JANE AND LOUISE WILSON (“The Twins”) are fast becoming the most successful double act in British art since Gilbert and George. 1999 is shaping up to be their annus mirabilis. Having already landed their first solo - or duo - exhibition in a prominent public museum (“Jane and Louise Wilson: New Work” opens at the Serpentine Gallery on September 14) they also find themselves on the shortlist for this year’s Turner Prize. The bookmakers have installed them among the ante-post favourites, a spokesman for the William Hill organisation remarking that they are fancied to do well because their work is “accessible to the public”.
This was possibly a reference to their 1995 video installation, Normapaths, which certainly was – given the frequently unwatchable nature of much video art – a most exceptionally accessible creation, being a bizarrely artful reworking of the kung-fu movie genre in which the twins themselves appeared wearing black PVC catsuits reminiscent of those so memorably sported by Diana Rigg in The Avengers. Admirers of the
At 32, Jane and Louise Wilson have been members of the YBA (Young British Artists) scene for several years, but only recently have they begun to be seen as leaders rather than camp followers. They made a fleeting, albeit tantalising appearance in Matthew Collings’ affectionate portrait of the British art world, Blimey! (1997), as a strange and slightly disconcerting pair of eccentrics:
“The twins did spooky photographs and videos of themselves in out of the ordinary situations, like being hypnotized in a seedy motel off a highway in
These days it would seem that they have calmed down somewhat. Sitting in the cafeteria next to their studio in
The twins’ collaboration first “became official and public”, in Jane’s words, when as graduating art students at different art schools - she went to
Unlike Gilbert & George, whom they admire reservedly – having the good taste to like only the early performances and the film, The World of Gilbert and George, created before G&G had declined into poster designers – Jane and Louise Wilson themselves make a clear distinction between their lives and their art. They speak quickly and often finish each others’ sentences, filling in each other’s thoughts as twins often do. But they certainly do not act up the part of being twins and if anything play it down: “we just collaborate, like anyone else”. They dress differently from one another and wear their hair in different styles (and colours: Jane has dark hair, Louise has highlights). They say that they are bored of the “Double Trouble” tag, much applied to them during their early career, and do not much like being discussed as twins. After one spectacularly quickfire demonstration of twinnish private-language communication Louise says, firmly, “OK, we’ve done the twin thing but now that’s it, one performance only.” They seem wary of the possibility that it might become a gimmick, that they might become a phenomenon - the Video Art Twins, like the Singing Nun - which would distract from what they actually do. Having made the point, they get on with talking about their work.
That work itself has changed and developed during the past few years, becoming (on the face of it) both more grown-up and analytical with the passage of time. Earlier works such as Normapaths or Crawl Space - an almost hallucinogenic evocation of druggy paranoia and vulnerability set in the rooms of an abandoned mansion - were attempts to arouse and evoke extreme states of consciousness. They in turn followed on from the Wilsons’s first exhibited works, which combined still and moving images in sinister mises-en-scenes hinting at psychosis and violence and all sorts of Norman Bates-style scenarios. But more recently, their work seems to have moved away from such intensely claustrophobic explorations of mental and physical predicament into wider worlds of political preoccupation. This has been accompanied by a change in perception of the twins themselves. No longer perceived as the video-making art groupie Chicks with Attitude, described by Matt Collings, they are now regarded as social commentators, of a kind, their works seen as witty, ironic meditations on the aftermath of the Cold War era. Thus have they attained one of the Holy Grails of the contemporary artist: Relevance. There was nothing premeditated, or calculated, about this metamorphosis - which was prompted, as so many changes in the work of artists has been, by a journey abroad.
The process began when the
“We spent eight weeks visiting all the buildings, discovering all of its spaces,” recalls Louise, “Initially it had been a Nazi catering depot, then it was taken over by the Russians after the Second World War, and they turned it into an internment camp for Nazi sympathisers. At that point, there were two torture chambers that worked. Then, in the fifties, it became a place for political prisoners…It’s very vague as to what went on. They had the most highly state of the art operating theatre, by East German standards…”
The film that they made, from those highly charged raw materials, was considerably less emotionally manipulative than much of what the
One of the most impressive aspects of the
Louise quotes Jean Cocteau’s maxim: “All cinema is a form of mass-hypnosis” and adds that the trouble with cinema now is that hardly any of it is hypnotic. It is as if what the Wilsons would like to do (and in their best work, they have perhaps begun to achieve) is not just to steal some of the magic and the power of film – but to give the film image back at least some of the unpredicability and scary physical presence it had in the days when audiences really believed that the train on the screen was about to run them down. She also talks admiringly of how the Cubists captured the way in which we experience reality in broken, fractured snatches of perception. “It’s amazing how often people ask us when we’re going to make a feature, or a conventional film of some kind. But we’re just not interested. Film is boring, really…All that Hollywood stuff…” She yawns expressively.
The work that put the
It is harder to imagine anybody looking less like a couple of Greenham Common wimmin than Jane and Louise Wilson: too thin, too kempt, too cool. But they were keen CND supporters in their youth and their post-Cold War perspective was shaped to a degree by the protests that once took place outside the airbase. In going there to film – with full permission from the MOD – they seem to have had the strong sense that they were revisiting a piece of their own history. “We would have been fascinated to go there even if we hadn’t decided to make the film,” says Jane. The work that they created there feels more personal than Stasi City. The twins themselves play a more active role, stalking the vast abandoned bunkers and silos in low-heeled shoes and uniforms (“We’ve got a thing about uniforms”) which, as one critic commented, made them look as if they had just stepped out of Prisoner on Cell-Block H – a comparison which may not have displeased them too much, given their penchant for provoking TV references. With the help of an MOD engineer, “who wanted to get the whole thing running again and was almost pining for the good old days of the Cold War”, they managed to get some of the old console panels and launch systems working again. Flirting with the double-entendre of military language (“No-lone zone”) and weaponry (all those missiles and buttons) they created a brilliantly disarming elegiac-erotic memorial to Greenham and all its past.
Jane remembers one moment particularly clearly: “We were filming on the floor just beneath the trapdoor leading into the open air, in the main operations room, and I noticed all this human hair on the floor. Now although Greenham is decommissioned, it is still guarded by security, so it’s not if anyone can just get in. Somebody, somehow or other, had managed to move this enormous concrete slab sealing the operations room, andthen they’d cut off all their hair.” Louise, at this point, adds that “I think it’s a joke about how fall-out literally makes your hair fall out. But anyway, we thought it was a brilliant gesture – what a wonderful way to defile something.” They put the hair into their film – which was, itself, a work created in a spirit of subtle solidarity and a fitting valediction, in its way, to the millennium during which man finally developed the technology to wipe himself off the planet.
Gamma implies that the protesters have, for the time being, won the battle for disarmament. But the sight of Jane and Louise Wilsons inspecting the place wearing their own uniform - the uniform of the urban video artist - may have been meant to carry its own, not altogether comforting overtones. At several moments during the film, the rows of lights and instruments flicker back into life, and the Wilsons seem less like 1990s Greenham Common women than twinned reincarnations of Dr Strangelove, just itching to send those missiles on their mission of total global destruction. The Cold War might be over but - decommissioned though much of it may be, for the moment - we still have the technology to burn the world down. Having made a name for themselves with work calculated to disorientate the senses, nowadays, it seems, the Wilsons specialise in sobering thoughts.
Future Wilson projects, says Jane, include “a full-screen installation, very much on the same scale as Gamma, but shot during recess in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.” Another portrait, then, of power and its architectural expression: “but this time we wanted to work with a still-functioning, still-working building, which is pretty different from anything we’ve done in the past.” They also have tentative plans for the work’s pair (or twin), to be set in a casino in Las Vegas. “There are interesting parallels: the House of Commons is very much architecture that centres on spectacle and the spectator - and so is a casino.” Jane adds. “Westminster Palace and Caesar’s Palace - you can see them as linked, in a way…” The precise meaning behind this tantalising remark - which seems calculated to make the New Labour mind boggle - may become clear some time next year, when the works are scheduled to be exhibited.
Asked what they think about being nominated for the Turner Prize the twins do one last twin thing:
Jane: I don’t know, I find the whole thing a bit crude, but then on the other hand
Louise: The publicity that it brings in and the audience that it attracts is great for modern art in this country and for the Tate, although…
Jane: The way it’s all blown up is a bit of a pain in the arse…
Louise: Unless you win.