New York

Jane and Louise Wilson

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In Victor Pelevin’s 1993 novel Omon Ra, a Russian boy who dreams of becoming a cosmonaut and flying to the moon gets his wish: He is accepted into the space program and even chosen to represent the Soviet Union in the space race against the United States. But what awaits young Omon isn’t glory. Instead, he finds himself surrounded by grotesques—power-hungry flight officers, aged space dogs, and cadets whose legs have been amputated to accommodate tiny cockpits. Eventually Omon learns the truth about his mission, that he is to pilot an officially “unmanned” lunar vehicle to the moon—then shoot himself in the head when his job is completed.

Pelevin’s satiric portrait of the Soviet space program would never have seen the light of day in the USSR. In this regard, it is similar to Jane and Louise Wilson’s new video-projection works, Star City (all works 2000), based on footage from the Russian cosmonaut training center north of Moscow, and Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard, shot in the Baikonur cosmodrome in south Kazakhstan, Russia’s Cape Canaveral: All three offer views into a world that was until recently veiled by myth and secrecy.

The Wilson twins, who were shortlisted for last year’s Turner Prize, have made a career of filming such places. The abandoned headquarters of the East German secret police, a former US Air Force base in England, and casinos in Las Vegas have served as earlier subjects. Star City and Proton follow what has become for the Wilsons a fairly standard format. Video images are projected onto two pairs of screens that face each other, creating a diamond in which the viewer stands, surrounded by moving images. In the two works here, both filmed over the summer, the camera pans mechanically the surface of a space capsule and a control console; machine rooms, antique-looking medical wards, and dressing areas lined with space suits; and the depths of an underwater training facility. Accompanying the images is a sound track culled from the clank and drone of machines, peppered with disembodied voices speaking in Russian, punctuated by the clicks and beeps of a radio transmitter. As in the Wilsons’ earlier projects, the people in Star City and Proton are dwarfed by their surroundings and remain anonymous as they go about their business.

There is an eerie beauty to these works, and a sense of futility. One can’t help wondering if these efforts (underwater exercises, rocket guarding, launch-pad drills) aren’t in vain. The Russian space program still exists, but the training captured in the Wilsons’ videos seems more like theater than real preparation. The footage of underwater “hydrolaboratoria” does, however, conjure a recent event that briefly revived the Cold War mentality: the mysterious Kursk submarine disaster this summer, in which 118 Russian sailors perished at the bottom of the Barents Sea.

But if the Wilsons’ work suggests anything as specific as the Kursk, it’s probably more by accident than design. Unlike Pelevin, who sends up the Soviet system, the Wilsons aren’t satirists or myth wreckers. Seeking out environments shrouded in politics, history, or ideology, they inject their subjects with even greater doses of mystery, adding to rather than diminishing their aura. For the Wilsons, history serves up readymade subjects. Their virtuosity lies in taking that history and recharging it—putting back into circulation the old myths of fear or power or glamour or domination generated by these sites and subjects in the first place.

Martha Schwendener