Microchip processing plants, space training centers, and abandoned bunkers. These are just a few of the subjects represented in the work of British artists and twin sisters Jane and Louise Wilson. The Wilsons create captivating and ethereal photographs, videos, and installations of landscapes and architectural spaces that reveal layered narratives of history and mankind. In this episode, the Wilsons share how they began collaborating amidst an emerging London art scene and discuss significant works from their career. Jane and Louise Wilson were shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 and exhibit their work internationally.
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In Focus: Jane and Louise Wilson’s Sealander exhibition information
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Casemate SK667, Jane and Louise Wilson, 2006 object information
Serpentine Gallery, September 14-October 31, 1999 exhibition information
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LOUISE WILSON: We kind of always were in a dialogue and in a conversation, of course even as small kids, really, and doing artwork together. I think we were the only two students studying art A-level at our school. So the classroom was of us both, really.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with British artists Jane and Louise Wilson.
Twin sisters Jane and Louise Wilson are artists who have been making photographs, videos, and installations collaboratively since 1989. Their work is powerful, atmospheric, mysterious, and at times haunting. They explore what writer Fan Zhong describes as “spectacular falls from power” through images of abandoned institutional buildings, deserted military outposts, and other architectural ruins of modernity.
During an artist residency at the University of the Arts in London, Louise and Jane dug through the archives of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and created a film inspired by one of his unfinished projects, featuring the original actress whom Kubrick had cast for his film. After the reunification of Germany, Jane and Louise traveled to Stasi City, the abandoned headquarters of the defunct East German secret police, and created a jarring four-projection installation of the labyrinth of corridors and interrogation rooms of that complex. Through layered narratives about history and humanity, their work touches upon themes of surveillance, identity, memory, loss, and what has been called the “dark side of human experience.”
Their 2006 series Sealander is on view at the Getty through July 2, 2017. The installation features large-scale photographs of abandoned World War II bunkers along the European Atlantic coast. Jane and Louise recently visited the Getty to give a talk about their work, and I took the opportunity to speak with them beforehand.
So, Jane and Louise, how did you decide to be joint artists, working together rather than individually pursuing separate careers.
JANE WILSON: Before we went to do our MA at Goldsmiths, we did undergraduate degrees—
CUNO: —at separate places, though.
J. WILSON: At separate places, yes. Louise was at Duncan of Jordanstone and I was at Newcastle upon Tyne.
L. WILSON: Duncan of Jordanstone is in Dundee.
J. WILSON: And during that time, we started to work together, and we were producing photographs that involved each other in these sort of quite mise en scène set up tableaus. And we began to kind of do portraits together with each other, and eventually we realized that actually, working in this process, it was very clear that the work was not going to be divided out as such, but what we were going to do was to present two bodies of work, identical shows, in the different institutions that we were already studying at.
So it meant not only were we collaborating, but it also meant the institutions had to. So there was a kid of question about where that separation lies, but also how that kind of collaboration is formed. [CUNO: Yeah] And from then—
L. WILSON: From then, it was logical to make a joint application to do our MA at Goldsmiths. So we made a joint application for a two-year course. But actually, we kind of always were in a dialog and in a conversation. Of course, even as small kids, doing artwork together. I think we were the only two students studying art A-level at our school. So the classroom was of us both.
CUNO: Did you start with camera or video equipment?
J. WILSON: Well, actually, we were drawing and painting, as all people do—woodcuts, all sorts of things, creating, you know, a fine art practice, is what we came from. And it grew out of that, in terms of them moving to the photographic and then to shooting on super 8, and then gradually building up to using more technology in terms of the video
CUNO: So this is before you went on to Goldsmiths?
L. WILSON: No, at Goldsmiths, we were—well, our actual final submission, when Jane mentioned when I was at Dundee and Jane was in Newcastle, the reason why we had identical degree shows was because we were printing up our own photographs and we could do two of everything. And we used to print up large-scale black and white images of, as Jane described, ourselves in various staged mise en scènes, and a kind of performance.
And what was extraordinary is, of course, at Dundee, I was just seen as one individual; at Newcastle, Jane was seen at one individual. And of course, there was this double that appeared in the works at the colleges, so this was this kind of sort of interesting kind of play that we could feel, in terms of our living situation, but also in terms of our work in relationship with the institution.
CUNO: [over L. WILSON] Did this continue at Goldsmiths? I mean, did you, for your MA, produce a single body of work as two artists?
L. WILSON: We did.
J. WILSON: I think when we went to Goldsmiths, it was very clear, as well—that’s part of the reason why we really wanted to apply there, because the first question they’d said to us was, “Who gets the M and who gets the A?” It was that kind of casual [they laugh]—so that was like, I think this is a good college for us. [laughter] You were very independent, you had your own studio and you worked independently. But they were also very encouraging of practice and of a more expanded idea of work.
L. WILSON: [over J. WILSON] Of course, and of collaboration.
J. WILSON: Yeah.
CUNO: So what was in like, in addition to that? I mean, what other artists were there with you at the time?
L. WILSON: At the time, we also had Glenn Brown, I don’t know whether you know, as a painter, who has had a very successful career. And Siobhán Hapaska was there.
J. WILSON: [over L. WILSON] And Mark Wallinger was just the year above us.
L. WILSON: And Thomas Demand was [L. WILSON: Yeah] also there as well.
CUNO: [over L. WILSON] Did you work together well or closely? Or was it pretty much a competitive environment and artists didn’t work—didn’t share each other’s work?
J. WILSON: I mean, I think it’s really hard when you’re kind of an undergrad.
L. WILSON: [over J. WILSON] It was intense, but it was a good intense environment. I would say competitive, yes, but also—it was sort of such an intense period to go through, because if you imagine, you had to work part-time to support yourself, because we didn’t sort of get a grant as such. And you would meet every two weeks. So you would meet at a seminar environment for two sessions, and then a third session would be a breakfast studio visit with one of the artists that was in the course with you. And I mean, these sessions would go on for about three or four hours.
So you know, there were really intense meetings, although every fortnight. And you felt like you went through this experience together. You shared an experience with your fellow artists. And—
J. WILSON: I think it’s important to have that identity, that you’re also part of a cohort there and you’re kind of learning. But you’re also at a stage of just absorbing so much information and being able to process things that I think it was a really intense period. But also, I think what was key is that at that time in London, there wasn’t the same kind of globalized art world that there is now, so it was a very different space. And you know, the idea that you would instantly move into galleries and have exhibitions and be commercial, it was starting to begin, and it was pre-the internet.
CUNO: Yeah, how soon was there an identity for a generation of young British artists?
L. WILSON: Actually, it was around about that time, because we graduated in ’92 from Goldsmiths, and Frieze was was in the early nineties.
CUNO: Did you identify yourself with that generation?
L. WILSON: Actually, because they did the undergraduate [course]. So Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume and Abigail Lane and all of those artists, Michael Landy—they all did the undergraduate course at Goldsmiths. So they’d gone through a three-year course together, whereas we were doing the MA course, which was, as I mentioned, part-time and a two-year [course], and a bit more remote, because you had your own studio separately.
CUNO: Yeah. So in 1999, you were nominated for the Turner Prize. What did it meant to you then, already in 1999, to be nominated for the Turner Prize?
L. WILSON: I mean, it was great, of course. But I think you just sort of felt everything happened really quickly that year. Because we also did our first solo show at the Serpentine. And that opened around about the same time as the Turner Prize exhibition did. So it was quite interesting. I think you just sort of just thought, well, you just go with the flow and do it, really, you know?
But it was a very different entity, I think, the Turner Prize then. It’s interesting; it went through a lull, where people sort of felt, oh, maybe the Turner Prize, it’s, you know, it’s a pointless competition to have in a sense. But actually, now it’s come back, because there’s some really interesting artists each year in the list of nominations.
J. WILSON: I also think it was very different pre-2000, when, there wasn’t Tate Modern—you just had the Tate. And having a new modern art museum, for the first time, there was something like the, the Turbine Hall. And you had something like Olafur Eliasson doing his installation there. So there was a very different kind of sensibility around London and contemporary art at that point.
L. WILSON: [over J. WILSON] It’s true. It became more measured in terms of it being an event. You know, it sort of became one of many events, somehow.
CUNO: [over L. WILSON] Describe the exhibition at the Serpentine for us.
L. WILSON: [over CUNO] Well, we showed three video installations that related. In the west gallery, we showed a piece called Gamma, which was filmed in former Greenham Common. It was an American cruise missile base that was based in Berkshire, in England. And this had just been decommissioned in 1990. And we filmed there in 1998.
J. WILSON: The area that we filmed was called Gamma that was still subject to a treaty, which would end in 2000. So although the rest of the site had been pretty much decommissioned, there was one area that was still open to a Russian inspection team, who would come and inspect it to make sure that there was no American missiles there. And there would be an equivalent inspection team that would go to a site in Russia to make sure that there was no, Russian missiles. So there was this strange kind of hangover from what was, obviously, the Cold War past, but was still reenacting itself, in terms of this site, the Gamma site.
L. WILSON: Which brings me neatly about to the east gallery, where we showed our work Stasi City, which was filmed in a former Stasi headquarters and in a former Stasi prison, in former East Berlin. So that was in the east gallery. And then in the north gallery, we had a new video installation that we made that year, which was a piece called Parliament.
And it was filmed in the houses of Parliament during the summer recess. And in the south gallery is the entrance where you came in, there were photographs and sculptures.
CUNO: Were there any people involved in these videos?
J. WILSON: Well, yes.
CUNO: [over J. WILSON] I ask that because when you look at the reproductions in the catalogs sometimes the videos and the photographs are seemingly the same. In other words, often you’re taking videos of architectural sites that are unpopulated by people. So I ask the question to understand for the listeners to the podcast what it was that we’re seeing in the Serpentine—there in that exhibition.
J. WILSON: Well, I think they all had a very different particular approach, in terms of how we worked within the actual individual sites. So something like Stasi City, as Louise mentioned, was in the abandoned prison and in the old former Stasi headquarters. But it was a four-screen installation, it was very much considering this idea of the viewer being somebody who is also being watched while they’re watching. So there was this kind of sense of also being aware of a person, but also being aware of the surveillance camera. So this kind of created this very different kind of environment, in terms of the way that you looked at the images. But yes, there was a figure that features that appears, that moves through.
L. WILSON: [over J. WILSON] That’s—it’s ourselves, basically. We both appear in the works, in all three works. At points, Jane is behind camera, and at points, I’m behind camera. So there is this idea that Jane mentioned of thinking about the mechanics of surveillance, about how we survey, and how we survey one another, and how we perform in front of one another.
CUNO: Was this a departure in your work, or was this something you’d been exploring by then already for some time?
J. WILSON: Well, I think we were looking, certainly, at far sites around kind of performance and cinema. I mean, we’d done a hypnosis piece, where we’d been hypnotized together and sitting alongside each other with an English hypnotist and a Portuguese hypnotist. So we had created certain staged pseudo scenes, scenarios. I mean, that was very much inspired from the Jean Cocteau quote, all cinema is a form of mass hypnosis. So of course, that kind of fueled on certain ideas around that.
But thinking about the Stasi City piece, that was very different, because I think what we had was a political, immediate context in terms of what the site was that was actually very loaded.
L. WILSON: And I think it’s a really interesting time to think the Serpentine show was in 1999. It’s often sort of, you think from that period of ’91 to 2001—it almost feels like a little bit of a lost decade in a sense, but it was also during the collapse of the Cold War.
CUNO: What makes something, for you, need to be a photograph and something else need to be a video work?
J. WILSON: It’s a good question. Recently we visited Chernobyl, and we were there in 2010, and we photographed some of the buildings in around the town of Pripyat, and looking specifically at the kindergarten, the swimming pool, and at the public centers of what was the city. And it was very clear to us that they really existed quite powerfully as still images, and that the moving image work, which we subsequently made, the film The Toxic Camera, was something that happened in Paragovo, which was the nuclear waste facility where everything that was used to clean up this site of Pripyat, was then taken to and buried for safety.
So the filming was very much chasing this notion of where the toxic material had ended up, rather than the actual aftermath of Pripyat where we left them as a still image.
L. WILSON: The reason why the work was called The Toxic Camera was because when we were doing our research in Kiev, we had happened upon a film by a Ukrainian filmmaker called Vladimir Shevchenko. And he made a film called Chernobyl: Chronical of Difficult Weeks where he was given access three days after the nuclear meltdown in 1986 to film the cleanup operation. He sadly passed away eight months after filming because he had obviously been exposed to radiation. But what was very interesting was that we interviewed his surviving members of the film crew who had worked with him. And they told us that the camera that he had used, which was a Russian Bolex called a Convas Avtomat, had been taken from the film school where he taught two years after the film had been made, and was buried in this site, Paragovo. And we found this fascinating that the story was about the camera and the act of looking again. But also, that the camera was fascinating because it captured the impact of radiation on celluloid for the first time.
And this would not have happened, had it been a digital format. But because it was analog and it was 35 mm film, it caught the impact of gamma rays coming through, which kind of caused like a fogging. But what was extraordinary was Shevchenko’s film was a document of an event, but it actually became an event in the process. So this is a really extraordinary part of the story that we wanted to explore in a way.
J. WILSON: Absolutely to see as Louise said, we didn’t know when we went to interview the surviving film crew that the camera was even an issue. You know, it was something that they just told us in passing. And I think that’s what really brought forward a lot of those ideas in terms of where we really wanted to look at making a film.
L. WILSON: But I think and interesting—in terms of what—whether—you know, it always comes back to the photographic image. Even the film, the starting point is always from the photographic image. So it’s—the two are in tandem, in a sense.
J. WILSON: Yeah.
CUNO: Talk about your working process. That is, how you come to agree on what you’re going to pursue, what the image will be like, and whether it will be film or whether it be a video, what kind of camera you use.
J. WILSON: I mean, each project often just kind of directs you a little bit, in terms of where you are, in terms of what you’re bringing, what literally you can accommodate, what you can’t. Also, you know, the boring question of some budget and other things. So things like equipment come in under those kind of headings. But in terms of how we work as a process, often it’s amassing a lot, a lot of material that we then document and record, and then bring together. And it’s very much a process of then editing down what we have, but doing that in tandem with each other.
L. WILSON: And perhaps there’s an element of it where you work together where you want to kind of present to one another something that you haven’t seen before. [J. WILSON: Mm-hm] And that’s always the impulse, [J. WILSON: To engage] is to kind of engage and to see, you know, to kind of feel—obviously, that comes from a level of trust and a connection—familial, of course, in our case—but in a collaborative endeavor, I think it does. But I think it is that ability to kind of go on that journey without knowing the outcome.
J. WILSON: To step outside of yourself.
L. WILSON: Yeah.
CUNO: Are you both equally behind the camera in a project? [L. WILSON: I don’t think—] Or does someone dominate more behind the camera one project and someone else, one of you, in the other project?
L. WILSON: I mean, it doesn’t really bother us, because actually, it’s not about having an equal time in terms of tasks or labor, in fact. It is actually that idea that actually, you think about, you know, making work 99% hard work, 1%, you know, inspiration, whatever it is. But actually, I think what you’re interested in is seeing something that challenges you and excites you. And that’s just bottom line what interests us about working together.
CUNO: So a year after the Turner Prize, you presented a mysterious set of images that are mysterious residues of a space flight, in Star City, of empty spacesuits in a cosmonaut training center in Kazakhstan. Tell us about that project and also describe it for us.
L. WILSON: Well, it was very interesting. We were invited to do a show in a gallery in Moscow called Gallery TV. And whilst we were there we met with the British Consul in Moscow, and they introduced us to a wonderful woman called Dr. Elizabeth Bell, who was a scientist based with the British Consul. And she said it would be a really interesting project to encourage a science-art collaboration.
J. WILSON: A crossover.
L. WILSON: A crossover. And that was her—kind of her role, to encourage that. I hasten to add this was sort of slightly pre-President Putin, but relations were rather more harmonious at that point in time. And so we spoke with the Russian space agency. We met with them and we discussed, through our guidance from Elizabeth Bell, we discussed filming in Star City. And then she said, “Well, if you film in Star City, which is north of Moscow and it’s the cosmonaut training program, you must film in the sister site,” which is Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, which is where the space program and all of the rockets—the Proton rocket, the Soyuz rocket, and Energia, Buran were all launched from that site.
But what was amazing about Baikonur is that it’s a piece of Russia that’s sanctioned that was basically on loan or kind of rented by the Kazakh government to the Soviet, former Soviet Union.
J. WILSON: Because, after glasnost, Yeltsin had sold it, basically. So this was this jewel in the crown of what was space exploration in terms of the Soviet Union. But obviously, they had to hemorrhage certain things, and that was one of the first things that they did, which was to sell this back to the Kazakh government, which they would then rent. So it became a financial [L. WILSON: arrangement] transaction.
But it was interesting to know that there was a real link from Moscow, from Star City, all the way direct to Baikonur and Kazakhstan. And so they would, you know, send things down on a rail link. Which was incredible, that these sites were linked.
L. WILSON: And there’s an extraordinary story, as well, that we were there, they mentioned, the Russian space agency that, you know, Lenin was God and Gagarin was Christ. And you think about that sort of the—almost this kind of religious endeavor of doing the space program. Because it meant progress, but of course, somewhere like Baikonur was where Yuri Gagarin was first launched from in a Soyuz rocket.
So it had a kind of very powerful kind of identity with a lot the [J. WILSON: Yeah] Soviet Union.
CUNO: There’s one image in which you show six chairs behind a desk with six microphones. And on one side there are Russian names, the other side U.S. names. There’s a Russian flag on one side and a U.S. flag on the other side. And no one’s visible in the room. It’s as if this nostalgia for a time in which there was cooperation, as you said, but there’s no longer cooperation.
L. WILSON: Well, in our discussions to film in Baikonur, we met the Russian space agency in Moscow and they said, “Well, which sites would you like to film in?” And we said, “Well, we actually don’t really know because we’ve not been there before.” And so they said, “Well, actually, this is the first time we have a book in English and Russian,” because of the Russian-American collaboration to do this first launch. And that they produced this book. And it documented all the sites in Baikonur, all the launch sites. Because these are like 200 kilometers apart. You know, it’s a big area.
J. WILSON: They give you a map.
L. WILSON: Exactly. [J. WILSON: Yeah] They gave you a map. So we could work out from that and they said— [she chuckles] it was very extraordinary—I remember them saying, “Well, you can take the book home and you can read it from cover to cover, but you mustn’t copy anything.” And we dutifully nodded our heads and said, “Certainly, we won’t copy anything.” And then they said, “But actually, to take it out of the building, they have to wrap it in newspaper.” This mentality was just extraordinary.
J. WILSON: Yes. I mean, well, it was very useful, because unfortunately, we did copy it at the TV Gallery. But it obviously got us there.
CUNO: And these works were first shown in Russia?
L. WILSON: Actually, [J. WILSON: No] you know what? That’s a real shame because there was conversation to do that. But it’s extraordinary, you know, Stasi City has never been shown in Berlin. [laughter]
CUNO: Oh, right.
L. WILSON: And the works that were made in Russia, unfortunately, have not been shown.
CUNO: So you don’t have a Russian reaction to the projects?
L. WILSON: Well, we had hoped we would have been able to show Dreamtime in Kazakhstan, actually. We went to Almaty. And we had discussions there with the British Consul and we had hoped that it could’ve been staged. But I don’t think there was the kind of facility at that point.
J. WILSON: No. No.
CUNO: What about the project in 2003, Safe Light, which is a microchip factory, I think, completely unpopulated, but evidence that there have been people there, just a moment before you photographed or videoed the scene. Tell us about that and the extraordinary clarity of these images and the kind of antiseptic quality of the environment that you had to capture in your video and in the film.
L. WILSON: Well, they’re bathed in a yellow light because safe light is like the safety light that you have in the darkroom. These were images that were shot inside a microchip processing plant called Atmel. I think it’s an American [J. WILSON: Yes] microchip processing plant. The building had been originally set up by Siemens, for microchip processing, and then it was taken over by this company called Atmel.
What was fascinating to us was that it was, I think, six floors. And five floors functioned to make one floor absolutely the perfect conditions for—you could almost have an operation in that room. But it was because to not have any contamination in the microchip processing.
J. WILSON: But also to make it into a giant architectural camera as such, because it is working as a functioning building, as a process.
CUNO: It looks as if, in this antiseptic quality, it has a kind of dangerous allure to it. The colors are intense, this kind of brightly yellows and oranges. The lighting is strange, shall we say, lighting. What is it that attracted you to this location for a project? Was it narrative that would be indelibly part of it? Or was it the formal qualities of the architecture and the equipment?
L. WILSON: I think it was the formal qualities, but also the fact that it was a way to kind of visualize an idea of mass automation. And to think about what we were really intrigued by was a kind of architecture where its function dictated its form.
J. WILSON: It was very much inspired because the piece became a thirteen-screen installation, which was a multi-screen installation, which was called Free and Anonymous Monument. And it was based on Victor Pasmore’s pavilion, the Apollo Pavilion, which is in Peterlee, which is a new town in the northeast, and it was named after a famous miner, Peter Lee. There had been several exhibitions around Victor Pasmore and his work and his oeuvre. But a lot of them deleted any mention of this pavilion and the town and everything else, because actually, it had become a bit of an eyesore to the local community.
L. WILSON: It’s actually a beautiful [J. WILSON: Yeah.] Brutalist [J. WILSON: structure] concrete structure. And it wasn’t that it had sort of become an eyesore as such, it was just that it hadn’t been maintained.
J. WILSON: No, it hadn’t.
L. WILSON: [over J. WILSON] There was an element of feeling of why is this art? Is it a provocation? Perhaps a sculpture of the famous miner, Peter Lee, would’ve been more acceptable. But in fact, what was so brilliant about Pasmore’s impulse to produce a “free and anonymous monument,” which is how he described it, was because he was given the option to produce anything for his legacy.
I mean, he could’ve produced a town hall, he could’ve produced a library, he could’ve produced an institution of some kind of civic quality. But instead, he chose to do [a] free and anonymous monument. Which was entirely a work that if you think about it, its function did not have to necessarily dictate its form.
J. WILSON: Yeah.
CUNO: So most of these projects were produced by you within just a few years after the Turner Prize exhibition itself. So say, 2003, so four years later. I’m looking at some images in a catalog from four years after that, 2008, 2009, of a body of work called Oddments. Very different in the sense that it’s looking at an archive, a library, filled with old books, not antiseptic machines of the new age, but rather of some earlier age, in which a mysterious figure is walking through it. Can you describe that for us?
J. WILSON: The oddments rooms were photographed in Maggs Antiquarian Bookstore, which is—was, rather, in Berkeley Square. And sadly, it’s no longer there, it no longer exists. But the oddments rooms were fascinating because they’re basically—
L. WILSON: First editions.
J. WILSON: First editions, yeah.
L. WILSON: I mean, worth thousands and thousands of pounds, a lot of them
J. WILSON: But missing a frontispiece or missing something in the spine or certain parts to make them a complete valuable book. They were oddments. And what we wanted to do is photograph and stage something within that after being inspired by the Kubrick Archives.
L. WILSON: And so the figure is One of us. [she laughs] And it’s a back view.
CUNO: [over L. WILSON] Only one of you.
L. WILSON: It’s only one of us.
CUNO: It’s not—it could be either of you.
L. WILSON: Yeah, exactly. And each pairing is with a single measure.
CUNO: This body of work looks as if a crime is about to take place or a crime has taken place. There’s a mystery element of this. What was that for you? Why were you trying to do that?
J. WILSON: I guess there’s a different kind of narrative within these because they’re very much pre-what we did in terms of the Kubrick Archive. And it led to a work which is called Unfolding the Aryan Papers. But at the time, we were researching still images from the archive in Kubrick’s archive, and also looking at images that he’d acquired from the Ealing film archive, which became very key for us in terms of thinking about how people took frames of measurement in terms of designs for set building and for recreating architectural fragments, but also for making it for the purposes of film. So it was an interesting process that from the thirties and forties was often used in terms of using the yardstick measure and somebody holding them there.
CUNO: Yeah, describe that to us. You put this into these photographs. These are long, thin pieces of wood that are painted black and white, sometimes checkerboard looking, sometimes striped. What do they measure? And what did you mean by including them in these photographs?
L. WILSON: They’re a two-yard stick. So it’s like a kind of roughly six foot. So it would’ve been a kind of adult male.
J. WILSON: Human scale.
L. WILSON: Human scale. As Jane mentioned, they were used for set design. But it was also a kind of indicator that was placed for scale. And also for forensic photography as well.
CUNO: So looking at these images, one wants to suggest that you are thinking about triggering a kind of walking through a mind or—and that’s M-I-N-D not M-I-N-E. Because this is accumulated thoughts that are put on these pages of all these books. And we see this person, one of you, either Louise or Jane, from behind as if going deeper and deeper and deeper into this, this mine of information and knowledge. Which is past information, past knowledge, so it’s going backwards in time. Did you have a sense of that, as well?
J. WILSON: I think it’s a beautiful description, what you’ve just used there, but I also think as well, it really talks about the process of film, and the process of a manuscript, and the process of a film manuscript, and the idea of tracing back a story and tracing back through a narrative, and understanding how you kind of then move back through into a historical moment and consider that. So it’s very much a threshold space.
CUNO: So you’ve referenced this project Unfolding the Aryan Papers, which was two years before Oddments, 2006 or so. Tell us about that.
L. WILSON: So Jane was mentioning about looking at these images from the Kubrick Archive. We were given access to the archive initially for ten days in 2008. And then of course, this became a lot more as we got more involved. But our first thought was, there was so much in this archive. It was fascinating. But then we thought, well, how do we start? How do we access this? Because Kubrick is such an incredible artist of the twentieth century. How do we access what he has done in a way? And we thought, well, the only way to do it was to maybe look at the projects that hadn’t happened. And one was a film on Napoleon, and the other was a film called Aryan Papers.
J. WILSON: We saw images of what appeared to be a wardrobe shoot, and we were looking at these images, seeing—
L. WILSON: [over J. WILSON] The same lady.
J. WILSON: The same lady, yes. And actually, it wasn’t a wardrobe shoot with a model; she was, in fact, the lead actress, Johanna ter Steege, and she would have been the lead in the film had the film Aryan Papers been made. So these images were very intriguing to us because we were just very curious about this mysterious figure.
And often the views would be back views because they’re looking at clothes. So this was a sort of inspiration for us in terms of what we did in the oddments room photographs. And we worked with her after we’d photographed in the oddments room on a film called Unfolding the Aryan Papers. And those are film stills from the actual piece of work that we made called Unfolding the Aryan Papers.
L. WILSON: And actually just to mention that Aryan Papers—the script is based on a book by the writer Louis Begly called Wartime Lies. And it’s a fascinating slim volume of a book based on a true story of an aunt and her nephew, who are forced into the Warsaw ghetto but manage to escape by passing themselves off as Catholics through this process of gaining Aryan papers. And so it would’ve been an identification to kind of obviously escape the worst of the ghetto. So it’s [J. WILSON: Yeah] very much about that diaspora, that [J. WILSON: Yes] displacement through the Holocaust.
CUNO: Yeah. You’re becoming, at this point in your career, a bigger storyteller than you were in the—2001, 2002, 2003, when you were taking photographs and taking videos of silent operating rooms, shall we say, in a scientific sense. What did that mean for you? What compelled you to these stories?
L. WILSON: I mean, when you say we became a bigger storyteller we do have to thank Mr. Stanley Kubrick, who was an extraordinary, you know—so—I mean, of course, I’m just thinking—but actually, in a way, what became for us the intriguing process about this work was the time shift. Like Jane mentioned, you know, when Johanna was originally cast in the role it was 1993. We have stills of her from 1993, undergoing her workshops and her thinking for the character. But we film here in 2008 performing some of her lines and restaging some of the workshops.
So there’s a constant sort of sense in which you feel she’s caught between this being and becoming. And so the actress herself, actually, she never ever inhabited the lead role. But actually, there’s something really compelling about that possibility of her becoming somehow. And that’s where she says, [J. WILSON: Yeah] in some respects. So we were really intrigued about that.
J. WILSON: Yeah. I think it’s very much, as Louise says, it’s very much about those between those two stages and between those two states. So it has a different kind of narrative impulse, in terms of what it’s exposing, but also looking in too, it has a different kind of complexity, I suppose, because you’re actually really understanding that time shift in that real moment of time, but also understanding the inability to actually be present in that, but also the experiment to try and achieve that.
CUNO: Mm-hm. I could understand that you would be attracted to the work of a filmmaker, because you’re moving image artists yourself. But why Kubrick, of all of them?
L. WILSON: He was an amazing stills photographer, [J. WILSON: Photographer.] above all. I mean, images, of course.
J. WILSON: Yeah. It’s always been images.
L. WILSON: Yeah.
CUNO: But was it also the mysteries that he told and the stories that he told when he made his moving images?
J. WILSON: I mean, I think often, that’s how he chooses to frame things, how he looks at things through the camera, how he actually, you know, makes you see something afresh, see something different. It’s very challenging, always, how he’s worked in terms of the technology that he brought towards his film, whether he was developing special lenses, or even inventing, of course, which is what everybody uses now, the Steadicam.
L. WILSON: But also, I think about how important Tarkovsky was, as well, to a whole generation [J. WILSON: Yeah] of artist filmmakers as well. I think, you know, we go back to something, a piece like Stasi City where there’s a figure levitation sequence at one point. And this is a kind of direct quotation from Solaris in the movie where they actually achieve zero gravity.
J. WILSON: And I think it’s interesting, as well, because it’s the architecture in that site because that building was so in a vacuum, literally, in terms of what had been left after the collapse of the wall. Nobody had really touched anything or wanted to deal with anything. In fact, it was seen as a kind of possible memorial site. Gradually over the time, we gained trust and we were gradually able to open more and more doors and to see things and to look at the bureaucratic buildings that they had there.
But it was a very slow process of gaining that kind of ability to go through and to see them. But also when you were there, you were very conscious that you weren’t going to touch anything or interfere with anything or disrupt anything. And so we had this very strange situation where we did film a figure levitation sequence. But we had to do that with an independent scaffold using wires that could not be drilled into any of the walls of the room that we were filming in because it was still seen as a memorial site. So there was a very tough set of decisions around that. But it really meant for a work that was uniquely sited in that architecture.
L. WILSON: And also, I think it’s interesting to imagine that at that time, you could travel thousands and thousands of miles into space in East Berlin but you could not take that short journey across [J. WILSON: To the west] the wall—to the west.
CUNO: Now, you’re here at the Getty because we have on view a series of photographs of yours you’ve entitled Sealander. And they date from 2006. They’re large black and white images of abandoned World War II bunkers erected under Hitler along the European Atlantic coast. And they’re at once large, abstract, concrete shapes, of a kind that we might prize as Modern, Brutalist architecture; or for what they were, large, defensive forms used in wartime; or now what they might seem to be, a kind of Stonehenge-like fragments of a civilization now forgotten. What attracted you to those and was that a departure for you from the work that you’d been doing?
L. WILSON: I mean, of course, we’ve always been aware of Paul Virilio’s wonderful bunker archeology. But we were also really intrigued by an essay that J. G. Ballard had written called “A Handful of Dust” where he talks about the sort of failed Modernist project of postwar architecture, in particular, of the bunkers along the Normandy coastline. And he describes these almost as being sort of left by another civilization of mad scientists obsessed with war and geometry and death. And I just think this is something really extraordinary to kind of see. And of course, it’s from the perspective of a science fiction writer. So that was really inspired by Ballard, but also I think, you know, to go into those spaces and just to kind of see the corporeality of these structures. And also the feeling of whether or not—are they going into the sea, or are they emerging from the sea?
CUNO: Yeah. I think there are bunkers in Vienna and in Berlin that are so firm, so strongly constructed, that they can’t be destroyed, or that it’d be too complicated to destroy them. Are these similarly, that they can’t be easily blown up and destroyed?
L. WILSON: And of course. And that’s what’s brilliant. It goes—if you kind of go back to 2003 and you look at A Free and Anonymous Monument and you think of the Apollo Pavilion, the local community had wanted it to be removed. But of course they discovered that it would probably take the size of a small H-bomb to get rid of it because it was such solid concrete. So this is the kind of really intriguing sort of thing about these bunkers, in a sense, and this Brutalist architecture, is that it speaks of a sort of time, of an impermanence. But actually, they’re so kind of, you know, difficult to—
J. WILSON: And what I think’s so interesting about them is that as you pointed out, they are these kind of modern day ruin, and they don’t go away. You know, they’re still there, embedded in the landscape and still part of that history. So I think those kind of very strong sculptural qualities of—you know, and Ballard talks about it coming from a race of Teutonic knights obsessed with geometry and death. [they chuckle] You know, this is kind of very loaded. But it is very curious to see these relics.
CUNO: Yeah. So we’re now in 2017. The once Cold War has past, and the post-Cold War is past, and we’re on a warming-up war, it seems. What’s next for you?
L. WILSON: Well, what’s next for us is to tour the work that we just showed recently at our exhibition in Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, in MIMA. It’s a work called Undead Sun: We Put the World Before You. Two film installations that we made. One was funded by the Wellcome Trust, and the other was funded from the Imperial War Museum and the Arts Council. So it kind of gives you some idea of coming full circle from 1914 to 2014, when we made Undead Sun. And from 2018, when we will show Undead Sun: We Put the World Before You, which will be, of course, the centennial since the end of the First World War.
J. WILSON: And 2018 is also interesting because we would hopefully be showing some of our work at the Met. And it will be in an exhibition called Art and Conspiracy. So that’s also coming up.
CUNO: Yeah. So you’re not running out of political war-type subject matter.
J. WILSON: We might be going to an archipelago.
L. WILSON: We don’t know.
J. WILSON: We don’t know.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, we’re thrilled to have Sealander, to have the exhibition here. So thank you very much.
J. WILSON: Thank you.
CUNO: Thanks for your time, too.
L. WILSON: Thank you.
J. WILSON: Thank you very much.
CUNO: With this episode, we finish the first year of Art and Ideas. We think we’ve struck a chord with you and we thank you for your interest. If you have suggestions about what you’d like to hear in upcoming episodes or want to tell us how we’re doing, let us know by writing a review on Apple Podcasts, tweeting me @JimCuno, or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be back on July 12th with a new season of Art and Ideas. Until then, thanks very much for listening.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
LOUISE WILSON: We kind of always were in a dialogue and in a conversation, of course even as small k...
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