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© Jane and Louise Wilson, Toxic Camera, Blind Landing Lab 1, 2012, Courtesy of 303 Gallery
Artistic duo Jane and Louise Wilson, originally from Newcastle, began collaborating in 1989 when they attended distant universities in the UK. As Young British Artists, their work has taken them to extraordinary locations, for example, the nuclear disaster site of Chernobyl for their haunting series The Toxic Camera (2012). The Wilson’s work primarily incorporates often-theatrical video installations, sculpture and photography, combining both their creative minds to produce fascinating visual results. The duo were nominated in 1999 for the Turner Prize, and have since exhibited in multiple renowned locations across the world. PHOTOFAIRS interview the identical twins to gain a closer insight into their practice...
“What it means to be a twin: is it something that’s wonderful, to exist with your double, or is it a bit of a nightmare?”
Being identical twins and working as a duo has defined your practice. When did you realise that you wanted to collaborate?
Louise Wilson (LW): A defining point for us both was being undergraduates and creating our final degree shows. During that period, I was studying in Dundee and Jane in Newcastle, so we were 150 miles apart. We’d started travelling and making work together because we realized that during that time, we were both looking at a lot of performance art, experimental filmmakers and were particularly interested in exploring an image based practice in photography.
Jane Wilson (JW): We would say ‘this is the work I’m doing on my own, and this is the work I’m doing with my sister’ and so eventually it became clear it was actually where the most interesting things were beginning to happen. This culminated with us producing identical degree shows some 300 miles apart, which meant the institutions who were assessing us had to collaborate also… as they were effectively assessing the same work.
LW: One particular work that seems important during this period is one of our first photographic pieces, Garage (1989–93). It features Jane with her head in a noose pouring a jug of water into a 5ft long fish tank in which I have submerged my head. We were wearing matching dressing gowns. It was a play on the idea of a romantic suicide pact in a way, with this heightened sense of melodrama, but it was also a play on the questioning of what it means to be a twin: is it something that’s wonderful, to exist with your double, or is it a bit of a nightmare?
In 1996 you were awarded a German government scholarship in Berlin where you lived at the time, less than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What was it like living in a city that was divided between East and West for almost thirty years and how has this influenced your practice?
JW: Living in Berlin had a huge impact on us both and the subsequent work we made Stasi City (1997).
LW: We filmed in a former Stasi prison called Hohenschonhausen and in the former Stasi headquarters on Normannenstrasse. You could visit the headquarters relatively easily, but the prison was not then open to the public.
JW: I don’t think we’d ever encountered such a powerful context to work with or consider. It made us question our natural instinct to create an elaborate staging. Instead we could just take a camera and lights which was already a huge intervention. Through filming and framing it we somehow managed to create a more heightened version of what was already there.
LW: But the most important point was that this film didn’t run as a linear single screen experience it was on 4 screens running simultaneously and couldn’t be accessed all at once. Also, because there were 2 double screens, they represented 2 alternative perspectives each the inverse of the other. One represented the onlooker whilst the other was being looked at and one represented the human whilst the other represented the surveillance camera. We filmed a figure levitating sequence which ran throughout the work which sounds very theatrical, but it was shot within the physical limitations of the real space and not against green screen which was important because it brought the figure back to the centre and in the process it somehow manages to reverse the terms of abandonment.
© Jane and Louise Wilson, [Still] Stasi City, 1997, Courtesy of 303 Gallery
Architecture, in particular abandoned dystopian spaces, have early on been a dominant subject in your practice. Toxic Camera from 2012, for instance, uses Vladimir Shevchenko’s footage of the nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl as its basis. Can you describe your impressions when you visited the nuclear site and where does your interest in these dystopian landscapes come from?
JW: When we first visited Chernobyl and Pripyat in 2010, we both felt that the only way to record it would be through a series of large format still photographic images, to show the extent of the aftermath, the physical destruction and deterioration of the town, through the hyper-real detail captured within the still image. It was also important to create an intervention and bring in to question the voyeurism inherent in the act of documentation, so we decided to bring an imperial measure with us, a 2 yardstick measure ruler. It's a device that represents human scale but also acts as a metaphor in that these sites are regularly monitored and measured for their radiation levels. You can relate to the gradual decay of the buildings and personal effects/evidence of life to the decay of the human body – so that the detail erodes and it becomes more difficult to visualize the living, only the shadows of people are left – a fleeting, temporary human measure.
LW: In the same way our film The Toxic Camera focuses on the story of the 35mm cine film camera, the Konvas Avtomat, that the Ukrainian, filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko had used to film the clear up operation in Pripyat and Chernobyl in the immediate days after the nuclear meltdown. His camera became so radioactive that it had to be taken from the film school in Kiev where he taught two years later and buried in a nuclear waste disposal facility. Our fascination with Shevchenko’s film is that by capturing the effects of radiation directly onto the film stock, it not only documented an event but it became its own event in the process.
© Jane and Louise Wilson, The Toxic Camera, Konvas Autovat, 2012, Courtesy of Paradise Row
London (similar to other cities) is transforming its spaces into ‘utopian’ landscapes. A good example for such a real estate development is King’s Cross, an area you lived after your studies at Goldsmiths. Marginalisation and Identity are also topics that you address especially in your earlier work. How do you think your work was influenced by the space you were surrounded by?
JW: We worked in the flat we shared, in Kings Cross using it as a studio. We would transform areas of it into various elaborate settings, staging photographic mise-en-scenes that would take us a couple of days or maybe a week to complete. Our work later developed from setting up these mise-en-scenes environments and situations inside our flat in Kings Cross to working outside in the surrounding area. It was a pretty dodgy place, back then and it used to be a well-known red-light area. We began making work in the local bed-and-breakfasts, some of which were around the corner from our flat.
LW: We would take with us bags of props and photographic equipment and book a room to stay overnight in.
JW: We’d stay there overnight and take photographs and make films. They were these strange halfway houses and we were very keen to look at them as subjects because they were places that are somehow hidden and yet public.
JW: This started several bodies of work, because we were then invited by Gallery Krinzinger in Vienna to make a show and we went there to find a similar site and location in which to make our work. We booked a room at The Hotel Orient in Vienna, a part-time bordello and stayed in the Kaiser Wilhelm Suite, where we filmed ourselves taking our first acid trip. We also went to the US for three weeks to make a show with AC Project Room and Gavin Brown.
© Jane and Louise Wilson, [Installation view], Suspended Island, 2018
In False Positive, False Negative from 2011 you address the surveillance system used in CCTV, airports and border controls. Since 2011, face recognition software has grown exponentially. How does technology influence your practice?
LW: Technology has always influenced our practice. We live in a surveillance capitalism and are constantly being monitored online. It’s interesting you mention False Positives, False Negatives 2011. This is the title for a series of screen prints consisting of alternating self-portraits of us both with our faces painted in dazzle camouflage, layered over stills taken from the CCTV footage. The footage had been released by the Dubai State Police on to YouTube of the victim and the perpetrators in the hours leading up to the murder which was posted and then watched by millions of people. This footage was compiled and edited by the Dubai state police, using face recognition technology to identify the subjects, following the assassination of the Hamas operative Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai by Mossad agents. And was featured in our film installation Face Scripting – What Did the Building See? 2011.
© Jane and Louise Wilson, False Positives and False Negatives, 2011, Courtesy of Paradise Row