Jane and Louise Wilson

The conventions are those of a horror movie. Noises are a little too loud, a little too clear, like the sound of footsteps echoing behind a threatened heroine, footsteps that may be those of the murderer—or are they just her own? Doors suddenly close, apparently of their own volition. A poltergeist? Or, perhaps more frightening yet, the invisible yet still menacing specter of the national security state?

The melodramatic note is mostly mine; Gamma, 1999, the new video-projection work by British artists Jane and Louise Wilson, is in part notable for the formal discipline that keeps its creepy overtones always in mind but always in check. Gamma is clearly a companion piece to their earlier Stasi City, 1997. (They are also showing some related photographs and sculpture, but the four-screen projection is the heart of the recent exhibition.) Both video works were possible to make only because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent winding down of the Cold War: Stasi City was shot in Berlin, in the abandoned headquarters of the East German secret police, while Gamma was filmed in a former United States Air Force base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, England, the site since 1981 of the Women’s Peace Camp, which began as a continuous nonviolent protest against the stationing of cruise missiles there. The blockade neither prevented emplacement of the missiles nor caused their removal (the signing of the INF Treaty in 1987 led to the return of the missiles to the US by 1991), but the movement’s linkage of feminism and antimilitarism was profoundly influential on radical politics worldwide.

As the camera’s eye restlessly but inexorably roves through the empty base, occasionally offering glimpses of uniformed female figures silently moving through the spaces like faceless shadows, that background history is nowhere explicitly manifest. Yet in our awareness of it, we understand that the work’s subject is not only the place itself—the mysteries of the site to which the protesters, like other civilians, were forbidden. It is also the question of what it would mean if those who had placed themselves outside this space and in opposition to it were to appropriate it, along with the spiritual price of that appropriation, the question of how it would feel to be part of the military machine, part of the security apparatus.

Of course, you can never really know that until you’ve become part of the machine—and maybe we all are, except that then there would be no wondering. It’s like imagining what it would be like to be dead, a thought that contains its own contradiction. Certainly there is something deathly about these chilly spaces. As the single glimpse we are allowed of a face shows, the women robotically keeping guard over these vacant corridors are the artists themselves. The fact that they are twins finds its formal echo in the repeated visual mirrorings and doublings that occur throughout the piece, not to mention the warning that appears on the door to an ultra-high-security area: TWO MAN POLICY/NO LONE ZONE, as though the attachment they must implicitly feel could be transformed by another logic into mutual surveillance. Through the canny intersection of a severely formal approach and an unusually resonant site, the Wilsons have managed to make a work that is—without diaristic particularism or overt didacticism—at once intensely personal and profoundly historical.

Barry Schwabsky