Jane and Louise Wilson – The Architecture of Life
The title of Jane and Louise Wilsons’ new installation at Haunch of Venison Zurich poses an immediate contradiction. ‘Sealander’ contains both land and sea, as well as evoking an action or movement with its suffix, as if land and sea were not only nouns but verbs. The work combines images of decayed, abandoned World War 2 coastal bunkers with footage of a rare deep sea squid continuing its silent, repetitive trajectory.
The bunkers lie fractured and awry, at odds with the vast, empty beaches around them. They no longer have a purpose and have become repositories for litter, graffiti and the detritus of illicit activities. The bulky gigantic concrete blocks seem like debris from another world, space craft that have crashed into our planet millennia ago and now lie unattended and useless.
Even before they became relics, these structures possessed an alien quality as signs of an invader’s presence. Built by an occupying army, they aimed to defend a territory that was never their own to start with. As defences, their status was ambiguous, since the very ground they stood on had been purloined. They were signs of both possession of a space and the fact that this possession was never secure. Signs, then, of both having and not having.
Just as the bunkers index a period that seems long past, so the squid remains suspended in an ancient, inaccessible time. We know that many deep-sea creatures resist categorisation and capture, and some of them have survived relatively unchanged since prehistoric times. They embody a kind of time tunnel, a passage from this world to another, archaic one. The darkness that the squid swims in is not just the darkness of space, but of time as well.
The bunkers also pose the question of time, but their presence is predicated on culture, not nature. Like remnants of some lost civilisation, they evoke the human work of creation, of building. Severed from their former use, they have been linked to a whole series of spaces in the Wilsons’ work, from the old Greenham Common missile site to the derelict Stasi headquarters to the empty pavilion of Victor Pasmore. But is their function simply memorial? The artists have said that they aim, in fact, not to invite but to avoid nostalgia. The immersion of past in present is not the usual romantic one but concerned with symbolic and cultural value.
Like the Pasmore pavilion and the Greenham site, the bunkers have lost the symbolic value they once had: that of modernist precision, of imperialism, of protest and of military hindrance. These spaces have not only become uninhabited by people, but by symbolic value itself. They have become odd liminal spaces, filled with graffiti, piss, litter, condoms. But where we would expect these transformations to signify some kind of mortification and death, doesn’t the artists’ insistence on a dialogue with vital forms – from the children in the Pasmore Pavilion to the squid in ‘Sealander’ – suggest not death but life. A strange kind of life perhaps, and one we might wish to avoid, but life all the same. Piss, excrement, condoms, obscene graffiti all testify to presence not absence, the side of human life that gravitates to the points where symbolic value has been extinguished or undermined.
The bunkers reflect human presence in other, powerful ways. As their defensive function was lost, the ambiguity of possession became an out-of-placeness. Their massive presence marks the beaches with no obvious use, yet the combination of this out-of-placeness with their spatial isolation produces an odd effect: it invites a comparison with ourselves. The solitary and ineffable structures evoke our own identity, or at least that part of it which remains mute and alone. The bunkers become an echo of our own out-of-placeness with the world, that side of human life which consists of brute, meaningless presence. The way that the artists film the bunkers, dwelling on their holes and apertures, strengthens this identification, bringing out the correspondence with human, bodily forms.
The rather enigmatic presence of the squid now becomes less baffling. Its juxtaposition with the bunkers draws out the comparison with organic form, with the body. The squid’s massive eye is reflected in the gaping gun holes of the concrete structures, and the internal contradiction of the show’s title becomes an explanation: the inorganic and formal is inhabited by the organic and vital.
The architectural structures that so fascinate the Wilsons aren’t just akin to bodies, but to bodies whose symbolic function has been checked or deleted. And this metamorphosis produces an effect on the experience of space itself. In her essay on the Wilsons, Giuliana Bruno quotes the idea of Victor Pasmore that “urban space is interior like the interior of a house”. Taken seriously, this means that what we might usually think of as an external space can be understood as an interior one, in the same way that at a certain historical moment, Byzantine church interiors were identified with the external space between the figures painted on their walls. Reality becomes like a glove turned inside out. And isn’t this exactly what we see with the squid, as we watch it effortlessly turn itself inside out like the topological space known as the Klein Bottle?
The dialogue that the Wilsons create in ‘Sealander’ concerns this relation between interior and exterior. Just as we witness the squid’s inversion of itself, so we are encouraged to think of the space surrounding the bunkers, the very space that we might think of as external and objective. As their roving cameras move along and across the bunkers’ surface, distinctions between inside and outside become less apparent. And this is perhaps both a semantic theme and a formal technique that is explored uniquely in the work of the Wilsons.
What, after all, do we see in works like ‘Stasi City’, ‘Gamma’ or ‘Crawl Space’? The camera moves tipsily but unstoppably down long corridors, poking into corners, crossing thresholds and boundaries, forever moving. While this can evoke many things, it seems impossible not to think of the images of the interior of bodies that were made possible by the development of endoscopic technology. As the artists unravel monolithic architectural structures into a series of long pathways and tunnels, we witness what we could call an endoscopy of architectural space.
The fluid, continuous movement of the camera reinforces this impression, together with the simple fact that it keeps on moving. As it continues its trajectory we become aware of the movement of the human eye itself, curious, explorative, intrusive, never satisfied. The huge eye of the squid in ‘Sealander’ embodies not only the eye of the spectator moving through the installation but also this unstoppable, insatiable movement of the camera itself.
This movement has been developed from the Wilsons’ earlier work in a new way in their more recent multiscreen installations where the viewer cannot actually remain in the same place. They are obliged to move around continually and the ramification of screens and viewing angles pushes and pulls us in many different directions at once, as if to re-enact the dimension of curiosity and visual search that the camera is itself recreating. The screens do not simply restage the architecture of the spaces they depict, but the animation of the human eye.
Moving through these spaces involves crossing limits and thresholds, and the motif of going beyond or into is present in all of the Wilsons’ work. The way their fluid camera operates is echoed in the choice of locations: outer space, the mysterious deep-sea or the opaque, unrecognisable world of ‘Normapaths’ all embody places where we don’t normally go, vectors for our curiosity and also in some sense embodiments of the ‘beyond’.
This endoscopy of space is strangely predicted in the artists’ early work ‘Hypnotic Suggestion’. We see the two sisters in chairs receiving hypnotic suggestion, their bodies moving in response to the hypnotiser’s instructions. They move their arms as they are told to, in slow and graceful obedience. At the close of this hypnosis session, the unknown hypnotiser instructs: “imagine you’re walking down a long corridor, and every step you take, you’re getting deeper, deeper into trance..” Isn’t this exactly the blueprint for the Wilsons’ later work, as the camera tracks along long corridors and in which reality itself becomes a warren of long, tubular structures?
These spaces are invariably punctuated by doors, limits and thresholds. The bunkers are linked to the same series, in that they present both a geographical limit – a shoreline – and a military limit, indicating that one should trespass no further. In this sense, they constitute a space of defence, and couldn’t we see many of the thresholds in the artists work as forms of defence. This is again echoed in the choice of locations such as Greenham Common, which had as its manifest aim a defensive function. Similarly, when we see the figure in ‘Crawl Space’ magically close a series of doors by the power of thought alone, like in Brian De Palma’s film ‘Carrie’, we guess that she is doing this to protect herself.
This opens up the whole question of the presence of the figure in space for the artists. One of the intriguing features of the work of the Wilsons is that whenever we see a figure present in a space, there’s an effect of opacity: the meaning is always unclear. Think of the jump-suited figure at the start of ‘Gamma’, the suspended body in ‘Stasi City’, the leather-clad heroines of ‘Normapaths’ and the mysterious women of ‘Crawl Space’. There is a sense that the presence of a body in space is something unresolved, something that cannot be readily made sense of for the artists.
The squid in ‘Sealander’ might be another example of this. It gives us an image of a body in space, without telling us what we should make of it. The absence of any surrounding features or props makes it even harder to categorise. And the work immediately prior to ‘Sealander’ explored this same question. In ‘Erewhon’, we see elegant gymnasts, working carefully and slowly on bars and wires. The formal geometry of the space is beautiful and impressive. As they move sometimes in unison with and sometimes at odds with the perspective lines, the camera explores the rooms of a disused sanatorium-hospital. The dialogue here is between the freedom and constraint of the human body. The ropes and bars are the instruments of their grace and agility, yet at the same time of the body’s limits. The empty hospital rooms, meanwhile, reminds us of the constraint and strictures imposed on human life.
The gymnasts here share something with the floating figure of ‘Stasi City’. “The figure is meant to be in a vacuum”, the artists explain, “it can move freely but it can’t leave the room”. Isn’t this exactly the motif of freedom and constraint explored in ‘Erewhon’ and also the very motif of space travel itself? We might be amazed at the distance from earth that astronauts attain, the final escape from the limits of our planet, but then when we see film footage of space flights it inevitably involves people encumbered by huge, weighty spacesuits who can hardly move. The Wilsons’ still photographs of the empty space suits used by cosmanauts brings out this tension powerfully.
This contrast between freedom and constraint also marks ‘Sealander’, in which the squid’s perpetual movement offers a counterpoint to the fixity and inertia of the bunkers. But once again opposition becomes inhabitation. Freedom and constraint can be present within each other, in just the way that the work’s title unites land and sea. Don’t the Wilsons show in so many of their works, indeed, how the land-locked architectures they explore are in fact submerged spaces? Think of the jump-suited figure at the start of ‘Gamma’ whose breathing and appearance is like that of a diver; or the movement of the camera over the ferns in ‘Sealander’ as if they were on a sea bed; or the suspended figure of ‘Stasi City’, as if hovering like the drowned; or the sweeping unsure steadicams of ‘Parliament’ as if scanning an underwater space.
A work like ‘Crawl Space’ even opens with the image of a woman’s face underwater, an egg-like bubble leaving her mouth which then traverses the film until returning to her at the end. It is difficult not to feel a resonance between this floating presence and the squid of ‘Sealander’, and the artists explain that what preoccupied them at the time was the idea of “expelling something from the inside”. This is of course what the squid actually does with itself: inverting its own body so that inside becomes outside and vice-versa.
These preoccupations seem to converge on two questions: What does it mean to for a body to inhabit a space? And how can such a space be shared? The formal features of the artists work brings out this latter enquiry, as we see partial, kaleidoscopic images forever moving towards a unification that only rarely appears. We expect that the partial views of some object or space will eventually be brought together, but the movement of images here is asymptotic. As we hope, perhaps, for unification, we only feel the experience of a fragmentation: or rather, the fact that there are always at least two views of an object or space, never one single point of perspective. This formal approach to the question of a shared, single point of view is wittily played out at the end of ‘Crawl Space’ when the sisters caress each other’s faces with feet in the place of hands.
When we link these two questions of inhabiting space and sharing it, the motif of being submerged becomes clearer. The apparently weightless space of water and the idea of an expulsion from the inside suggest that the territory being explored outside the body is the womb-like space internal to it. This space that the artists study is literally a ‘crawl space’ and it seems no accident that these words become etched on precisely the belly of a woman in the work of that title.
In ‘Sealander’, the same inversions and submergings are operating. As inside becomes outside, so sea becomes land. But land is always, as the artists show, haunted by the sea. Like the squid that turns itself inside out, or the egg-bubble that moves from inside to outside and back again, our external world is structured profoundly by our conception of the body and the strange spaces within it.
And isn’t this one of functions of the juxtapositions so central to the Wilsons’ work? If a question about the body can receive no ready or definitive answer, it can be posed using the materials of space, be they architectural structures or organic ones like the squid. The fact that they are always multiple invites us to think about ratios and relations: the bunker is to the squid as the abandoned Stasi building is to the floating figure, and so on. The screen installations of the Wilsons give us a space to think these irresolvable questions about the body, a visual, mobile architecture not of death but of life itself.