The Wilson Twins: Double vision

They are identical twins who do all they can to look unlike each other. But in their art the sisters unite to create a unique view of the world, from an abandoned sanatorium to the old Stasi HQ. By Sophie Leris
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Half an hour early to meet internationally acclaimed artists Jane and Louise Wilson at their central London gallery, I come across an art tour guide explaining their latest exhibition, "The New Brutalists", to a group of Americans. Despite the apparent stillness of the work, she says, there are narrative possibilities, a potential for drama. I should say so. The guide is describing a photograph of an empty room with a leather bunk still bearing the imprint of a departed patient, the bed now dark with dead bluebottles.

The drone of live flies lures you into the darkened video space and an installation of five screens. Moving from a lush New Zealand exterior accompanied by tropical birdsong to the interior of an abandoned sanatorium, the camera explores cavernous spaces, wrecked roofs and mean corridors, empty but for a pile of mattresses, rows of keys, flies and a graffito that says BOOM. Other screens show a gymnasium in which synchronised rows of legs are pointed to the ceiling, ropes are climbed and benches mounted as women in Edwardian leotards hold their positions. "We found the women in Heathrow of all places," Jane says as she enters the gallery. "They are retired gymnasts. They look right, don't they? But it is a very constructed image. We did hair and make-up, painted the backdrops and had the outfits made."

For all the dead flies and sinister interiors, the twins are a laugh a minute. Having risen to art world fame with their Goldsmiths-trained YBA contemporaries in the early 1990s, they now find that their work features in many of the world's most prestigious private collections and museums. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999, they are ranked alongside artists such as Sarah Lucas, Mark Wallinger and Tracey Emin. Their latest show has been critically acclaimed for its disturbing portrayal of repressed female sexuality and of institution despair.

They are the kind of identical twins who do everything they can to look different, from their hair (Louise has blond highlights and Jane has tawny lowlights) to their clothes. "We developed an artistic language when we were young but not the scary secret code that twins are supposed to have," explains Jane. Did they dress the same as children? They sigh, "Everyone wants to know that kind of stuff," says Louise. "We were probably colour co-ordinated. I'm not sure; my mother had three children under two so she simply did her best. Having twins is guesswork for anyone. We're mates, more than anything else," says Louise. "That's all there is to know." They used to share flats but now live apart - Jane is married and lives in the East End, Louise in the West End - but they share a studio at London Bridge, part of an artists' enclave called Delfina Studios.

They grew up in Newcastle with an elder brother and enlightened parents - their father is a naval architect and their mother is a school secretary - who didn't mind them studying art A-level. "We were the only ones at school to do art. It wasn't considered vocational and given the unemployment in the North then, it was really decadent," says Jane. "It was great for us, though, as we got so much attention." Louise laughs, "Yeah, we had a teacher who named all his daughters after Rembrandts. That type of teacher."

They went to separate art schools but used the facilities in each other's colleges, having grown accustomed to working in close proximity. "It was also a way of keeping each other going," says Louise. In the end, working together seemed natural. "It was impossible to divide it into hers and mine," says Jane. "One of our tutors said, 'You do realise you're going to have to present identical degree shows.'" They both passed. "The colleges had to work together on that, which they didn't particularly like but there would have been an embarrassing discrepancy if one of us had passed and one failed," she adds.

They came to London to do their MA and subsidised themselves by doing architectural gilding. "Trompe l'œil," says Louise, smiling at the poshness of it. "Paint finishes," clarifies Jane. Then they went to Germany in 1996 for 16 months, during which time they made their first major work, Stasi City.

"We filmed in the Stasi headquarters, which is now a museum," says Louise. "Not only was there a prison but a Stasi motel, an area for phone tapping, a whole infrastructure. We found keys to rooms that no one had been in to 'process', so we were lucky: all the debris was still there." Jane adds: "It was strangely banal but when we lit it, it became an intervention - it was a very theatrical space. There were these great double doors, padded for effect and on the other side they're just plywood. It's a very Soviet thing - I saw it in Russia."

Louise starts to laugh. "It was so low-tech, crude really. Kafkaesque. You'd find objects used for surveillance, a handbag with a hidden camera, a hollow tree trunk. They still do it. Do you remember a while ago they found a stone in Moscow? They kept denying it was surveillance equipment - it was probably some bit of papier mâché with a camera inside."

"Anyway," says Jane, "it was a very strange way to encounter buildings, architecture, with that knowledge of how they were loaded, and that experience was a huge influence on our work."

Which led them straight to Greenham Common on their return to England. "The Greenham movement galvanised us politically when we were growing up. There was such bad publicity and violence," says Louise. "It made me want to open doors, to feel something about what had happened."

Their preferred locations for filming are abandoned institutions and places with limited access, as well as Modernist architecture and monuments commissioned by idealistic town planners and left to decay. Their work at the Baltic in Gateshead, A Free and Anonymous Monument, celebrated the optimism of Victor Pasmore's 1960s Apollo Pavilion and decried its dereliction. "It's not just buildings that dictate social malaise," points out Louise. "It's economics. It's so easy to blame architecture." But they are equally at home in the theatre and have designed installation-style sets for Michael Tippett's opera The Knot Garden as well as working with director David Pountney on Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. "We were booed when we took our first curtain call in Zurich," says Jane. "They like their Wagner traditional over there."

Their latest project is filming on Governors Island, New York, a commission by the Public Art Fund. "It used to belong to the coastguard and was handed back to the mayor of New York for a dollar," says Louise. "They had everything that constitutes a village and yet it is so impoverished, looking across at the bright lights of Manhattan."

Photographs from their latest bleak venue will be shown next month at the Basle art fair. The sisters have the wind of success in their sails. Soon, it seems, the mark of true desolation in a site will be when it has been featured in one of the twins' works. But the esteem in which they are held in fashionable circles is not entirely reciprocated. When asked where the film of their most recent offering will be unveiled - in fact it will be their gallery 303 in New York - Louise gives a chilly misanthropic shrug: "Not at an art fair."

Biography: Two lives, one art

BORN: 1967 in Newcastle

SCHOOL: Kenton Comprehensive

ART COLLEGE: Louise - Dundee College of Art; Jane - Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University)

POSTGRADUATE: 1990, Goldsmiths, University of London

GALLERY: The Lisson Gallery, 29 Bell Street, London NW1

SIGNIFICANT WORKS: Stasi City 1997; Las Vegas, Graveyard Time, 1999; Star City, 2000; A Free and Anonymous Monument, 2003; The Knot Garden for the Royal Opera House, 2005; "The New Brutalists" exhibition, 2006

NOMINATED: Turner Prize, 1999