“The permanent architectural constructs of the city represent the ‘primary reality’ of the place, while the transient episodes of global awareness achieved through cinema, video, TV and music amount to a ‘secondary reality’ that is experienced as time out of time.”
(Martin Pawley, Terminal Architecture, 1998)
The British artist duo, Jane and Louise Wilson, are currently showing a series of large scale video installations and photographic works at Bergen Kunstmuseum. Stepping into their installations, we experience a space out of place and a time out of time, what Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space refers to as “the space of elsewhere”. Using titles like Dreamtime they at once suggest an otherworldliness, evoke a desire for the inaccessible or unattainable, and point towards other levels of perceived or imagined reality. For the Australian Aboriginal, “dreamtime” is the time out of time or the time before time, the site of creation, the wellspring from whence all life emanates. Creation myths and our fascination with the technologies of space travel may seem distant from one another, but this may not be so; the adventure of space travel is also a quest to discover the hidden truths of the origins of the cosmos.
The sites explored by the Wilson sisters radiate strangeness and charm, the images they present exert a powerful pull on our attention. We are offered glimpses of inaccessible, fabulous, threatening, mysterious or forgotten and neglected places. Their works construct alternative geographies for us, connecting images of places we feel we may know with those we will never experience. They are not documentarists, their work is not an attempt to categorically register the places they explore. In his introduction to the catalogue of their De Appel exhibition (2003) Barry Barker uses the term “(Re)imaging the world”, and this gives a useful clue as to how we might read their works. It is not a literal art, nor is it an “innocent” exploration of unknown territories, but a sophisticated process of deconstruction and reconstruction where the cinematic space of the projected image becomes in itself an architecture, a site to be entered and explored by the viewer. Whilst examining alien environments, and often evoking a sense of the alienated, the works are not themselves alienating, and although human agency is more often depicted through absence than presence, there is always an overwhelming sense of the human.
The exhibition in Bergen Kunstmuseum is a selection of pieces made between 1999 and 2003, including Star City, a four-screen projection based on images recorded at a Russian cosmonaut training centre, and culminating with a scaled down version of their most recent work, A Free and Anonymous Monument (2003). The latter, in its original form, was their largest and most fully elaborated work to date, made for The Baltic, Gateshead, in 2003. The work centres around a concrete structure, monument/sculpture, made by the British artist Victor Pasmore for the new town of Peterlee in North East England in the mid 1950’s. Pasmore, a respected abstract painter and sculptor, was appointed as part of the planning executive for Peterlee, a typically utopian post-war endeavour to create a modern living environment for a population and a society that was being rebuilt after the ravages of war. Although not on the massive scale of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, towns like Peterlee were built firmly upon a modernist vision of aesthetic quality and social good. Needless to say, over the decades that followed, unemployment, deindustrialization and the attendant social ills turned a utopian social vision into a contemporary reality of a more mundane order, and Pasmore’s centrepiece, his monument, became a target for grafitti, an unwanted landmark and a symbolic reminder of failed visions. In recent times the structure has gained a new life as a territory occupied by the children and youth of the neighbourhood, and it is images of these youngsters’ occupation of the monument that we are presented within the Wilsons’ installation. The images and the activity that are depicted seem entirely appropriate, as if made for the work of the Wilsons. In the same way that the sisters temporarily occupy, appropriate, or re-image the spaces that form the content of their works, the youth of Peterlee have occupied and laid claim to a space and an architectural structure, given it new purpose and meaning, transformed it, through human agency, from a neglected and awkward reminder of civic failure to a place of high symbolic content and social interaction.
Jane and Louise Wilson’s works have often been discussed within the context of Psychogeography, and many of their film/video pieces share characteristics with the psychogeographic fictions of authors such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Drawing upon the tradition of the Situationist “Derivée” , the psychogeographic endeavour is usually an attempt to unearth hidden dimensions of a space that may be overlooked, inaccessible, neglected or forgotten. However, whereas some adherents of the practise focus upon the psychic energies of a place, bordering on a kind of mysticism, the Wilsons are much cooler in their appraisal. They succeed in constructing evocative meta narratives without succumbing to a tendency toward either mysticism or paranoia. Their works have affinities with the docu/fiction of Iain Sinclair, sharing an aptitude for precise observation that is coupled with a sense of the poetic that allows them to avoid literalism. Although they never use language or traditional cinematic narratives in their work, there is nonetheless an intense literary quality in the way they combine their images, in the way they construct a place-in-time. We return to Bachelard again; theirs is a poetics of space.
The Bergen exhibition contains several large scale video installations as well as photographs from the series æSafe Light” (2003), images that were shot in the sterile environment of a high technology factory, a symbol of the new economy that has transformed the reality of North East England. The Wilson sisters grew up in Newcastle and have a strong affinity for the region. Their recent work is therefore intensely engaged rather than voyeuristic, deeply political without resorting to political rhetoric. The full-scale installation A Free And Anonymous Monument was unfortunately too large to be accommodated at Bergen Kunstmuseum. This is a loss to the Norwegian art world which has missed the opportunity to experience a work of rare breadth and vision, an accomplished statement by artists who are currently at the peak of their career so far. For too long, a great deal of artists’ film and video has been dull, worthy and banal or decadently disconnected. In their works of the past half decade, the Wilson sisters have avoided all of the usual pitfalls, creating works that are intensely visual, intellectually demanding, deeply poetic and imbued with a profound humanity.
- Steely Dan: “Don’t Take Me Alive”, The Royal Scam, 1976