Hinting at Absence: Jane and Louise Wilson

On the eve of her talk at the College with artist collaborator Louise Wilson, RCA Blog talks to the RCA’s Senior Tutor, Moving Image, Jane Wilson about photography, moving image, hinting and absence.

RCA Blog: I’m interested that so much of your current work addresses the continuum of history and the fragile human structures that people create to make things work. Can you talk about what gets you into those spaces?

It’s often a sense of collision. I love that moment where there’s this strange conundrum of what you’re looking at and existing in, but then also seeing what remains, and how you process the ruin. There’s that great EH Carr comment, which says that ‘historians imagine the past and remember the future’. That comes through in all the works we're showing this year: the Atomograd works that we made in Chernobyl, Pripyat, which will be at the Royal Academy, London; Sealander, a series of large-scale photographs of the bunkers along the Atlantic wall at the J Paul Getty Museum, and we're exhibiting in SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul in September. We are also working on a new film installation, Undead Sun: We Put the World Before You, as part of a two-person show at MIMA, Middlesbrough, this October.

We recently showed in Ercolano, where we created an installation at the Museo Archeologico Virtuale (MAV), right beside the ruins of Herculaneum.The MAV building is based on a Roman temple, which means on the upper level it’s open to the elements outside. We had to build a particular structure that could house the equipment and installation, which could run for two months. It’s incredible because the museum’s using digital technologies and virtual reality to bring the ruins of Herculaneum alive. It’s a small town, but incredibly visionary with a museum director, Ciro Cacciole, who is culturally and emotionally tuned in to existing in that context, which is effectively a memorial to the destroyed town of Herculaneum.  And a huge Kubrick fan, of course. He proposed that we show our piece, Unfolding the Aryan Papers, opening it on 27 January, which is World Holocaust Day.

We’ve been invited to exhibit in the upstairs entrance of the Royal Academy Summer Show, curated by Richard Wilson. We're showing a selection of photographic works that were taken in Chernobyl and have never been shown in London, alongside Imperial Measure, which is a single sculpture based on a yardstick – now an obsolete measure – which will be installed in one of the niches above the main staircase. If you look in each individual photograph, you can see they all have a measure. Richard really liked the idea of something that would talk about a kind of ruin, which was recent and linked to a real event, being shown in the context of the RA. He specifically requested these works, possibly because he has a shared approach to space himself. He often creates these physical, broken vistas onto views, into sites, in his own work.

RCA Blog: Thinking about his caravan work Face Lift, that makes so much sense. And this is you actually physically going back to the Chernobyl site…

Exactly. And you’re not supposed to take anything with you or bring anything away from the site. But that’s what we did: we took the measure and placed it in all of the rooms that we photographed, as the point of view. So each image talks about how the site is constantly being measured and analysed for its levels of radioactivity.

RCA Blog: There are so many layers of content. I’m interested in how you mediate everything around the pervasive sense of melancholy in these images… Because the context was made as an inhabited space and then abandoned.

What we have here in the studio at the moment are images that we took from the Kiev film archive, which we’ve made into collages. They were part of the archive research material, which we reference in our film The Toxic Camera. You can see: these are children outside the exclusion zone, here they are checking the fish for levels of radioactivity, this is inside the reactor before it exploded, also measuring the reactor after it exploded, this is an image of it being built. Here they’re evacuating all of the surrounding villages, here people are rushing on to trains to escape Kiev. We wanted to look at all these images of social life, so you see the children playing in Pripyat before the explosion… When we eventually visited Chernobyl, we were very clear that we wanted to document sites where a community would have interacted, places where you would come together, that were part of your cultural life there, like the cinema, the swimming pool, the school, the cultural centre known as the People’s Palace...

RCA Blog: It’s such a uniquely tragic historical moment though, isn’t it? You’ve got a country moving towards progress, and their whole nuclear narrative is about the future, and then it gets cut off in a moment, and you realise that what looked like progress was always full of the potential for damage.

It’s interesting, because it was a period of looking at something that was, I suppose, a bit Utopian, the ideas of where the future lay in terms of what you could do through science and experimentation and all of these great notions of ‘progress’ of the early twentieth century: it was a futurist moment. And then to consider they often referred to the city, Pripyat, as Atomograd – Atomic City – because it was seen as this city of the future that was purpose-built through atomic power. They had four huge reactors there that generated and supplied so much. So there was a very Utopian idea of where all of this was in terms of its ability to be the future and to embody the future, and then obviously that ended so catastrophically with the explosion. So you think about those Utopian notions of Atomograd, Atomic City, and what those ideas of the future were.

RCA Blog: And for you, it is hinting at all of those stories, isn’t it, through these incredibly emotive images? And the absence kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it, but the measure for you is about…

Yes. Hinting. Because what we wanted to do was to suggest what has happened continuously around these sites, around these places, they were constantly being measured for their levels of radioactivity. And we wanted it as a point of human scale, so that you would see a person literally linked through that suggestion of scale, through that measure. I think it has more pathos having it just as the measure, ultimately, because it shows that this is actually something so devoid of a human presence.

RCA Blog: There’s something about the measure being representative of the people who survive wanting to understand and document. It’s such a symbol of that, isn’t it? It becomes about what people do with tragedy.

Yes, and all measures have slightly different calibration markers… We found these photographs in the Kubrick archive, which were the inspiration for the measure. Kubrick had acquired them from the Ealing Film Studio, as part of his research for his film Aryan Papers, and they had originally been used in the 1930s and ’40s as references for set design and construction, showing height, width, depth.

It was interesting to hear you say about looking at the ruin, because we were just in Herculaneum, and they modelled the John Paul Getty villa on the villa of Papyri, at Herculaneum.  We will be showing at the J Paul Getty Museum in California, in February 2017, in the Focus Gallery. They have our photographs in their collection: the Sealander series, which are images we took of the ruins of the fortified bunkers all along the Normandy coastline.

RCA Blog: How does that work for you, the still image versus the moving image?

Well, that’s probably why someone like Kubrick was such a great subject to see in terms of the archive, because that was the basis for a lot of his film practice. His starting point often came through his own photographic practice, he built up a lot of his storyboards, his research, accumulating  masses of stills, masses of still images. We weren’t able to use any of the moving work, but we had access to all the paper and still images, and you realise that there is this brilliant filmmaker who’s seen very much within that medium, but photography is a major part of what informs his work.

RCA Blog: And that’s the same for you; your photographs are an integral part of your practice.

Oh yes. Photography has always been a part of what we’ve done. It’s never been one or the other, it’s just always been in tandem. There are a lot of people who make film and video and will have still images that they then show, but it was the reverse for us, we always started with the photography and then moved into creating moving image and installation. And there are also the more sculptural pieces, which are more like ready-mades than sculptures, because they’re based on objects that already exist in the world, like the measures. It’s important for us that people get to see the artefact, they experience the physical, alongside the visual. I think that’s very important, in terms of the moving image, we want people to feel… this haptic space, that there’s something that takes you through.

It’s interesting seeing some of the RCA students who are emerging now, they’re so familiar with digital imagery referencing Google and YouTube. There’s an extensive archive out there already, you don’t physically have to go anywhere to record material. I think that increases the desire for an experience that can become more haptic. When we made Stasi City in 1997, the archive search engine didn’t exist in the same way, there was no Flickr, Instagram, Facebook or YouTube, you had to physically go into sites, into buildings, into libraries and things were looked at and worked at through a physical architecture.

RCA Blog: You’ve got so many projects going on, but does it feel like a particular moment in your practice, with work going into collections?

Moving image installation is time based; it has more ephemeral quality than painting and sculpture. It is hugely important that our work continues to have a life in the context of the museum, because for any artist that is our legacy.

RCA Blog: It’s not just your legacy though; it’s a cultural legacy of the last 30 years. Is it very different for you if somebody takes one of your works and suggests a new context for it, which is what happened at Ercolano? Does that feel very different to you to somebody saying, here’s a space, and do what you want with it?

Well, I think the more that you realise, the more that you’ve produced... we now have a large archive of our own work, and what you become aware of is that some of this work is out in the world now, out there. We often receive requests for works to show, but I don’t think we’d ever been approached to show in a site with such a historical context before. It’s profound in terms of what it means for knowledge and history, archive and archaeology and understanding. This is 79 AD, so you think, wow, it’s taking something back, archaeologically stripping right back to that point, and neither of us have ever been asked to exhibit in a context that was so connected to a historic memorial before.

RCA Blog: But it sounds like an incredibly intelligent positioning, because it’s so referential to everything that you do and the museum and history.

I think what was interesting for us, and why it was so special, is because years ago when we were invited to do a DAAD residency in Berlin, we’d never been in a city which had such a political legacy in terms of where all its architecture stood. When you moved from one side of the city going down the Kurfürstendamm and driving under the Brandenburger Tor, through into Unter den Linden… you basically moved through the war, you know, into communist Russia, essentially, in terms of what was East Berlin. When we were there, it was still a time when it hadn’t seamlessly merged; it still existed as two parts of the same city. So there was something about this… and it had a very profound impact on us, being there at that moment, and being in a city that was so embedded with all of these ideologies and all of this stuff within its buildings and its architecture. That’s what you see when you go to Ercolano as well, going back to that moment of  a divided city, one city which is Ercolano, and then literally the ruins of the ancient city, as it’s looks down on Herculaneum. They would like to continue excavating the ancient site, but it’s not possible as it could lead to the collapse of parts of the new city.

RCA Blog: Like a visible, tangible conundrum...

Totally, they’d love to continue their archaeology, but they can’t. It has so much resonance for so many people, thinking about the architecture that was once there – and the town and the history – and then to reimagine it, because that is such a projection into the future. You’re looking at the physical past as a ruin, but what you’re doing intellectually is building, trying to reimagine it and trying to rebuild it through the archaeological museum, which is very much in the present. So it’s this odd sense of the future ruin, because yes it’s there, but we’re seeing this view of what it once was. It’s like looking at Joseph Gandy’s A Bird’s Eye View of the Bank of England, which was commissioned by Sir John Soane in 1830 to show the newly completed building in a state of decay rather than in pristine condition.

RCA Blog: You’re talking a lot about sort of embodying in architecture and buildings. It seems that the spaces that you’re interested in have been so occupied by humanity, but humanity isn’t there. When you’re talking about the city and Berlin and that sense of the human history being embedded in these spaces, that seems to be something that’s very core to your whole practice, the thing that keys you in…

I suppose it’s an impulse to have a visual archaeology there, which is around the building and the site and the psychology of the site and where it was, its history. If I think about Stasi City, the prison building Hohenschönhausen was initially built as a food depot under the Nazis, as a soup kitchen, and then it changed when the Russians arrived. It became an internment camp, a prison that had padded cells.  And then subsequently it belonged to the DDR and became a Stasi headquarters, and the prison was for political prisoners. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was left abandoned. It has since become a memorial site.

We currently are working on a new film installation supported by the Wellcome Trust which will be shown at MIMA in Middlesbrough, this October. It’s a continuation of our work Undead Sun, which grew from the research we made in the Imperial War Museum archive and was filmed in the Farnborough wind tunnels. We’ve been interested in the technology and architecture of conflict for a long time, and the film allows us to explore perspectives on visibility, technology and the reconstruction of narratives about that period. It’s about the beginnings of aerial surveillance in the First World War, so we wanted to film in these huge wind tunnels.

Undead Sun explored ideas around visibility. We wanted to draw attention to the hidden and the concealed, alluding to the threat of exposure from above, because our research showed that the advent of aerial warfare during the First World War and the new possibilities offered by a panoramic overview triggered rapid advances in optics and other technological innovations, as well as new counter-measures in the art of concealment and camouflage. The film contains animated sequences of air flows, referencing the experimentation that happened within the tunnels. The original film material is housed in the FAST archive, which is based in Farnborough, and we couldn’t get copyright permission for any of the original material as it belonged to Shell, so we restaged the animation sequences.

The working title for this second part of Undead Sun is Undead Sun, We Put the World Before You, which refers to the slogan that was used by the early nineteenth-century cinema pioneer Charles Urban to advertise his tour of early scientific and educational films. Urban's story illustrates the uneasy position that non-fiction film found itself in, as the entertainment medium of cinema evolved. While others saw motion pictures as a form of distraction, Urban saw them as means to concentrate the mind, pontificating on how the instructional film was to find its audience, and what films were for, if not to illuminate the world? He made claims for the 'accurate and truthful eye' of the cinematograph for recording present-day events, and asked that 'motion pictures of current events… be treasured as vital documents among the historical archives of our museums'. He saw cinema as a tool to re-educate people – he was very Utopian – he saw it as a really powerful medium. Not like reading a book, not like seeing something in a newspaper, but watching something on a film would be a real powerful tool of education.

RCA Blog: He would have loved YouTube wouldn’t he?

Well yes, exactly. He probably was an early… but he was seeing it very much as a tool of enlightenment, and obviously that changed and cinema suddenly became something else, and Hollywood arrived.

Our film will be developed in collaboration with anthropologist and forensic scientist Professor Caroline Wilkinson and surgeon Professor Iain Hutchinson, taking the mechanics of facial reconstruction and the techniques that were pioneered during WWI as its starting point. to so-called 'humanise' and rehabilitate returning veterans back into society, having endured the appalling facial injuries inflicted upon them as a direct result of trench warfare. It will form a second instalment in an ongoing series of works around the centenary of the First World War.

We’ve been reflecting a lot on archeology and historical sites and archives, but coming back to SeMA Biennale Mediacity in Seoul, we’re always aware of how acutely pressing and prescient the threat of war – and particularly the nuclear threat – still is in some parts of the world. Peter Osborne wrote persuasively on the representation of that idea in our work, in ‘Yardsticks: When will the postwar end’, and coming back to somewhere like Seoul you see that it hasn’t and doesn’t, so the rhetoric still has deep relevance and resonances.