplatz, 2009) and culminating in The Meeting, 2009, a Super 8–mm film transferred to DVD and projected onto a ceiling-high screen. In black-and-white shots (that sometimes run backward), the camera focuses on passersby on Ebertplatz, in particular some friendly young couples who are always running into still other young couples. Everyone knows everyone; they all stop to say hello and linger for a moment, chatting, before going on their way. Soon it becomes clear that we are always seeing the same five couples strolling through the underpass in different clothes, each time remixing the context. There are long shots, close-ups, and medium shots—and since the images are so often moving in reverse, the general effect is, surprisingly, less one of artificiality than of spontaneity and authenticity. Willats calls the work’s creation a “documentary event on the 18th of April,” and a brochure provides a precise description of the working conditions on that particular day, with personnel including an “Administrative Group” (the curators), a “Documentary Group” (comprising Willats himself, the camera operators, photographers, and a screenwriter), and the “Acting Group” (the ten actors). Many of the participants live and work nearby: One runs a shop in the neighborhood; others work at the closest movie theater. Any of them might easily happen to pass by here of their own accord.

But this precisely localizable action nonetheless resists being pinned down to a particular time or history. On the contrary, the forward and backward movement of the film dissolves all connections. What remains is merely a swift alternation of faces, fleeting shadows of personal encounters, a social charade that not only translates the arrow diagrams used by sociologists into a libretto but also distantly recalls tableaux vivants. The screen is an open zone for the inventions of the ten actors whose quick, imaginative ad-libbing lends additional weight to the place itself, not least because the images—with their anachronistic, documentary aura—look at the same time both authentic and almost universal or atemporal. The preexisting terrain is revised—like a metaphor whose validity is being put to the test in the here and now.

Catrin Lorch

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.