Twins Jane and Louise Wilson began collaborating in 1989, gaining recognition in the 90s as Young British Artists, with video and photographic works often documenting hostile, uninhabited spaces. We talk to them about their show at DCA
Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)
You might not recall what you were doing when co-founder of Hamas, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was found murdered in a Dubai hotel room on 19 January 2010. Why would you? The Middle East is far away. But the chances are, you watched video footage of it soon afterwards. Having pieced together images from hundreds of CCTV and face recognition cameras to trace the assassins, Dubai state police then posted the footage on YouTube.
This sounds unremarkable until you consider Dubai’s major preoccupation with security, and the state’s control of public space. YouTube is the home of the amateur photographer. But had you been bumming around Dubai with your iPhone (perhaps on a Gap Yah), you would not have been able to capture the footage yourself.
“To go into Dubai as a filmmaker and point a camera at one of their buildings… My God!” says Louise Wilson. “They’ve got technology everywhere. There are images being grabbed all the time. But if you take a camera and shoot anything, you get arrested. There’s a sensibility of, ‘It’s ok for us! We’re everywhere. We’re Image Gathering.’ So even to just try and get in there to film is half the battle.”
And she should know. Jane and Louise Wilson are seasoned professionals at gaining access to forbidden areas. Producing multi-screen video installations and large-scale photographs, they have examined deserted institutions such as the former Stasi HQ in Berlin and roamed the Houses of Parliament during summer recess. Gamma, which earned them their Turner Prize nomination in 1999, explored the former US military base Greenham Common, used to house cruise missiles during the Cold War.
The two bodies of recent work they will be showing in their first solo show at DCA haven’t seen them taking a break, either. In Face Scripting – What Did the Building See? (2011), they retraced the last steps of al-Mabhouh and filmed inside his hotel room, an intimate inspection of interiors which they contrast with the actual CCTV footage. In DCA’s other gallery, they will show Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) (2010) – a suite of photographs that document the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, twenty-five years on.
The sisters are busy installing the photographs as I arrive, and let me into the gallery for a quick peek.
Inside the Exclusion Zone
Propped against the wall are eight large-scale photographic prints in tones of blue and grey. They show what were once the social amenities of a city – theatre, kindergarten, gymnasium – in an incredible level of detail. As is typical of the Wilsons’ architectural studies, they are poetic. But there is something disturbing about their stillness. In one, a view of a drained, dilapidated swimming pool, luscious green vegetation can be seen growing through the windows into the dead shell of the structure. The vegetation is, of course, radioactive.
The city of Pripyat, where the photos were taken, lies inside a 30km Exclusion Zone and is now totally uninhabited. Built to house the workers at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, it was the ninth atomograd – literally, “atom city” – in the former Soviet Union. When the worst Nuclear Power Plant accident in history released large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere in April 1986, the city was evacuated in three days. Believing the evacuation to be temporary, inhabitants took few belongings and left their homes in a hurry.
“It was chilling,” says Louise. “We chose to shoot in public spaces, so there weren’t children’s toys or clothes lying about, but even so, it was chilling.”
They had intended to make a film rather than photographs, but when they arrived at Pripyat, they found it impossible to impose their own narrative on the scene – the presence of the disaster itself was too intense. They also found that the still images better captured the extreme detail they wanted than a moving shot.
“Because they’re public buildings they’re large and open with quite large windows and you could do a very long exposure,” Louise explains. “There’s no movement in the scene – that’s staying put. So we could just leave it for a while. But the 10×8 lens is what gives it that quality of detail, that level of information.”
Hiding in plain sight
The sisters talk a lot of gathering information and intelligence, and describe their way of looking as ‘forensic’. Perhaps crime scene investigators in another life, their project in Dubai took them closer than usual to the field of forensics.
“What we were interested in trying to do is to think what you don’t get from the CCTV footage and to actually try and film inside the hotel room where the murder took place,” says Jane. “The CCTV couldn’t cross that threshold, and so we were trying to take something away from the power of that remote technology. Bringing the footage into the space with the film we made, it becomes very personal, very intimate.
“I think it’s important to show the two together because that’s where you begin to understand about observation. You could look at the CCTV and not think about how they gathered that information, and also just the reality that a murder took place. It was quite brutal. Of course the victim also had blood on his hands. They’re at war, basically. But this played out in such a public way.”
Prohibited by state law from filming in the corridors of the hotel, the artists instead shot some of the exteriors in neighbouring Sharjah. They also feature in the film themselves, seeking to confuse the face recognition cameras by wearing Dazzle camouflage, used by the military on ships during World War I.
While still seeming slightly Sci Fi over here, face recognition cameras are all the rage in Dubai. “They brought in these cameras which can record with infra-red,” says Jane. “It’s the most accurate way to represent a face and doesn’t rely on shadow line or any distortion of the features. You can measure exactly the distances between the eyes and the nose, and record a face.”
The sisters’ own bizarre portraits in black and white camouflage will feature in the show, in the form of silkscreen on Perspex, with grabs of the CCTV footage in white to knock back the sheen of the Perspex. They will also show a very early video from 1993, called 8:30. Shot in the artists’ then shared London flat, it tries to ape the look of surveillance and CCTV.
Looking back on their work from this time, it seems that the Wilsons’ career has become more global as it has progressed, almost as if they’re collecting passes to forbidden lands like illicit stamps in their passports.
“I think the point is that when we first did Stasi City, we were unlocking doors that had been closed for ten years,” says Jane. “And there wasn’t anywhere near the level of Flickr, Facebook, all those technologies. Going to somewhere like Pripyat now, we’re aware how much the space has already been documented. And I think there is a nod to that in the work… There’s not the same neutrality as there was when we produced that work in 1997. So there is a sense that times have changed.”
Face Scripting - What Did the Buildings See?
Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)