Alarge framed black-and-white photograph is propped against the wall of Jane and Louise Wilson's studio in Bermondsey, ready for their forthcoming exhibition, False Negatives and False Positives, at Paradise Row Gallery in London. It shows the YBA twins, now 46, seemingly dressed up as avant-garde mime artists, their hair slicked back, their eyes wide and theatrically alert, faces powdered white. Strange black-and-white squares are painted on their faces.
In fact, the face-paint is "dazzle camouflage", geometric patterns that were originally designed to mislead enemy ships during the First World War. The photograph is part of an installation called Face Scripting: What Did the Building See? (2011), for which the Wilsons used contemporary dazzle to scramble the face-recognition technology of CCTV systems. "The dazzle throws off the possibility of giving an exact reading," says Louise. "It throws off what is unique to you." As well as critiquing political systems, this is poignant to the Wilsons because they are identical twins. Their work is about "the mechanisms of surveillance," says Jane. "Those institutions, those things that define the individual. Define difference, define what we should be. You're always feeling you don't belong. Because how do they process twins anyway?"
Born in Newcastle in 1967, the Wilsons are great company; funny, warm, intellectual, and frank. Their father is a naval architect and their mother was a school secretary. Jane is married with a six-year-old son and lives in Hackney, while Louise lives nearby in Dalston. They were nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999, and their immersive installations explore "dark tourism" – architectural spaces around the world in which ideological forces are played out. The new exhibition will include works made over the past three years, ranging in subject matter from a decommissioned H-bomb testing site in Suffolk, to a Ukrainian city devastated by the Chernobyl explosion in 1986. They combine photography, film, sculpture, and sound.
Jane explains that control is central to their work. "That idea of surveying, that idea of two pairs of eyes looking at one thing." While many artists, and indeed siblings, work together (Jake and Dinos Chapman, for example), twins are obviously rare. The Wilsons have been officially collaborating since 1989, when they graduated from different art schools (Louise was at Dundee and Jane was at Newcastle) with identical BA degree shows. The latter consisted of a black-and-white photograph of a mutual suicide pact. "Jane had a noose and I was drowning," says Louise,. "It was a cyclical thing where one perpetuates the other," explains Jane. "It was as much about co-dependency."
They laugh as they recall their youthful obsession with the myth of the tortured artist. "It's a very romantic image!" says Jane. The suicide project was called Garage because the set was built and shot in their parents' garage at the family home in Newcastle. They were reading the classics of transgression at the time: Jean Genet and Georges Bataille, but also the theorist Jean Baudrillard, who Jane quotes: "Everyone wants to be like everyone else on the condition that everyone is like themselves."
After graduation, they moved to London and started the part-time MA at Goldsmiths, coinciding, more or less, with the YBA boom.
Rather than romantic suffering, their mature work has been defined by themes of abstract power systems. So what changed? A residency in Berlin proved decisive. They made an installation called Stasi City (1996-7) about the former headquarters of the secret police and became fascinated by "the idea of covert gathering of information." Jane explains: "That was very instrumental in terms of directing us. It really gave us a form."
Face Scripting: What Did the Building See? also focuses on the 2010 murder of Hamas operative Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh by Mossad agents in a Dubai hotel room. The installation combines real CCTV footage released by the Dubai state police with a film by the Wilsons that includes a soundscape recorded in the hotel. As Louise explains, "We went through various avenues to get permission to film in the hotel, but it was very difficult. So in the end, we thought, 'Well, let's just book a room. Let's book room 230'." The latter was the scene of the crime. "We are aware that it was a little covert," she says. In this way, the Wilsons become "dark tourists" themselves.
Their interest in the space of the hotel room can be traced back to their early days in London, when they booked a B&B around the corner from their flat in Kings Cross for a night and photographed it. Louise explains: "The one place where there is no CCTV film is the hotel room." The latter is an undocumented space – private but transient. So, for the Al-Mabhouh case, says Louise, "There is no document of the actual murder."
Is their fascination with voyeurism and objectification related to the fact that they are female artists? Definitely. "We read Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva at college," says Louise. "Obviously, there is a very strong conscious affiliation with those thinkers," agrees Jane.
False Negatives and False Positives, Paradise Row Gallery, London W1 (paradiserow.com) to 26 OctoberReuse content