in Frieze | 06 SEP 94
Featured in
Issue 18

Beside Themselves

Jane Wilson and Louise Wilson

in Frieze | 06 SEP 94

Looking at the Wilsons' work I remember when I was very young, old enough to stay at home by myself but not too old to be frightened. At night-time, alone in my parents' house, sitting in front of the television, or walking down the hallway, I could find myself transfixed with fear. A sudden unfamiliar sound, some inexplicable sensation of another person's presence, would immobilise me. For ten minutes or more I would remain still, scarcely breathing, not daring to bend a knee in case the floorboards creaked. Straining to hear the next noise, scanning the room with a meticulous and brazen gaze, searching out danger in every dark doorway, behind every piece of furniture, in the momentarily enhanced position of an ashtray. Looking back on these childhood traumas, I recognise the highly developed sense I had of the person whose very absence made such an impact on my psyche. He could have been my nemesis or my friend, a revenant or a foreboding. I imagined his presence so acutely that it seemed as if his features and form might physically materialise in front of me. Sometimes I wished they would, to end the suspense, and allow me to consider the true nature of this seemingly palpable fiction.

The concentration, the stillness, the searching desperation of moments such as these is evoked by the work of Jane Wilson and Louise Wilson. The very titles of pieces like Construction and Note or Construction and Stage (both 1992) conjure up a sense of poised artificiality and withheld meaning. Their language can also be direct: 'I am the person who smashed your door I was not well I have a psyciatric illness if you want to contact me see overleaf.' So says the note which appears both in photographic form, pinned to a refrigerator, and as itself, stuck straight on the wall, in Construction and Note and Note (1992). The pieces consist together of five objects: the note, a painted wooden construction resembling a section of kitchen cupboard fronts, and three colour photographs of varying sizes mounted on wooden board and leaning directly against the wall. The photographed images maintain the tone of controlled hysteria: a white trolley sits on a black and white checked floor, with silver foil strips and a theatrical red curtain hanging behind it. Two black-stockinged legs, wearing white shoes, dangle from the ceiling. There is also a can of lighter fuel, a gas meter, and a pot of glue with a brush in it. In the smallest photograph there is a step, an empty shoe on the step, and a license plate on the floor; there are crossed wires. In the other larger photograph, which divides neatly into an orange and a green section, both strongly lit by different artificial means, two jets of gas burn, ominously but beautifully, in the middle where the two planes meet.

The point of such an inventory is to evoke in some way the kind of looking demanded. While these works are visually compelling, this power is rather taken for granted. The Wilsons do not seek to impress with technical effect. They are at ease with the relative impoverishment of their subject matter, as with the apparent informality of its staging. But the work is loaded: once you have opened the door onto such disconcerting scenarios, you have to work them out. Construction and Stage includes a large photographic work which depicts an eerie bluish glow, an upright mattress form, and a low glass table beneath which have been left a saucepan, ice tray, etc. The table is echoed, out in real gallery space, by a low platform of a modular variety, tilted slightly off the horizontal. Another picture is positioned higher on the wall in rough correspondence to the place it represents, the upper corner of a room, with coving, light fixture, and a plastic bag containing something suspended from the ceiling. In the car showroom annex to Goldsmiths' College where this installation was first shown, an electricity meter, belonging to the building, was casually incorporated into the piece. Every element, whether pictorial or real, was therefore situated either exactly or approximately where it ought to be in relation to every other element. This lent a sense of wholeness, of aptness, to a physical environment which was, in fact, rather incompletely described and on the face of it nonsensical. The viewer's consciousness, in circumstances like this, tends to float unanchored from one point of rest to another, circulating within an image and from image to object. Since the objects emanate from the images and the images possess the status of three dimensional and specific things, this floating from one form of fantasy to another, from one register of reality to another, takes on an enthralling psychic quality. The hyperbole of the more gothic aspects of these works, while funny and appropriate, is not foisted on them for storytelling purposes, but arises out of the disorientation that the works themselves propose.

Ramraid (1992) continues this vein of hyper-banality with violent undertones. One image shows a sock filled with a brick which rests - presumably after the act - on a grubby carpet in a derelict house. The other larger picture shows an ironing board tipped on end, a chair lying on its face with three legs missing, a pair of underpants hanging across the bar of a microphone stand, a hessian folding bed and, in the background, polythene-covered shelves. Formally, this looks like cubism brought up to date. Psychologically it is more like a recurring nightmare: an image of a utility room from which all utility has been beaten out, a place where disruption and suffocation sit together uncomfortably. The chilly familiarity of this understated subterranean domestic horror brings to mind the American film The Stepfather from the mid-80s: in particular a scene where the central character, a murderous schizophrenic who attaches himself to single mothers before slaughtering them and their offspring, finally lets slip one of his meticulously maintained personae. Receiving a call intended for another of his alter egos, he looks up from the phone, genuinely perplexed for an instant, and asks 'Who am I today?' before wielding the receiver in his hand to beat his wife senseless and begin his final murderous spree.

In 1993, at the Serpentine Gallery, Jane Wilson and Louise Wilson re-combined these early pieces in a new configuration. They added both new photographic works and new objects, in the form of waist-high metal rails. They also made a video which played continuously on a monitor on the floor. In it, scenes of or relating to the new still images were shot in motion, bringing yet another dimension to the play between realities. The video injected not only time, but also agency: in one scene, we see the bottom of a flight of stairs, down which walks an anonymous figure who places upon the steps first a letter, then a newspaper, then an electrical plug, pausing thoughtfully to readjust the objects and to remove the phone from its hook on the wall and let it dangle, just in frame. The final shot could again be a still from The Stepfather. The status of both the event witnessed and the resulting image have, however, been irretrievably compromised. If the image is the scene of a crime, what we have witnessed on screen is someone creating the scene of the crime - which is not to say they are the criminal. The same person is also creating a work of art, which is not to say they're the artist. The agent's role here is to provide evidence for an event of dubious nature having taken place, rather than, as is more customary, to undertake the event itself.

The result of such juggling with artifice, contaminated with reality, is a tension between act, object, and image, each at the same time supporting and undermining the others' credibility. The transition takes us through varying stages of perception, as if each element were about to explain every other, as if there were a chance things would become clear.

The Wilsons' earliest works were made at home, either in Newcastle where they come from or in London, where they moved in 1990. At a certain point they felt a need to move their project out, and made a video overnight in a Bed and Breakfast just down the road from where they live in King's Cross. Further hotel works have followed, including two this year. The first was made in New York and is called Routes 1 & 9 North, the routes referred to being among those from Manhattan through New Jersey to the North. They once were thoroughfares, but now take secondary traffic. The lodgings lining these roads are, not surprisingly, among the worst. Jane and Louise would spend a night in one motel, quickly setting up their portable lights, somewhat adjusting the room and its accoutrements, shooting their video and then moving on. (As students, they worked for a while for a commercial photographer documenting Swallow Hotels for money.) Responding to the spot and to the moment, while not a fetish, is a key characteristic of their working practice. They are like forensic scientists, knowing just what they're after but still doggedly collecting all available evidence: the difference being that what they are after is not an answer but a mystery. The lens they use, by choice, cannot evenly focus on the whole image in view. The resulting pictures, crisp in parts, blurred in others, seem to them more faithful to the way we tend to look at and perceive things: searchingly, partially. The Wilsons talk of wanting to recreate the unfocused human gaze, which will naturally fall to rest on an object it finds comfortable to linger over, then drift away, then back, generally finding its own level unless forced to concentrate more sharply.

A rapid inventory of the rooms in Routes 1 & 9 North reveals: a step, some cable, a spoon, a coffee jar half full of chewed gum, a skirting board, a door, a stain; in the upper corner of a room a pulley holding a bag, a light, a blanket over the window, pipes; a shirt with red shoulders covering a box resembling a football player, a telephone receiver, a heater, a light socket and flex on a grubby brown carpet; a toilet and a double sink, pipes, a cupboard door open, black within. You wonder why these things are like this and in the back of your mind you know.

'Whenever I returned home Mom left traces of herself around the house so I would know she was all right. It was like a secret Morse of displaced objects, punctuated by unvoiced sighs and iconic, invisible gestures. An unwashed glass on the kitchen countertop. A bottle of Seagram's discarded in the trash basket under the sink. Sometimes she would leave a pillowcase stuffed with dirty linen outside her door for me to wash. Sometimes there might even be a little note attached to it. Usually it said, "Dear Phillip, I love you. Love, Mom." And of course I always left Mom a note in return: "Dear Mom, I love you too. Love, Phillip."'

- Scott Bradfield, 'The History of Luminous Motion' (1989)

'The garbage, an immense mass, lumbers along between HER and THE OTHERS. Someone gets a new permanent wave. Someone matches a new nail polish to a lipstick. Tinfoil twinkles in the sun. A sunbeam gets caught on the tine of a fork, on the edge of a knife. The fork is a fork. The knife is a knife. Ruffled by a gentle breeze, onion skins rise up, tissue paper rises up, sticky with sweet raspberry syrup. The decaying strata underneath, dusty and disintegrated, are an inner lining for the rotting cheese rinds and melon skins, for the glass shards and blackish cotton swabs, all facing the same doom.'

- Elfriede Jelinek, 'The Piano Teacher' (English translation 1988)

The most recent hotel piece made by the Wilsons was set, like Jelinek's scene, in Vienna, and is similarly baroque in contrast to the uncompromising functionality of low-life America. Called Crawl Space (1994), the installation consisted of four photographic works of varying dimensions, which again correspond roughly to the scale of the scene depicted, as if an attempt were being made to reconstruct pictured space within real space. The setting was a bedroom of supremely shabby grandeur, the 'Kaiser Wilhelm Suite' at the Hotel Orient in Vienna. The views seem to be shot from a prone position, as if the viewer were maybe reeling, or exploring the site from a bug's eye view. This sensation is compounded by the sheer theatricality of the furnishings, from cupboards which look like carriages to swathes of red velvet hung around relatively nondescript chandeliers. Dereliction has set in though, as observed in the wet patch seeping out from a black plastic bag stuffed in the wardrobe, and in the detritus - sausage, empty glass, crumpled paper - scattered over the floor. To refer again to film, these scenes seem to derive from an aesthetic of derangement influenced by sources like Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death or David Cronenberg's more recent Dead Ringers.

Accompanying the still photographs of Crawl Space is a video which does in fact introduce two specific techniques for bypassing the conscious mind. Jane and Louise picture themselves under the influence both of intensive strobe lighting and of LSD. The effects of the first are of course partially shared by the viewer, though the invisible psycho-physiological effects of the strobe - which include flashbacks and the imposition on the body of the light's own rhythm - were as important to the artists as its purely visual impact. They are careful also to make clear that, in the video, they show themselves experiencing the drug for the first time: what counts, as much as the exact nature of the experience, is the intention to step briskly into a new way of perceiving things.

This kind of self portrayal, or selves portrayal, has been a continuing feature of the Wilsons' work. As students in the late 80s they attended different colleges - Jane in Newcastle, Louise in Dundee - but together made identical work. They caused some tutorial confusion by presenting the same degree show in two different places. Garage (1989-93), a large black and white photograph on board first shown there, has the poise and high drama of classical allegory. Jane stands on the right in a white dressing gown, a noose around her neck, pouring water from a jug into a long glass aquarium over which Louise bends, dipping her head deep into it. The claustrophobia and circularity of the subject/image are already clearly developed, as is the artists' aim both to convey and to objectify experience. The fact that Jane and Louise Wilson are identical twins, two and the same, yet evidently different, has some bearing on this. Too much need not be made of their twinness: they share a birth date, their appearance, and - up to a certain point - biographical backgrounds. They also share a working practice, with degrees of interaction and creative tension similar to those experienced by other collaborative pairs, who don't happen to be siblings.

The fact that the Wilsons do, and do not, share a single mind - something they have in common with other artistic double acts, like Gilbert & George, or Ulay and Marina Abramovic - is undeniably enhanced by the fact that they visibly do, and do not, share a single body. They never portray themselves individually, but always as the dual or split subject of their work. This is most evident in a video and installation piece made last year in the exhibition 'Walter Benjamin's Briefcase' in Oporto, Portugal. The artists had themselves hypnotised, first in English, then in Portuguese. The room in which the hypnosis occurred was left intact like a chat show set, with blue backcloth, two chairs, and a video camera. In an adjoining room of the same size was projected, on a large screen, the video recording of the action. Jane and Louise are shown falling quickly under the lull of the hypnotist, responding in near symmetrical synchronisation to his instructions. It all seems very simple, but what is far from clear is where the viewer stands (almost literally) between these two spaces, between these two time frames, between these two languages and finally between these two performers. Is the room where the event took place more or less real than the representation of the event? Is the English or the Portuguese language version the scientific model? Is it possible for two subjects to undergo simultaneously such a profound mind change? The Wilsons compare emerging from hypnosis to the sensation of walking out of a cinema after the film has finished, when the concentration of the preceding hour or two makes the world on the other side seem more focused and more meant. This is perhaps the achievement of all their projects to date, from the heightened burlesque of their photo-installation and video works, to their precise investigation of the effects of hallucinatory drugs, to their strategic use of hypnosis: using the play between subject and object, between drama and documentary, between engagement and distancing, to bring their viewers paradoxically closer to themselves. Jane and Louise Wilson are not attempting to take us to some place, happy or horrific, on the other side of consciousness. They, in their duality, and we, in our plurality, are already there.