Renowned conceptual artist, Stephen Willats, returns to Nottingham to finish what he started in the 1970s and ignites a rallying cry for wider engagement in the arts...
Tell someone you’re an artist and you’ll be met with varying degrees of scepticism and at least some preconception, depending on who you’re talking to. This is in large due to the historical inaccessibility of art, as a creator or consumer, thanks to an elitism conserved by upper classes and art world moguls. Though thinkers have been trying to define the meaning of art for centuries, tangling it up in political and moralistic analysis, it is no surprise that art’s inaccessibility has sometimes stirred apprehension among those who have typically been rejected from interacting with it. That’s what conceptual artist Stephen Willats has been attempting to revoke with public participatory projects since the sixties to the present day in his latest exhibition: Social Resource Project for Tennis Clubs.
Showing fifty years after its inception, the exhibition at Bonington Gallery is the meridian of archived material from 1971 and 1972 — the years in which Stephen first conceptualised Social Resource Project for Tennis Clubs as a way to unite different social groups. The original black and white photographs of four tennis clubs across Nottingham take centre court — sorry, I mean centre stage — while newer documentation, photographed during the pandemic, border the main exhibition space. An eeriness connects these two sets of images, albeit for very different reasons. The stills from the seventies capture one kind of emptiness; close-ups of abandoned pitches, clubhouses with broken windows and wire fences wilting and those from lockdown spotlight the emptiness attached to the language of the time, cooperating with social distancing rules and court etiquette.
The fact it has taken five decades for this work to receive the funding needed to be finally put on public display is indicative of the engagement the arts industry needs and subsequently what motivates Willats
When asked why he chose tennis as his subject matter, Stephen appeared less interested in the sport itself, rather its means as a conduit for his ideas and ambitions for social self-analysis. But the game is an appropriate metaphor: dividing lines see opponents find a way around their constraints, with a back-and-forth collaboration to communicate. It is especially significant in Nottingham, a city that has always homed and championed international tennis. I grew up courtside watching my father play wheelchair tennis in the British Open at Nottingham Tennis Centre, just off the ring road from some of the clubs shown in this collection.
But make no mistake — this is as much about tennis as it is not. The fact it has taken five decades for this work to receive the funding needed to be finally put on public display is indicative of the engagement the arts industry needs and subsequently what motivates Willats. How is art supposed to be integrated into more lives if it is not given the resources to be able to do so? Willats’ original project in the early seventies culminated with a tennis tournament between the economically, socially and physically separate clubs depicted in the programme (remodelled again for the launch of this exhibition), prompting the notion that by looking outwards we can look within. The art shows us that by witnessing different social groups to our own, we can see and understand ourselves and our positions in society. In other words, we remove the barricades of our own echo chambers. This kind of spectatorship can sometimes feel like relatively new phenomena. The advent of social media has rendered endless commentary about what it means to be received and to exist in the ultimate experiment of audience participation. But Stephen’s initiatives prove this rumination is not only synonymous with technological advances and greater surveillance but has always been an integral part of our human nature: the desire to belong.
Having exhibited everywhere from London, New York, Zurich and Berlin, it is a welcome homecoming to have Stephen’s locally-charged work back in Nottingham, where he lived and taught himself in the 1970s. He ultimately demonstrates that it may be easy to lock objects behind glass, but never ideas.
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