Would you want to live next door to these two sisters?
They film themselves on LSD and under hypnosis, in B&Bs and haunted houses. And they're very popular in Amsterdam. Adrian Searle meets the Wilson Twins
Tuesday 10 October 1995
To all appearances, Jane and Louise Wilson are as nice a couple of girls- next-door as you could wish to meet. With their matching PVC handbags, their Newcastle accents, their anecdotes about their mam, a prodigious capacity for drinking and parties and low-life fun, they seem innocent enough. But I, for one, wouldn't want to live next door, down among the pimps and pushers, the crack-heads, the care-in-the-community crazies and drunken dossers of King's Cross. The twins say the Caledonian Road, at least by day, is not half as bad as people imagine. Someone did once try to batter down their front door, but returned some time later to leave a note that read "I am the person who smashed your door I was not well I have a psyciatric illness if you want to contact me see overleaf." This polite little missive was later incorporated into one of the Wilsons' works, appended alongside a glossy photograph of a domestic interior. The homely scene was disrupted by the dangling legs of someone hanged. Judging by their work, the twins themselves might not make for ideal neighbours either, and earlier this year, staying in Venice for the Biennale, their deranged landlady found occasion to beat them up. "Mam was on Purple Hearts after she had us two," the twins explain helpfully.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1967, to a family in which the teachings and strictures of the Plymouth Brethren exerted a sobering influence, the twins went their separate ways at art school. "We got top marks at A-level Art, and it was clear that I wasn't going to be a nurse and Jane wouldn't be training as a physiotherapist," Louise says. Jane stayed in Newcastle, while Louise completed her degree in Dundee, though they produced identical final shows, including a photograph entitled Garage, in which Jane, dressed in white and with a noose around her neck, fills a tank of water from a jug, while Louise doubles over, head-down in the brimming tank. Not so much a dramatic working-out of their sibling rivalry as a neat play on the tensions of collaboration, this work set the tone for their future projects. Apart from being sinister and macabre, Garage is beautifully composed, enigmatic and very funny.
Hunched over a monitor in a production company viewing-room, the Wilsons show me their latest film. It features the twins at large in an abandoned house - all peeling paint and rancid carpets, festering attics and a bathroom full of peculiar equipment left over from when the place was a geriatric home. In the film, Louise drags Jane upstairs as though she were a corpse, a face bulges behind the wallpaper, doors slam for no reason and Louise gives birth to herself in a bubble of air which plops from her own mouth. Above the white noise of the soundtrack, the recorded moans of air-conditioning units and sampled thunks and blasts taken from Cronenberg's Scanners, the twins give me a running commentary, "Alex Cox used this corridor... this bit's like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, here's Carrie... Repulsion... The Prisoner... The Exorcist... And look, that's a Harold Wilson garden gnome." The bright red gnome looms into shot for a moment, and is gone. At the end the title appears, like a miraculous stigmata, written in raised welts on Louise's belly. It reads "Crawl Space". The film was expanded from a pop promo they shot for an unknown singer named Paul, and is, like much of their work, both light-hearted and filled with a cartoonish psychic dread, paying homage to the movies they love.
Since making their alarming and disconcerting debut in London in a mixed show at Laure Genillard Gallery in May 1992, and winning the Barclays Young Artists Award at the Serpentine Gallery a couple of months later, the Wilsons have become the darlings of European curators, have held major exhibitions in New York and Vienna, but have shown all too rarely at home. Currently, their work is on show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and next month the first major exhibition of their work opens at London's Chisenhale Gallery. This will be a single work, incorporating a new film and the set they're having built for it. It will, they say, resemble the aftermath of a fight, a trashed room destroyed by some kind of violence. Concurrently, Crawl Space will be premiered at the latest reincarnation of Milch gallery, a peripatetic alternative space which is about to re- open in a suitably distressed space in the Charing Cross Road. The film will be projected on a screen suspended over a yawning pit.
The Wilsons have been hypnotised, on film, by a Portuguese mesmerist, and by a charismatic American who, they gleefully report, had an open sore on his face. "We wanted to make a film about hypnosis after we read Cocteau's remark that all cinema was a form of hypnosis. It was also inspired by an old Birmingham ATV series called Ladies Night, which did a programme on hypnosis. One thing they never show you on TV is the induction, in case the TV audience accidentally go under." They've also recorded themselves, in a run-down Vienna hotel room, jabbering and yammering under the effects of LSD while staring at a strobe light. That was a laugh, they tell me, "and there was none of that Timothy Leary shit, or impromptu poetry. We didn't know what would happen, because it was the first time we'd taken it."
They're interested, they say, in the relationship between art and madness, schizophrenia, autism, and the artificial derangements of drugs. For all that, the Wilsons themselves are remarkably down-to-earth, and count amongst their influences a roll-call of heavyweights: Pinter's The Caretaker, TS Eliot, the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, the writings of Helen Cixous and Felix Guattari. Guattari coined the term "Normapath". Is normality a pathological state, I ask? "Our mother came back from the shops where she'd seen three women fighting over a cut-price frozen chicken, and one of the women had bitten off another woman's nipple. Our auntie's also convinced that a sick-bag from the bombed Lockerbie flight landed in her back garden." Normality is a tough act to follow.
n Jane and Louise Wilson will be exhibiting new work at their show at the Chisenhale Gallery, London E3 (0181-981 4518), 22 Nov-22 Dec, admission free
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