New York

Jane and Louise Wilson, Untitled #1 ‘I’d Walk with You but Not with Her’, 2020, ink-jet print, 60 × 43".

Jane and Louise Wilson, Untitled #1 ‘I’d Walk with You but Not with Her’, 2020, ink-jet print, 60 × 43".

Jane and Louise Wilson

Artists and identical twin sisters Jane and Louise Wilson, whose collaborative career spans more than thirty years, possess a seemingly insatiable appetite for all manner of psychic, social, and environmental catastrophes. Their remarkable Stasi City, 1997, a four-channel installation filmed inside the abandoned former headquarters of the East German secret police in Berlin, is a powerful evocation of the lingering toxicity associated with state-sponsored terror. In Face Scripting: What Did the Building See?, 2011, a collaborative effort between the sisters, the research group Forensic Architecture, and British writer Shumon Basar, they filmed the site where the Mossad executed a Palestinian member of Hamas. The deserted city of Pripyat—or Atomgrad, as it was known by Ukrainian locals—forever radioactive in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, captured the imagination of the artists, who in 2012 shot a series of photographs in the city, as well as a video dedicated to filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko, who documented the Chernobyl disaster only days after the meltdown.

While the Wilsons borrow heavily from documentary photography, they prioritize affective dimensions of loss and longing over objectivity. They make no promises that their forensic investigations will result in more knowledge about dark forces in history—such productive rationalism would only detract from the sense of desolation pervading their art. Deeply moved by distress and beauty, they tend to visually abstract and fragment their chosen subject as a way of slowing down the experience of something so profound it can never be fully grasped.

For their online 303 Gallery exhibition—which featured a new series of photographs and a 2018 video—the sisters probed life on the tiny South Korean island of Gapado in the East China Sea. It is home to a unique group of female free deep divers known as haenyeo, who are among its last inhabi-tants and are the last of their kind. In addition to possessing extraordinary physical abilities and knowledge of the sea, the women are also devout practitioners, or shamans, of centuries-old folk traditions that include shrine worship. Yet the divers are aging, many of the holy sites are abandoned, and the underwater wildlife they search for is disappearing. South Korea is also making a bid for Gapado’s survival based on tourism, renewable energy via solar and wind facilities, and an artist residency program—through which the Wilsons came to be there two summers ago.

Google Gapado Island for a quick take on its size and the new government-sponsored facilities: Images of a few altars and lots of happy vacationers taking in the scenery crop up. The scenes are a great foil to the Wilsons’ entrancing work in this presentation, which reveals the sisters’ penchant for enigmatic and, now more than ever, lush beauty. The artists aren’t interested in the future or in the ludicrous notion of sustainability when everything that has distinguished this place is disappearing—including the island itself due to climate change and rising seas. Seeking out the shrines, taking in the rocky shoreline, dwelling on the amazingly strange sea urchins the haenyeo harvest from the ocean floor, the Wilsons distill a stunning vision of the natural world, marrying discovery with inaccessibility, reverie with demise. In the photo series “I’d Walk with You but Not with Her,” 2018–20—comprising works produced as pigment prints on metallic Hahnemühle paper—the rocks might be tinted green, the sky lavender, the tidal beaches mauve, or the sea urchins psychedelic orange. Many of these hallucinatory pictures are ornamented with the addition of silk-screened layers of marks that read like illegible writing or washed-up seaweed on the shore. In others, wide swaths of bright-red acrylic paint are squeegeed onto surfaces. The result, a marvelous merging of cultural and natural signs, is utterly numinous.

Several of the photographs depict and intensify what must be the remnants of shrines—weather-beaten arrangements of large, rugged rocks decorated with pebbles artfully placed in their cracks and fissures. Perhaps these fanciful constructions serve as inspirational templates for the Wilsons’ new turn to enchantment. In these works, beauty does not dwell specifically in either artifice or veracity, but in the interaction of the two, as a commingled poetic device for conjuring oneness with the splendor and mystery of life, and with the way things used to be.