An Uncanny Knack
In Jane and Louise Wilson's abstract horror movies, the subtext is the plot
It is increasingly hard to be truly dumbfounded. Everything makes sense when viewed in light of its historical contingencies, as we know, and if such history happens to be the present, all the better. Making sense becomes a labor of modern context, a labor of love. Like people, works of art might suddenly have something to do with the Internet, politics of the body and multi-national corporations. The only real problem with thinking the present historically is that, sooner or later, everything looks old.
One way of coping with the aging process is to do things you did when you were young: table-tennis, birthday parties, sing-alongs. Anxieties about genuine nostalgia have resulted in the avid manufacture of camp, so that in a world where things are born old, we can at least have some fun. One reason for the popularity of Young British Artists in the past couple of years is that they help us rethink our affection for pure camp by asking a simple but all-important question--is it possible for a work of art to be just plain weird? Can art cultivate its own apolitical pathology of weirdness, like a wax museum, or is weirdness always a subversive comment on a world that is itself, a priori, weird? The Wilson twins, Jane and Louise, balk neither at the weirdness of the world nor the weirdness of the work of art. They give us something fearless and fresh, something that dumbfounds, something that makes me say in a moment without footnote, "I think I really like this, and I don't yet know why."
A gold star, then, to Jane and Louise Wilson, to those who dumbfound. Not just to those who make old ladies faint and the complacent squirm, but to those who remind us that making sense of art is not always enough, that sometimes you just have to love it first. Two of the Wilsons' video installations, "Crawl Space" and "Stasi City," are showing at the MIT's List Visual Arts Center through April 9, in a rare U.S. appearance and a lucky one for Boston. To find more of the Wilsons' work now showing in this country you have to travel to the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, although the Wilsons have shown recently in New York, Hannover and London. The sisters pursued the visual arts at Goldsmiths College in London and were nominated for the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize in 1999.
Both installations are shot in 16 mm film, transferred to laser disc and projected on white walls in dark rooms. Chances are good you'll stumble into the pieces somewhere in the midst of their looped tracks, like walking into a movie theater half-way through and staying on to watch the first half of the next showing. Catching up is just a matter of patience. Just the same, "Crawl Space" thrives on its own ability to elude, to string together transitional shots that only pretend to be taking us somewhere, so that the dreadful lurks just out of reach as perpetual and elegant anticlimax. Slow pans, meanderings and disconcertingly long pauses over bits of debris all leave us someplace between the urge to catalogue and the urge to scrutinize.
Ruins are typically reserved for tourists or for nobody, either ancient, splendid, worthy of a postcard or uncelebrated, accidental, vacant. The concept of "ruins for the present" is not new--Robert Smithson made a career of dropping truckloads of dirt onto houses and the like. But for all the time we spend walking around in built spaces, we rarely get to see them once they've been abandoned. Emotionally, "Crawl Space" combines the curiosity and trepidation of some kid as he pokes around a dilapidated house with a deep sense that we've already been in this house forever and ever. And although the video is not, strictly speaking, very scary, it's bristling to see familiar space in its scattered, indifferent afterlife. Like the first glimpses of the sunk Titanic seen darkly in the footage, slow and hovering, taken by the deep submergence vehicle Alvin, this must be what the world looks like once we're no longer in it.
The house is not completely uninhabited; more properly, it's haunted. The slow gravity of dead space is interrupted by shots of pulsing wallpaper, a walking figure, close-ups of a frightened girl as she jerks her head to the sound of slamming doors. That old screech that augurs grisly murder in horror films wails like a banshee each time. In another sequence, one of the sisters heaves the other, strapped to a straight-backed chair, up a narrow flight of stairs, thumping on each step until they're around the corner and out of sight. In another flash, a chunk of bloody flesh hits the wall. The beauty of all this is that we are given hints of a story without ever being let in on what it's all about. We identify the borrowed horror techniques, like inside jokes, but are kept at arm's length from the world of passions these techniques were meant, at some point, to arouse.
This sense of distance is taken up within the piece by a floating sphere, which also tracks the house, dropping periodically in and out of our vision. Inside the silvery ball, like the Good Witch of the North, lives a small woman. She is born at the beginning of the piece as a bubble of water from the mouth of one of the Wilsons, a mouth that sucks her back in at the end.
For all the richness of the experience, like the woman trapped in the ball of water, we are forced to navigate blindly, without volition, like a surveillance camera floating at fixed speed. And in the end we are frightened less at what we see than how we see it: fragmented, choked, hovering, weird.
"Stasi City" plays with the idea of surveillance by scoping the old headquarters of the East German secret police, also in shambles. The projections this time are not one, but four, using all the walls in the room and converging in two corners. Watching multiple films at once further suggests surveillance monitors, and the images flick from one pan to the next like a perfunctory watchman.
The high points are the running and operating of defunct devices, like the rotating file cabinets and human elevator analogue, complete with passenger. There is a poetry in useless machines, like taking pictures with no film, running the toaster with no bread or switching on the empty Cuisinart--a poetry that has its own meter and history.
The best thing about both these works--and it sounds almost too good to be true--is that they feel like they're set simultaneously in the past and future. In "Stasi City" one of the twins floats in the air, but she's wearing a yellow and maroon striped sweatsuit with stirrups. She surrounds herself telekinetically with other floating objects, but has pulled from the repository an aluminum Thermos and decade-old office furniture.
The films don't make you want to blow up the world, but they don't exactly make you want to live in it, either. Not because built space is inhospitable, but because its decay can be so ugly. And even in dilapidation our spaces tend to outlive us. The footage in both films makes me feel vulnerable, fungible, like attending your own garage sale.
Despite this discomfort, one amazing thing about the Wilsons' world is that it actually feels, at times, quite restful, in the way heaven and hell, being eternal, might also be restful. What would it be like if you had to spend the rest of your life in an outmoded office space? Maybe we should check back in 30 years. People are like hamsters, especially bureaucratic people. These films leave traces of our scurry in the tunnels of pressure-board, fiberglass and Sheetrock. Given time, these things become the proverbial cardboard tube at the end of a roll of toilet paper, chewed to shreds and scattered around the bottom of the cage.
"Stasi City" and "Crawl Space," two video installations by Jane and Louise Wilson, will be at the MIT List Center for Visual Arts through April 9. Hours are daily 12 to 6 p.m., Fri., 12 to 8 p.m. Closed Mon. The List is inside the Wiesner Building, 20 Ames St., near the Kendall Square T stop. Admission is free.