Jane and Louise Wilson at Serpentine Gallery, London (1999)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 7 October 2010
This review first appeared in Sculpture magazine, 19(1), pp. 66-7 in 2000.

Jane and Louise Wilson at Serpentine Gallery

The identical twins Jane and Louise Wilson presented three cinema-scale video installations, one sculpture, and nine C-Type prints on aluminum approaching “investigations into sites of political power”: a former secret police headquarters, a decommissioned cruise missile base, and Parliament. The Wilsons are shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious and contentious 1999 Turner Prize, cited for “their exhibition, Gamma‚ at the Lisson Gallery (London), which revealed the wit, intelligence, and drama of their work.”

According to Jane and Louise Wilson, “We are interested in documenting architectural phenomena, abandoned bureaucratic buildings, buildings where there is a pathology attached.” In Stasi City (1997), they selected the site of a now-abandoned secret police headquarters in East Berlin. The video clips [showed] empty, decaying interiors include offices, interrogation rooms with padded doors, and a hospital room. Empty monitors, a rotating mail sorter, and an older-style, continuously-revolving, open elevator illustrate design used for control and manipulation. Dramatic, jarring sounds include haunting footsteps and doors slamming and echoing in isolating corridors.

The Cold War memory-inducing subjects are psychologically intensified by the multiple, historical, and unknown narratives contained within the site. Further, Jane and Louise Wilson integrate the viewer by placing one projector on the floor—forcing the viewer’s shadow onto the sights and into the site on video. Disorientation and instability are further magnified by the use of a four-screen format—two are set together perpendicularly across two positioned in opposition. This emphasizes vantage point—you cannot see the video’s progression and contrasts at one time—and layers and shifts the narratives. Meanwhile, Stasi City relates to the sculpture Reconstruction of the doors of Erich Mielke’s office (1997). With this work, the Wilsons arranged the doors in such a way to suggest a strong association with the video, as if the video came to life.

On the other side of the former Cold War border in a similar four-screen format, Gamma (1999) shows Greenham Common, a decommissioned U.S. military base in Berkshire that housed nuclear cruise missiles. Presently abandoned, it remains part of the INF treaty until 2001, which allows for Russian military inspection at any time. Abandoned rooms, called “decontamination chamber” and “command centre,” dramatize the site, amidst unnerving sounds of switches and machinery in a Kubrick-esque manner. At the video’s end, one of the Wilsons penetrates the screen, walking next to a mirrored wall, further reflected off the floor, which plays off their physical likeness. Both Gamma and Stasi City continue Jane and Louise Wilsons’ earlier work of using spooky locations, such as an abandoned mansion and a seedy American roadside motel.

While Stasi City and Gamma reflect a previous era in specific, abandoned places, the sites of power take on a twist with Parliament (A Third House) (1999). Placed centrally in the “trilogy,” this work was filmed at the House of Commons and the House of Lords and commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery. Jane and Louise Wilson selected frames of Pugin’s interior, and machinery, amidst jarring sounds continuing a tweaked documentation of structure, hierarchy, and power. This work abstractly functions in contrast— or in alignment— to the two others, depending upon the viewer’s perception of “order,” how power is constructed, and how abuses of power are facilitated and exercised. Ultimately, the work raises universal questions about power constructions and the relationship between site, sights, and discourses. The Wilsons’ subject matter and techniques are accessible and slightly sensational, communicating to a wider audience and bringing the point home.

Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1967, Jane and Louise Wilson graduated from Goldsmiths College of Art University of London in 1992, and have recently exhibited at the LEA Gallery and Lisson Gallery in London, the Kunstverein Hannover, Germany, and the 303 Gallery in New York. They have worked collaboratively since 1989.