David Wills collects portaloos. And band-aids. And gloves. And “sad trees” too. Apparently there aren't many things he doesn't collect.
You could describe him as a visual archaeologist, a cultural taxonomer, a photographer of the ordinary, the discarded and the overlooked. His website Turnstile (www.turnstile.net.au) is an archive of 8000 photos and 700 snippets of other people's conversations that he's eavesdropped on, all categorised by keywords.
But there's a paradox to it: the more pictures he takes of used band-aids (and he's taken a lot) the more you appreciate the used band-aid and its place in the world. Maybe you didn't think you needed that, but once it happens you're oddly happy that it has. Same for rubbish bins, insults carved into wet concrete and a huge list of other stuff. I asked David Willis recently about what he describes as his journey across “a vast sea of nothing in particular"…
Looking at your work and your website, you seem like the ultimate hoarder. Is that true? Do you actually own a lot of stuff or is it just something you have collected in a photographic way?
That's a yes-and-no answer. At home I only have what I need and use, but in my studio I have a range of things I've found on the street, in junk and op-shops and markets etc. Many of them are destined for other photographic and installation projects, while [with] others I just don't want to pass them by. Not long ago I bought a bizarre smoking lung ashtray that splutters and screams when you put a cigarette on it. I don't know what I'll do with it but it really was too weird to not buy.
What are you trying to achieve with your photos?
I see my photographic practice as being an antidote to the stage-managed way we live our lives. We follow trends set in magazines and we mimic celebrities. The things we buy and use are identity extenders - we may like them and want them (houses, cars, plasmas, fashions, technologies) but do they really give us what we want? And what about that stuff we leave behind - do we look at that and think about our temporary actions?
Has paying so much attention to the unlovely fate of all this stuff we buy taken away some of the attractions of consumerism for you, outside of art-making?
Absolutely. I certainly buy far less than I used to and I consider my purchases far more than ever before. I collect and gather things that will turn into an art project, I make use of websites like freecycle (www.freecycle.org) to get things that I need, and I generally try to limit my consumption. I also save remnants of what I consume - plastic tops from bottles and jars, old CDs, some packaging, bar-codes and so on. But I have a contradictory nature, and I secretly crave expensive clothes and furniture, and if I had the money I wouldn't give a second thought to buying these things. I think it gives me an insight into how we consume and why.
Your practice seems to be influenced by a scientific-type approach - creating photographic data sets on society reminds me of the work of a taxonomist or a biologist. Are you influenced by the investigative methods of other disciplines?
I've always had an urge to file things, as strange as that may seem. As a kid I was drawn to the ledgers my grandfather used to work with to manage his furniture-making business. They were huge and I used to record all kinds information in them. I wish they were still around. I'm excited about how knowledge can be extracted from vast quantities of like objects and things.
We hear you're also finishing a doctorate - what's next?
I plan to spend more time on Turnstile, adding more features, and hopefully more travel, which will strengthen the reach of the site. I've started work on a new project that will involve hundreds, if not thousands of old magazines…