40 Years 40 Artists: Jane and Louise Wilson

Interview by Louisa Buck

Jane and Louise Wilson RA (born 1967 in Newcastle upon Tyne, live and work in London) have been working together as an artist duo for nearly three decades, making psychologically charged films, videos and photographs, which explore evocative and often historically resonant spaces. These have included a former Stasi Headquarters in Berlin, the British Houses of Parliament and the Star City complex in Moscow. Jane and Louise Wilson were nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999. They are joint Professors of Fine Art at Newcastle University and honorary Visiting Professors of Fine Art at the University of Wolverhampton.

Jane and Louise Wilson featured on the cover of Artists Newsletter, August 1995 and were included in the feature ‘Venetian Finds’ on p5-6. The article covered the exhibition ‘General Release’, organised by the British Council to showcase work by a new wave of British artists at the 1995 Venice Biennale. An image of the Wilsons’ exhibited photographic work Red Room (1995) appeared in the article. The Wilsons also appeared in a news piece in Artists Newsletter, May 1993, p18, about New Contemporaries, which they were included in that year.What did the 1990s mean to you both personally and professionally?
LW: Personally, we both moved from Newcastle to share a flat in London and professionally we were accepted as a joint collaboration to study on Goldsmiths MA (1990-92). The MA was part time which meant you could work part time to earn money and you had to have your own studio. It felt progressive to be freed from institutional constraints. At the interview they asked who gets the M and who gets the A, which we loved!

JW: It was the early 1990s and the beginning of the YBA [Young British Artists] moment. There was a huge amount of interest in British art and a lot of new commercial galleries were beginning to open. The country was in a recession, but we set ourselves up as self-employed artists, found a flat and used the upstairs bedroom as a studio. We did architectural gilding to earn money. We didn’t receive a grant for post graduate studies, so it was invaluable, and it allowed us not to have to sign on.

How did your work develop during this time?
JW: In 1989 we were studying on separate undergraduate courses. I was in Newcastle and Louise in Dundee. The fact that we were in separate art colleges helped to create an important dynamic in that whenever we would meet up, we would stage and photograph our performances together either in college at Dundee or in our home in Newcastle. We were thinking a lot about trying to capture an event through a moment either mid-performance or through the remnants. We would create these mise-en-scène re-enactments together, film them on Super 8 and photograph them on a medium format stills camera. We would print large scale photographs using a Beseler enlarger and garden troughs in the darkrooms at Newcastle Polytechnic. This culminated in us producing identical degree shows some 300 miles apart, which meant the institutions who were assessing us had to collaborate as well, as they were effectively assessing the same work.LW: We would transform areas of our living space into various elaborate photographic mise-en-scène that would take us a couple of days or maybe a week to stage and complete. It was a sort of inversion: in that we no longer featured ourselves as the subject, instead the subject became the domestic space of the flat that we shared. We’d create environments and stage joint performances documenting the aftermath. Our work later developed to working in motel rooms and local bed and breakfasts near the Kings Cross area and close to our flat. Kings Cross was quite a dodgy place back then – it used to be a well-known red light area.

JW: We would book a cheap room to stay in for a night, and take bags of props and photographic equipment to work overnight and leave in the morning. We’d stay there and take photographs and make films. They were these strange halfway houses and we were very keen to look at them as subjects because they were places that are somehow hidden and yet public.

Were there any key moments or turning points in this period?
JW: In 1996 we began a year long DAAD residency programme in Germany, living between Berlin and Hanover. It was the first time we’d lived outside the UK and received a significant stipend to support ourselves, which allowed us solely to concentrate on making our work. It was profoundly liberating and meant we were able to encounter an entirely new and different community of artists and studio practices. Berlin had a huge impact on us both and the subsequent work we made there: Stasi City (1997) represented a significant departure because of its agency in terms of real politics.

LW: We made a film work in the former East Berlin in the Stasi headquarters in Normanenstrasse and in Hohenschönhausen, a former Stasi prison in Marzahn. I don’t think we’d ever encountered such a powerful context to work with or to consider before. It made us question our natural instinct to create a lot of elaborate stagings, to such a point where all we felt we could do eventually was just take the camera and lights with us. Even this felt like a huge intervention. By filming and framing these sites within a camera, and documenting their hastily abandoned interiors, we were somehow creating a much more heightened version of what was already there, underlying the historical impact of a recently deserted narrative.How did you become aware of a-n? Why did you want to get involved?
JW: We first became aware of Artists Newsletter while studying for our BA. Chris Wainwright, who taught me at Newcastle Polytechnic, was Director of Artic Producers [publisher of Artists Newsletter] in Sunderland.

After we graduated from college in 1989, we based ourselves in Newcastle and met Beryl Graham around this time when she was running Projects UK, which was part of Northern Arts and based on Westgate Road. We started using the darkrooms there which was great because we could continue to make work. Beryl’s now a Research Fellow at the University of Sunderland. Projects UK and a-n were really important platforms for artists in the north east. When we left in 1991, Zone Gallery had already been established as a photographic exhibition space showing an excellent programme of work by both established and internationally recognised artists, alongside new and upcoming photographers.

What role did a-n play in your development and career?
LW: Artists Newsletter was a huge support for many artists based in the north east at that time, and really important to us both as recent art graduates in the early 1990s. This was long before Baltic, MIMA, NGCA and many other regional arts organisations and galleries had managed to establish themselves. It’s important to recognise just how much a-n was, and still is, an essential resource.

How significant was a-n in raising the pressing issues of the time?
JW: Very significant. It was an important support to us both as art graduates 30 years ago and continues to be so for many art students graduating today. The a-n Degree Shows Guide is an excellent document and platform for emerging artists.

LW: The a-n website covers everything from offering practical advice on artist bursaries to artist blogs, art reviews, research in the public and educational sector, legal advice and the mobilising Paying Artists campaign, established in response to its members. It’s an important organisation in that it powerfully represents the voice of the art community here in the UK. It’s completely guided by the pressing issues faced by artists today.In the 1990s you feature in a-n when in 1995 you took part in General Release at the Venice Biennale and won a Barclays Young Artist Award. You were on the cover of a-n in 1995, the year you had your first London solo show at Chisenhale with ‘Normapaths’. Could you talk a little about these shows and the works you exhibited in them?
JW: In 1993 the Barclays Young Artist Award was a great opportunity for MFA graduates to show their work in the Serpentine Gallery. We wanted to explore a sense of the uncanny within the context of our own shared domestic space, looking at film genres to re-enact the claustrophobia of a real familial space within that of twin-ship, exposing a chaotic sense of aftermath.

Construction and Note (1992) re-creates the aftermath of our flat being broken into and it included a hand written note that was posted through our front door. Left a week later, it read: ‘I am the person who smashed your door I was not well I have a psyciatric [sic] illness if you want to contact me see overleaf’. The large scale photographs and video installations represented a kind of anxiety through proximity and confinement. They were meant to induce a sense of psychic discomfort, a sort of feeling of protective familiarity through exploring a sense of contentment within our own shared anxiety, realised in a visually uncomfortable form. This extended to our video installation Normapaths, shown at the Chisenhale Gallery in 1995, which examined the pathological normality of the superhuman feats and violent stagings in action genre, with ourselves as stunt women, working alongside stunt doubles.

LW: ‘Normapaths’ took place later in the year that General Release had opened in Venice, which was curated by Ann Gallagher, and where we showed photographs from Crawl Space (1995). This was a video projection originally shot on 16mm film that takes place in Hanworth Park House, an abandoned geriatric home. It was a location with a very intriguing mix of references, including partial film sets that had been left behind from recent film productions, alongside the ergonomic traces of lifting equipment that had been used for the elderly when it had been a functioning old people’s home.

‘Normapaths’ was our first solo show in which we wanted to move away from the conventional single screen encounter of cinema, by trying to implicate the viewer in a more interactive experience of installation as a whole. We showed multi-screen videos that ran simultaneously with two sets of images projected at right angles and positioned in the corner of the gallery, with an abandoned film set that had featured in the film at the centre.

The installation acknowledged the importance of the effect of the cinematic screen and its one focal point, but at the same time resisted this. We worked with stunt doubles in a play on the action movie genre where stunt doubles are frequently used – but which was also a further play on doubling and twinning. In Normapaths our stunt doubles are women who enact superhuman acts of strength: they fall off buildings and walk casually across the screen, swinging their burning handbags while on fire.

By the end of the 1990s we were given our first museum survey show of video installations and photographs at the Serpentine Gallery.30 years on, what are the key changes for artists starting out now?
JW: The context in Britain is very different for many artists if they want to study and become part of an educational community. The mandatory introduction of student fees represents a huge financial burden and challenge for any potential art student.

LW: On the other hand, it’s a lot more of a global community now. There’s a much richer, more diverse discussion within the art world which has really opened up the potential for cross over and conversation. 30 years on, there is less of a defined package of what it means to be a young British artist. Race and sexual identity are much more recognised and overall within the art world there’s a lot more diversity and complexity being represented now, which is a good thing.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
JW: Interactivity, artists’ archives and legacies are becoming a bigger issue. Artists amass a lot of things and they have to manage them, and take care of them themselves. I think there has to be an infrastructure that can acknowledge and support this, because at the moment there’s not a very joined up sense of artists’ works and their studio practice. Things which are physical material, not just an uploaded video on YouTube, where they will continue to live and exist.

LW: Be prepared to move and seek out artist residencies because they’ll provide you with  invaluable support, space and time to evolve as an artist. Also engage with and develop conversations with curators and writers from your generation and beyond, because these conversations will help sustain you in your work. Likewise connect with your contemporaries and peers because they are the vital connections you need for your sense of community.

Header: Jane and Louise Wilson, Normapaths, 1995. Installation view at Chisenhale Gallery.
1. Jane and Louise Wilson, 1990s.
2. Jane and Louise Wilson, Bed and Breakfast Kings Cross, 1993, installation view.
3. Jane and Louise Wilson, Stasi City, 1997. Installation view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2018.
4. Jane and Louise Wilson, Normapaths, 1995. Installation view at Chisenhale Gallery.
5. Jane and Louise Wilson, Serpentine Gallery, installation view, 1999.

Louisa Buck is a writer and broadcaster on contemporary art. She has been London Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer and commentator on BBC radio and TV. As an author she has written catalogue essays for institutions including Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, she authored The Going Public Report for Museums Sheffield. Her books include Moving Targets 2: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (2000), Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market (2004), Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), and Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (2012). She was a Turner Prize judge in 2005.