Autobiography and the 'danse macabre' seem strange partners in pursuit of an engaged artistic life. But the nature of performance, sculpture, and now new ceramics, have always seemed strange emotional bedfellows in the works of the English artist Stephen Wilks. Perhaps best known for his performances where his has toted a stuffed sculpture of a donkey called Balthasar in a suitcase across Europe, there has always been in Wilks a fundamental fascination with anthropomorphically associated iconography. Indeed, Orwell's Animal Farm was among his last major project where he entered into the human-to-animal universe. The historical donkey or ass, as beast of burden, is a multilayered iconic image familiar from the Classical Age, as in Lucius Apuleius's The Golden Ass, in some measure derived from the Priapus story, through to Shakespeare's character Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream, both sharing libidinal but more importantly possessing dislocated comedy contents. To travel with 'a donkey on your back' is not only a slang regional English usage, but also an inverted use of umour noir in the case of Wilks. The donkey as an itinerant beast of burden, an animal entity associated with the poor and the impoverished, is given a dominant role throughout his recent body of work. The autobiographical component of the work, is the idea of an association and identification on the part of the artist, a seeing the world from the position of 'other' as a reversed viewpoint. If it appears as humour so much more so in that it is critical of the unjust conditions of our contemporary world.

For his current gallery exhibition the donkey takes centre stage forming a carousel in the centre of the gallery space. In a mechanical rotating sculpture, Wilks uses the now somewhat archaic metaphor of the funfair to make his point. By reference to the orrery, an early eighteenth century astronomical machine that mimicked the rotation of the planets, he draws analogies between human life and De la Mettrie's L'homme machine. The heliocentrism of the universe is further reflected in the deliberately banal use of the self-contained circularity of the carousel. And, by extension, at least, how human life has been turned into a state of machine-like circular repetition of denial and prohibition. The references to motorisation, wooden mechanisms and hand-sewn textile donkeys, is made even more explicit in its intention by the fact that the green donkey (ironically called Homer, a 'Trojan' donkey) has written on his back (in arabic) the words 'nothing to declare'. Another reference. perhaps, to the perilous life lived by migrants today, and the conflicted state of the European world to Islamic culture. The wooden skeleton structures and cogs that carry the rotating hebdomad donkeys, in turn form a weekly round that merely reiterates the trapped status of the migrants. It is symptomatic of Stephen Wilks work in general that through the most humorous or witty of means the artist is able to establish a highly critical work. He echoes the underlying truth of Shakespearean comedy "though it make the unskillful laugh, it cannot but make the judicious grieve." (Midsummer Night's Dream)

The drawings rather than function as sketches form another complimentary universe to the wooden structures in Donkey Roundabout, the actual title of the carousel. It should also be noted that the English word for carousel is a 'roundabout' which adds yet another complex layer to the work, filling out the dense iconographic strategy that the artist has undertaken. It is ironic also that the word carousel itself derives from the verb 'to carouse' which means quite literally to engage in boisterous, drunken merrymaking. However, the skeletons draw directly upon the tradition of the late medieval Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) at the time a contemporary response to the horrors created by the Black Death. The fact that the figures are frequently presented in the form of a dancing circle no doubt appealed to Wilks, using it in the creative inspiration of the carousel or roundabout. Another related idea comes from early vanitas imagery, and was used to warn people as to the vainglorious nature of earthly life. The individual figures carry the stuffed donkeys on their skeletal shoulder frames.

we are tempted to see Wilks acting as some latter day Sancho Panza, whose paintings are ironic commentaries, modern sanchismos or proverbial 'belly' laughs based on black humoured observations on the world. A contemporary Cervantean hero (more anti-hero) tilting at the windmills of modern injustice. Thus metaphors of containment and prohibition are rooted in all of the paintings in different ways, whether it be a painting of his travelling suitcase with his donkey packed inside, or simply the circular imprisonment that is represented for many people by life itself. In the off space there are drawings and sculptures of caterpillars presenting another theme in Wilks's work.

Stephen Wilks, (1964) the city is his medium, walking its streets the message.
This couldn't be more appropriate and relevant at a time when cities, across the world, are blurring the line between the local and the global, creating spaces both communal and contested. More so, when the cityscape is constantly being recorded and re-recorded. Be it for maps for navigation or for photos for personal albums.

It's with this as backdrop that Wilks walks the city's labyrinths to capture fleeting moments. And vests these with poetry and politics, irony and drama.

His images show us what we -- or, to be more precise, our smartphones -- do not see. Be it balloons dwarfed by history in Berlin on the First of May. Disembodied dresses against a chainlink fence. A swarm of insects dotting an apartment block that merges with the sky -- each image becomes an integral part of a city's narrative.

It's this that is carried across into one of his most evocative and innovative projects in which life-sized cloth donkeys travel from house to house, city to city, country to country. China, Jordan, Germany, Morocco, Netherlands, India, containing sketches, stories and notes added by men, women and children from local communities. In effect, a work of art that, by its autonomy, becomes a constant work in progress connecting people across cultures in ways only they can imagine.

Born and educated in Britain, Wilks has lived and worked in Paris, Amsterdam and is, currently, in Berlin.

There is a staggering range in his photographs, exhibits, ceramic sculptures and installations, but they are united by one common theme: raising questions -- rather than providing answers -- about identity in cities and the conflict between the individual and the social. By so boldly imagining the private in the public, Wilks also underlines the power of art to represent a universal humanity.
Raj Kamal Jha

The Traveling Donkeys
A Summary For A project By Stephen Wilks.
The traveling Donkey project began in Berlin in 1999. In many respects it is a story…. A story which has already involved thousands of people in intimate , humourous and creative relationships with the notorious cloth donkeys . Each donkey is unique and is made with textiles , involving materials and support/interaction with local communities ; in this respect I wanted to combine aspects of the local culture with global communication and technologies.
The aim of the traveling donkeys was to introduce the work into peoples lives and community and create networks that were generated by the quasi autonomous art work /donkey
People were asked to interact with the donkeys both publicly and privately adding stories images and creations inside the donkeys belly which can be viewed by all. The donkeys then proceed to “travel” from guest to guest in the community and even across the world . Each donkey is left with the chain of hosts to continue its travels in an autonomous way, everything that’s ensues should emanate from the original idea of the itinerant donkey. Connections are maintained through the internet, which creates a virtual trail with the donkeys physical movements across the globe.

The standstill of the image
Photography satisfies curiosity. It stops time a while. Or, to quote Roland Barthes: "Photography is the absolute Particular, sovereign Coincidence, matt and dumb, the Just like that (just a photo, not The Photo), in short, the Tuché, the occasion, Concurrence, Reality, in all its inexhaustible expressions."
Stephen Wilks (*1964)
Wilks' photographs seem to be rather thought up than taken, as opposed to the majority of existing photographs which were first seen and then taken. Only rarely is (an) action brought to view, although it often looks as if something has happened or is about to happen.
The photographs reveal the particular, the surprising, the striking, the disturbing and the intriguing in the ordinary. The works possess the aesthetics of the banal and attract our attention by their transformation of the commonplace into the surprising. Scenes or situations which are familiar to all of us in our daily lives and which we pass by over over again, are arrested and registered by Wilks.

The way in which reality, the city and the urban landscape enter into a dialogue with the camera is totally different from the way they speak to the eye. The eye does not see the standstill of the particularity of banality or of the ordinary. An awkward pose or a strange scene is only seen clearly through the standstill of the photograph, because it is copied and enlarged. Specific particularities which reside in the details are invisible to the eye, but become visibly present in photographs.

Wilks registers this mysterious experience of coincidence, a feature which is also an important constant in his three-dimensional oeuvre.

The distinction made by Roland Barthes between studium (the global subject, by which the spectator participates in the characters, the action, the background, etc.) and punctum (the stimulating, surprising detail, the coincidence that strikes and touches me, the spectator) is noncommittal and inevitably the trade mark of many of Stephen Wilks' photographs. But one may also justly ask oneself whether these photographs captivate the mind and the senses so because they are photographs. It seems to me that they attract attention not just because they are photographs, i.e. not so much because of the medium, but as things an sich, as dissonants.

Wilks photographs things he cannot make an makes things he cannot photograph. Still, it is clear that his three-dimensional objects always betray an intention similar to the things he records photographically. He makes photographs to see what things look like on photo and he makes objects to see in which way something can exist as an object. Several of Wilks' three-dimensional works owe their singularity to the simultaneity of different, dissimilar parts. Once combined, it becomes hard to still see them as separate. The parts, all of which belong to a different world, become objects or things which are much more (and mean much more) than the sum of their separate parts. They possess a strange visual presence, tinged with humour, and have a totally independent identity of their own.

Text by Bart Cassimann