PRINT October 1998


Though identical twins Jane and Louise Wilson grew up wanting to be artists, when it came to choosing schools they opted to go their own ways: Jane remained in Newcastle, while Louise was off to Dundee. Years later, with graduation approaching, the sisters each mounted the customary degree show. The results: identical to the detail. Less the pure product of the telepathic simultaneity sometimes attributed to twins than willful artistic gesture, their mirror shows animated the dilemma at the core of their work. Both of and not of a single mind, the Wilsons share much, including their practice as artists. Garage, the work made for this early show, included a black-and-white photograph of the two sisters engaging in a sort of psychic short-circuit—a jointly enacted auto-asphyxiation. The scenario, in which Jane, robed in a white dressing gown with a hangman’s noose around her neck, pours a pitcher of water into an aquarium in which her sister’s head is partially submerged, initiates a spellbound circularity. As with later work in which themes of coupling and dislocation provide the emotional subtext to an atmosphere of barely contained hysteria, Garage spatializes psychological trauma within a loop of observation and identification.

Since completing their graduate training at London’s Goldsmith’s College together in 1992, Jane and Louise Wilson have become most widely known for their split-screen film installations. A cinematic convention first used to grant pictorial decorum to celluloid naughtiness—Rock Hudson and Doris Day famously share a bed across the divided screen of Pillow Talk—in the hands of the twins the device structures instead a dangerous liaison of selves. In Normapaths, 1995, the loop opens to the exertion of a pair of cat-suited women on a trampoline. But the nature of their exercise is hardly clear. Slowed down and desynchronized, the choreography of weightlessness becomes a ponderous act of ultraviolence when the repetitive cycles of suspension and resounding impact are disrupted as a burning figure strides across the screens to the nonchalant swing of her flaming handbag. As the film progresses, the Rorschach-like symmetries of the opening sequences are further upset when the Avengers-styled stuntwomen break through the separating walls of the set to conjoin in sisterly embrace—an affectionate deformation that has the one caressing the face of the other with a hand become prosthetic foot. The overall effect is uncertain, pitting as it does the operatic schlock of glamorized violence against the immanence of formal collapse. Just as the installation itself is physically cornered, so its partial narratives are drawn up the seam of an unfolding divide.

In work that holds normality as a condition that is anything but normal, the pathology of the everyday is delivered in the guise of a gothic sensibility undercut with absurdist humor. “I am the person who smashed your door,” reads a missive pinned to a refrigerator in Construction and Note, 1992, a grisly installation of photographs and readymades that includes, among other things, a can of lighter fuel, a gas meter, and a dangling pair of black-stockinged legs sporting white nurse shoes. “I was not well I have a psyciatric [sic] illness if you want to contact me see overleaf.” Captivated by the stillborn forensic drama, we become party to a sick prank, since behind the photograph of the note is only the overleaf of the artists’ intention, leaving the viewer caught in a cycle of frustration for which the visual disturbance is merely a foil.

With works such as Hypnotic Suggestion “505”, a photographic series and film projection depicting the artists under the spell of hypnotists, the séancing of the Other is explicitly bound to the medium of film. Back-projected onto a single suspended screen, the installation as a whole becomes a darkened mirror of the auditorium in which the twins respond in near synchronization to the spoken word. We encounter the stilled room and soporific voices at the risk of becoming entranced ourselves. Like the horror motifs of the twins’ later films such as Crawl Space, with its reference to Regan’s possession in The Exorcist, the Wilsons use the spell of cinema to convey an uneasy sense of artifice contaminated by reality: here the framing effects and genres from which they are derived serve only to make the viewer more acutely aware that affect is present just off-screen, on the fringes of consciousness. (It comes as no surprise that the first film to which viewers were not admitted once the theater lights had been lowered was Hitchcock’s Psycho.) Probing the architectural uncanny, Crawl Space moves in a series of penetrations and retreats through darkened corridors and closed doors to create a theater of anxiety dressed in cinematic reference—from noirish classics such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (or is it Louise?) to the bloodletting symmetries of Kubrick’s The Shining. Underlining the hypnotic effect of cinema, the twins explore the architecture of subterranean region where domestic structures (familiar from the films of the genre?) become the habitat of the estranged imagination.

With Stasi City, 1997, the operative convolutions and reflective chicanery the Wilsons formerly conjured through cinematic reference are embodied in the chill of the institution itself. The site of the work, the former headquarters of East German intelligence, was hastily abandoned with the demise of the Berlin Wall. Led through a labyrinth of vacant interrogation rooms,surveillance equipment, and emptied file boxes, the camera stalks the relics of a panoptic bureaucracy. Installed as a double split-screen projection shown on opposing corners of the room, Stasi City creates a visual enclosure out of transverse and vertical symmetries, corridors of opened and closed doors. Of the displaced humanity, there is nothing but a fleeting glimpse of a woman’s legs disappearing in a paternoster and a figure floating weightlessly with a cushion and a thermos flask, as if the vacuum of power had allowed gravity itself to be overcome. Breaking the suspension of disbelief, the flask crashes to the floor. As with the click of the hypnotist’s fingers, we awake from the trance only to loop back into the fearful lull of conscious remission. With Stasi City, the Wilsons’ most accomplished and unforgettable installation to date, the sleep of reason has become a nightmare journey with eyes wide shut.