New York

Jane and Louise Wilson

MTV meets the postmodern fragment—it’s a mode of practice that has become dominant in video installation. Multiple channels matched with wraparound sound, gorgeous image quality, and lots of hightech presentation hardware make for superlative theatricality that points toward the 4-D simulators and fully immersive environments poised to enhance gallery/museum/entertainment complexes in the very near future.

In lieu of tomorrow’s total illusionism, current installation protocol among artists including Doug Aitken, Shirin Neshat, and others calls for heavily edited footage of exotic locales and clusters of screens to suggestively transport viewers to another reality. Whether it’s the abandoned headquarters of the former secret police in East Berlin or a vast, sheltering desert in Kazakhstan, the intensity of place overlaid with historical or sociopolitical significance kindles myriad narrative dimensions. Actors animate the scenery without ever achieving the status of full-blown characters. These vagrant personifications of cultural moods and memories tug at viewers’ own experiences and fill in the considerable blanks that stand in lieu of plot.

Jane and Louise Wilson are pioneers in this field. Their images are some of the most haunting of the genre, and their success is predicated, in part, on their location work. In Stasi City, 1997, the twins visited the former headquarters of East Germany’s secret police. Seen in long tracking shots, a ghostlike female (one of the twins, in a flying harness) glides about, silently stalking the hideous past, looking to expose the terror still lurking in the empty interrogation rooms, endless corridors, trashed offices, and files. There’s no question about the authenticity of the place—and that is the source of our absorption and amazement. In Star City, 2000, the Wilsons visited an equally disconcerting and remote location—a former missile launch site and Russian space training center, now a relic of Russia’s decaying space program and a de facto monument to the high stakes of cold-war politics.

The Wilsons’ sleuthing has led them to discover yet another culturally loaded site—an abandoned state sanatorium, circa World War I, located in New Zealand and associated briefly with the development of eugenics. The title of Erewhon, 2004, borrowed from Samuel Butler’s eponymous satire set in Victorian-era New Zealand, almost spells “nowhere” backward. We savor that morsel while piggybacking on the Wilsons’ forensic cameras, tracing through the remains of life at the sanatorium in images that simultaneously play, fast and slow, on five screens (two of them cantilevered). At virtually every twist and turn we are prompted to imagine the horror of government-sponsored experiments on human bodies. An atmosphere of mourning and loss, coupled with prurient curiosity, spikes the historical spectacle that unfolds as we examine every nook and cranny of the hospital, dorms, grounds, and outbuildings that collectively reiterate principles of nineteenth-century social utopianism and, at same time, give testimony to the souring of social ideals into dystopic nightmares.

The Wilsons’ Erewhon is populated with a silent group of young women dressed in identical leotards and sheer knee-stockings who reference calisthenics (and occasionally a chorus line) in their frozen poses and zombielike approximations of exercise. When we’re not roaming the halls sniffing out the past, we’re in the gym watching these phantasms with their dazed demeanors. Attractive, young, safe from harm, they embody the human half-life of the place. It’s unfortunate that the gymnasts look so similar to Vanessa Beecroft’s models—and the troubles don’t end there. The Wilsons provide us with moments that are tragically beautiful and hugely provocative. But in spite of that, Erewhon is burdened by the weight of cliché. Indeed, it’s likely that the entire genre of video-luxe environmental installation art, characterized by spooky and culturally evocative locales and animated by melancholic characters who are ethereal, tormented, and usually female, has been done to death.

Jan Avgikos