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Perils of consulting 'the people'


Changing Everything: Stephen Willats At the South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London SE5 until 2 August

On the bus to visit 'Changing Everything' at the South London Gallery, I noticed an inscription: 'The Health of the People,' it read, 'is the Highest Law.' Cut in Portland stone and set above the door of a nondescript 1930s health centre, it spoke of a time when society's guiding principles could come from noble abstractions.

Stephen Willats, however, does not like abstractions. They 'pre-determine' the 'role of people', and that applies equally in the two pre-eminent icons of Modernist space, the art gallery and the housing estate. Hence his 30-year mission to investigate the territory between personal desire and formal reality in social housing, and display the results in art galleries.

'Changing Everything' - and one assumes the title must be ironic as Willats' working method has changed little in 30 years - derives from walks with selected residents through parts of Peckham where all but Anglican curates and the Architecture Foundation fear to tread. The results are arranged into 14 mosaics around the walls. In the centre is a maze of screens for visitors to leave their responses; videos and fire alarms on loop complete the parody of gesamtkunstwerk.

Like all such exercises where sentimental, superficial and subjective impression is elevated above expertise, the results are naive and banal. Images come from the central store of barbed wire, street furniture, litter, graffiti and notices proclaiming social exclusion. They exist at the level either of art which lacks technical skill or expressive force, or of inexperienced and selfish urban management. And to make them suitable for an art exhibition, Willats succumbs to just that which he seeks to avoid: abstractions.

Each mosaic has a theme and a form of his own derivation, a strategy which surely pre-determines the role of the people as much as stipulating that guests at a reception should wear black tie. What we see is not the raw, unmediated desire of local residents, but Willats' artifice - the artistic equivalent of the now discredited fly-on-the-wall tv documentary.

Perhaps it is not so surprising. We live in an era where Post-Modernism and democracy have formed a sinister alliance to suggest that authority can rest only with 'the people'. Post-Modernism abolishes traditional forms of authority, while democracy, in variant forms, privileges public opinion. Experience and fact become suspect. All is artifice. Spin-dominated media hold sway.

Art, one might have thought, has a vital role here. To a certain extent it can stand free of the media 'spindustry' - whether it exists inside or outside a gallery. More: it can change and evolve genres and generic constraints, and, greater, it can evince an appreciation of human suffering and joy. But by employing the same essential terms that he first used three decades ago, Willats turns his back on the possibility of evolving genres of expression. He might claim to be interested in human suffering, and no doubt he is. But his interest takes the curious form of setting the terms by which that suffering might be expressed; neither sharing nor empathising with it, it has the detachment of a voyeur and the fascination of sado-masochism.

There are some who believe that investigations through the aims and ambitions of 'the people' are the uniquely correct starting-point for architectural endeavour. Architecture, and society, though, might need the focus of more specific principles: the five orders, perhaps, or the Health of the People. The Walworth Road health centre, dreary though it is, embodies a clearer programme than the self-defeating ramblings of 'Changing Everything'.

Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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