Hypermnesiac Fabulations (1997)
Hypermnesiac Fabulations, Toronto: The Power Plant, 1997.
An exhibition of Tracey Emin, Georgiana Starr, and Jane and Louise Wilson
Click to read original publication
Or scroll to text below
Tracey Emin, Georgina Starr, Jane and Louise Wilson
The four young artists in this exhibition, two of whom work collaboratively, belong to a community and a scene that have attracted much international interest in the past few years. Although the art London is producing is perhaps more localized in its reach compared to the successes of Brit Pop and the revival of English fashion, nevertheless, it seems possible, at least journalistically, to adduce a style for the whole, as was done in the past for 1960s Swinging London. In Britain, where fashion, art, and culture are centralized in London, all disciplines being blended in the public eye, visual artists share the pages, with their other young compatriots in music and fashion, of such trendsetting publications as The Face and i-D.
Recent British art has been characterized by a youthful vitality and pop sensibility in work marked by typical English wit and low-class humour combined with a “punk”-derived attitude and DIY ethos. Any spotlight shone on a community is apt to caricature its art—as in this description—and curatorial bandwagons are likely to reprise themes. The attention this art has captured results from its own hype and a genuine interest in the flourishing of a new generation of artists in a milieu that has not been known particularly for sustaining an art community.
What special conditions in England have led to this situation is not my task to define here, although their years growing up in Thatcherite England have had a lot to do with the ambitions, attitudes, and self-reliance of these artists. The art schools, it is also said, have had a preponderant influence, but that effect may have more to do with the success of the artists packaging themselves as a phenomenon, while the actual social conditions may have contributed to the particular psychological cast to or spirit of the content of their artwork. In my initial research in Britain, what struck me were artists who did not share the in-your-face stance and one-linerisms of some of the more visible of their colleagues' artwork. Even though the content of certain artists’ work might occasionally be somewhat raw, they were clearly drawing on more complex resources in the making of their own. Thus, Tracey Emin (b. London, 1963), Georgina Starr (b. Leeds, 1968), and Jane and Louise Wilson (b. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 1967) have not been chosen to be representative of new British art or the YBA—“Young British Artist.” As diverse as their works are, what interested me were the processes these artists shared, as found in their manner of thinking or approach to their subjects.
The artists are still early in their careers, when shifts of direction are likely to occur, so the reasons for grouping them now may not make sense in the future. This is especially important to consider in light of the fact that the artists are producing new works for the exhibition and that the catalogue is being written by the curator before the pieces have been seen or even fully described. Nonetheless, whatever the resulting look of the exhibition, this group has been brought together because I believe the works share the following characteristics: they have something of an autobiographical basis; they originate from narrative or performance, though may rely on neither in their presentation; and they thereby deal with the transformations undergone by perception and memory as the evident subject of the final work. Tracey Emin, Georgina Starr, and Jane and Louise Wilson combine these elements in different configurations, with different emphases, and to different effects. For instance, though autobiography is the original impetus for all the artists, in the end this source turns out to be actual for Emin, fictional or even fantastical for Starr, and situational for the Wilson twins. That is, Tracey Emin recycles her past as the primary source of her art. She is half British, half Turkish, and grew up with a twin brother in the dilapidated seaside resort of Margate. She embroiders memory through various forms of storytelling that take visual or verbal form. From some vestigial stimulus, which may be remembered from her past or accidentally encountered in the present, and which then ensnares both her as the maker and us as the viewers, Georgina Starr weaves an elaborate and sometimes outlandish fabrication. Jane and Louise Wilson, who are identical twins, place themselves in situations over which they may sometimes have no control. They record the—usually decrepit—physical surroundings of their activity and reveal some transformation of consciousness that took place there. In the displaced space of exhibition, we have to piece together the evidence presented. Recently, their work has tended to replace real space with filmic, wherein, however, the artists are still the protagonists of the now-representational enactments.
Having decided that these were the characteristics that drew me to these artists, I found that in reality their works present challenges to traditional interpretation. Hypnosis, rewriting a film remembered from childhood, or opening a shop, which are the particular origins of some of the works, are unlikely strategies for making art that supposedly privileges the autobiographical. Yet it is a penchant for drawing upon unlikely reserves that provides the stimuli for the making of Emin’s, Starr’s, and the Wilsons’ works.
For instance, the resources of childhood, both in the recomposing of past experiences in the present or in sustaining the child’s predilection for fantasy, are shared by Tracey Emin and Georgina Starr. The Wilsons, too, extend that impulse through adolescence, if we take their interest in the horror-movie genre to be emblematic (among other gender issues) of rebellious youth and its anxious identifications. A fascination with hypnosis, various mind games, or the tricks of magic are common to the Wilsons and Georgina Starr. These seemingly easy means to desired ends, however, are belied by the complexity of the ensuing works. Translated to a desire for power over others, they really act as metaphors for issues of self-empowerment. Tracey Emin, Georgina Starr, and Jane and Louise Wilson make works from the conditions of their own lives, part of which includes being artists in an art scene, even if their works verge off into domains other than the traditional work of art.
1. Hynoptic Suggestion 505, 1993, and Routes 1 & 9 North, 1994, by Jane and Louise Wilson; Visit to a Small Planet, 1994-95, by Georgina Starr; The Shop, January - July 1993, a collaboration in London’s East End by Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas.
The record of Tracey Emin’s life as detailed in her self-published Exploration of the Soul, 1994, are scantier than this exercise in summation would seem to demand, as if the book was written too soon, with the overbearing conceit of youth in the importance of one's own experience. Yet the unflinching Rousseauesque baring of the soul to its lower depths implied by the title is belied by the trajectory outlined—an account of Emin’s life from conception to loss of virginity at age thirteen. This is not impossible to narrate, as Lawrence Sterne demonstrated, but is hard to experience consciously at all stages.
Nonetheless, the all-too-conscious experience of her own life, as memory bears down on it, is the subject of all Emin’s work. That work is not so much an exploration of the soul, which other readers could empathize with, as much as an exposure of the wounds of this particular existence. Emin’s work emanates from the private recesses of her life. As it has become available for us as readers and viewers, what has been private takes on a public profile. Not that her life is exemplary—far from it. Nor is it essentially tragic; she can draw humour from catastrophe as much as she can wring pathos from the commonplace. Actually, her work is celebratory, whatever its content. The idea that every aspect of a life is subject to exposure, even excoriation, is not new, not even in the visual arts; what is unusual perhaps is how much Emin puts on display. In any case, both her life and art-life are inextricably intertwined as the twofold subjects of her art.
Take her first 1993 solo exhibition, which she thought would also be her last, audaciously called My Major Retrospective. It was audacious for an artist of thirty who had quit making art, destroyed her past work, and abandoned her studio. (Having dropped out of school at thirteen, she graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1989.) The retrospective character of the exhibition was assumed by a wall of miniature laminated snapshots of her art school paintings, each lovingly mounted on small hand-made canvas supports. But the word “retrospective” also connotes personally looking back (the first date of the exhibition title is that of her birth), so on another wall hung her cullings from hoarded boxes of knickknacks and souvenirs. Assortments of personal and family documents, photographs, diaries (which could be taken down and read), early artworks, and other juvenilia were framed individually or in groupings and hung to create a “wall of memorabilia” that composed a family portrait of sorts.
Typical are such pieces described by Emin on the list of works accompanying the exhibition:
Three Degrees: “Three photo booth pictures of me—age 12-13-14, two certificates: BA in Fine Art, MA in Painting and my drama award.”
May Dodge, My Nan: “Two photos: me and my Nan with my new kitten, Flymo, just after my first abortion. I didn’t keep Flymo—I couldn’t cope. The other photo is of me and Nanny at Crystal Palace when I was 3 1/2; A collage my Nan made me three christmas’ ago; The perfume doll she made me out of her underwear.”
Uncle Colin: “The last thing he held; The puzzle box he played with; The newspapers his crash was in; The seagull—he and mum found; Two photos of him—him with his first car and him looking out to sea.”
These examples show both the range of anecdotal materials--from the personal to the familial--and the “tone” of pathos or gentle humour that they are treated with. Consider what an absurd shrine Uncle Colin is to her uncle, who crashed his Jaguar and whose grisly accident is reported, accompanied by a photograph of the mangled wreck in the newspaper, the full page appearing in the work; “the last thing he held,” preserved in its own frame, was a crushed cigarette package. The pathos represented by that crushed pack, saved by his niece, is poignant. The presentation of these works, framing ready-made documentation, is shared with other conceptual practices of the past or with present-day identity art. Something, however, transforms this material beyond both a strategy of presentation and the personal significance of the memento. In fiction, it would be seen as the ability to sustain a particular tone or voice. Emin’s own wacky take on things and her sense of humour contribute to her narrative voice. Emin “composes” these memorabilia to represent the anecdotal incidents of her life. All her art is a kind of storytelling.
Transforming use to history, and the past to anecdote, makes Hotel International, 1993, therefore, a centrepiece of her “retrospective.” This worn blanket has been appliquéd with patches of Emin’s old clothes, spelling out names and locales almost as if their evocation was talismanic. On broad patches of cloth she has recorded family lore, making the whole, hung on a wall, a comforting relic and commemoration of her past.
This decorative commemorative device, mixing use and memory, recurs in other Emin works. There’s A Lot of Money in Chairs—the chair and title both contributed by her grandmother—similarly has been appliquéd with words and stories, and was the “stage” for Emin’s reading of her Exploration of the Soul in her 1994 cross-country tour of the U.S.A. Everyone I Have Ever Slept With—1963-1995, 1995, a domed tent appliquéd inside with the names of everyone she has ever slept with, is not nearly so naughty in its “outing” when we consider the date 1963, when she was born, which means the work identifies everyone she ever shared a bed with, whether or not sex was involved. The blanket of Hotel International, the chair of There’s A Lot of Money in Chairs, and the tent of Everyone I Have Ever Slept With—1963-1995 wrap or enclose the body, as if the somatic is essential to the evocation of memory.
Accompanying the familial in the 1993 exhibition was another form of retrospective commemoration, a “reliquary” box containing the ashes of the remains of The Shop, a studio cum store that Emin opened for six months in 1993 in London’s East End with friend and fellow artist Sarah Lucas. If the works already discussed involve bringing the past into the present, this aspect of Emin’s activity attempts to break down the separation of art and life in the present, making the artist’s life into artwork and art-working into her life. The current Tracey Emin Museum, a shop space on Waterloo Road, where she will present herself and her work to the public in a series of changing projects, or, rather, accumulations, over the coming years is a fulfilment of her idea that “being an artist is a 24-hour thing.” This personal museum is a place “where I'll present myself and my work—every moment of creativity can be shared, everything I think or make will be on view.”
Emin’s extreme enactment of this idea to date was a 1996 solo exhibition in a private gallery in Stockholm called Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made. Here a wall was erected in the gallery space, behind which the artist painted in the nude, at select hours visible to an unknown audience who could peer through peepholes, and the rest of the time in which she lived for the duration of the show. In this mock studio, Emin took up the practice of painting she had earlier abandoned. Her last painting--a deposition of Christ--was associated in her mind with the problems not only of her craft but of the sorrows of her personal life. Putting herself and her creativity on display in the hothouse environment of the studio, with the pain and embarrassment of her past failures weighing on her, was an attempt to exorcise the ghosts associated with her past painting and to make one good painting too.
As the ready-made materials of Emin’s art, which is her own life, pass through the sieve of her memory, they are elaborated in various forms of storytelling that make even the most visual of material a practice of writing. Some of her works are directly verbal; others “embroider” words onto objects and materials. But even those works that have no language element, such as her drawings, can be seen as well to be a kind of writing. This can be found in a technique she regularly uses to make her drawings--the monotype. One appropriately titled series, Illustrations from Memory, 1994, depicting the major and minor incidents of her childhood in Margate, illustrates the contents and acts of memory: the prints both mime and mine it. The monotype process evokes the distortions that distance in time produces. As “white writing” on a blank sheet, the original drawing is separated from the ensuing image lifted from the plate. The dual acts of memory and making function as the chance filters that also serve to refine incident. These simple prints, which one writer has likened to drawing in barbed-wire, by their sheerest trace bear witness to the indelible markings on the present of the joys and sorrows of the past.
1. Sarah Kent, “Open art surgery,” Time Out, August 23-30, 1995: 16.
2. “Before when I made paintings I made them to make a painting, and I had an idea of exactly what I wanted the painting to look like, which was a cross between Edvard Munch and Late Byzantine frescos. But the end result always embarrassed me, and it was all incredibly difficult and painful. The last painting I made was the beginning of 1990 and it was the Deposition of Christ. It was all wrapped up with being pregnant and my abortion, the emotional entanglement, the confusion of creativity, and the guilt that followed. And since then I haven’t made another painting. The idea of Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made is to free myself from my fear of painting, and to exorcise all those bad memories associated with it. I’m not painting to make the paintings. I’m painting for the action, the feeling, the release. It doesn’t really matter what they look like because they are going to be destroyed immediately afterwards.” Interview with Carl Freedman, Minky Manky (London: South London Gallery, 1995).
In one of the cubicles of Georgina Starr’s multipart Visit to a Small Planet, which gives this eccentric installation the look of being a cross between a carnival and a school science fair, we come upon a sheet that lists the following “desires”:
(1) To read minds.
(2) To have the power of invisibility.
(3) To communicate with animals.
(4) To have a photographic memory.
(5) To star in a musical.
It is as if having found a handwritten note in someone's bedroom, we have been given the power to spy on that person's innermost wishes. As they are impossible to fulfil, these desires express a juvenile’s sense of lack of power in the real world of adults. Such “powers,” especially those of a mental capacity, are usually attainable after application and discipline, which the child of course wishes to avoid precisely by operating in the world of fantasy. But except in movies, the powers on the list are perhaps realizable only in performance, as the byproducts of some sort of magic trick. Discipline then produces the illusion, not the reality, and aims to make the trick work. Illusion doubles the desire: the fantasy of having the power in a fantasy dramatization of it. The now-not-so-anomalous last desire on Starr's list—to star in a musical—becomes the vehicle for the rest of the list’s actualization. Starr proceeds to act these out in Visit to a Small Planet.
Visit to a Small Planet, 1994-95, is an attempt to recreate the story from a Jerry Lewis movie, one with the same title, that Starr saw as a ten-year-old child. She was convinced that it depicted the special powers of mind-reading, invisibility, and interspecies communication of the extraterrestrial called Kreton played by Lewis. Just as the aforementioned list reveals the disparity between desiring and having, so Starr’s Visit to a Small Planet acts out the distance between photographic memory and the porousness of actual recall. It haphazardly mixes together the memory of the film’s scenario, as it might affect a child, with a recollection of the other events and interests of that child’s life. In 1978, that included for Starr the disco movie “musical” Saturday Night Fever and her family situation in Leeds.
Unable to locate the film itself, Starr wrote her own script and drew a storyboard (both are part of the installation, the former also being available in book form as a souvenir takeaway). She also made props, designed costumes as she remembered them from the film, and enacted parts of the scenario, which were recorded as separate videotapes. The viewer moves through the installation thus created as if experiencing the components of movie production: the advertising marquee, a publicity trailer, and individual video stations (the film), which may stand alone or be incorporated in isolation booths of the type used in early game shows or scientific experiments. Here the viewer may witness or virtually recreate the character Starr/Kreton’s experiments in mind-reading, invisibility, and telepathy.
The first booth contains a left-over plate of tinned ravioli and loose copies of Dean Martin and Saturday Night Fever records that we can play on an old-style portable record player while we read Starr’s handwritten script. The ravioli and music were mnemonic devices to stir memory. Like the Proustian madeleine, comfort food and Dean Martin tunes were part of Starr’s efforts to remember the plot of the movie as she wrote the script. (Is the "small planet" Starr visits that of childhood?)
Of course, as it turns out, when Starr actually found a copy of the film, Dino was not in it, nor was the orange helmet Starr made and wore that was so central to her mind-reading and telepathy. Nor was the film, which is considered a bad B-movie, even in colour. These facts, however, should not prejudice us against Starr's judgement as a child or the quality of her memory as an adult. That she associated Martin with Lewis is to be expected, given their numerous collaborations, her fascination as a child with the movie, and her love of Martin's music. If music assumes an autonomous, associative, and assertive play in the constructions of memory, it does so as a model for fictional remaking in art.
Accuracy of memory or even evocation of its constitutive powers were not necessarily the most important factors for Starr: “Memory was just a trigger to make the work.” Elsewhere she suggested, “The fictional side of Visit to a Small Planet is just as important as my memory. My memory becomes a fiction because it is how I remember it. . . . A memory is nothing until you backtrack and examine the context. It starts as a series of small incidents, and all of a sudden it becomes much richer and a whole new story erupts.” The making of the work was fuelled by the frustration of not being able to find the film, a frustration, moreover, that was typically productive for Starr. “I begin to reinvent things in my head and to wonder why I can’t remember them. I wanted to find the Jerry Lewis film because of a mind-reading sequence when his reading powers are switched against him by his leader. His real thoughts are amplified in the room. He’s talking to a woman, but he’s thinking about another woman with whom he is in love. It’s complete chaos. It made me think about telepathy and what it would be like if everyone could read minds.”
The labour-intensive nature of each component of Starr’s works belies the child’s desire for easy possession of the powers listed above. Visit to a Small Planet thus parodies the fantasy world of the solitary child—which Starr reproduces in the excessive elaborations of process as much as in the fantastic contents of the work—and the self-obsessiveness of the adult artist. What should be easygoing, sophisticated, and elegant for the adult, Starr, with self-deprecating humour, shows as otherwise. In Being Blue, one of the videotapes intended to mimic some of the antics of the original film, Starr tries to make herself invisible. Cigarettes were supposed to mysteriously glide in space and cocktails to pour themselves. Except for the orange helmet, she is all in blue, including face, hands, and arms. She awkwardly tries to light and smoke a cigarette, pour a soft drink, read a book, and so on; but because, in the end, she did not effectively use chroma-key to make herself disappear (the television technique that drops everything blue from an image), we see instead an absurd figure that looks like a clumsy blue cartoon bumble-bee mishandling everything.
Such absurd mixtures of excessive preparation and dotty realization abound in Starr's works. Some improbable task is eventually accomplished, with the viewer sometimes wondering about its worth, certainly pondering the meaning of its results. Whether she delves into her past, as in Visit, or curates her present experience and extemporizes from it, as in The Nine Collections of the Seventh Museum, 1994, Starr unselfconsciously parodies the knowledge-based activities of selecting, processing, classifying, and displaying. Unselfconsciously, because culmination in such "useless" ends shows the parallel tracks rationality and imagination follow before Starr deviates into the eccentric byways of her fictional universe.
To write, produce, direct, and star in a movie is the ambition of many actors. Assuming all these roles in the cottage industry of her fictional apparatus is a common modus operandi for Starr, not just in Visit to a Small Planet replaying its Hollywood namesake, but in all her works. Some may directly take off from ready-made parts, such as when Starr portrays the female characters from Grease in her tape Frenchy, part of the larger work Hypnodreamdruff, 1996. At fifteen, Starr herself had played the role of Frenchy in a high-school performance of Grease. Here the five characters Starr plays are spliced together as if they were in one bedroom conversation, all the parts taken by its inhabitant, Pauline, one of the characters from Hypnodreamdruff. With all this role-playing, we wonder whether the homonymic name Starr sparked a desire, suggesting to the child that she could be the star of the movie musicals she so much enjoyed. Certainly, most of Starr’s other works have been cued and conditioned by some equally bizarre determination that she imposes initially on herself and finally on the viewer.
If Visit to a Small Planet generally represents the fictional strategies of her recent works, Getting to Know You, 1993, stands in for the analytic procedures of her first pieces, from Yesterday and Eddy 1/Whistle to Erik, the immediate precedent for Getting to Know You. And if Visit to a Small Planet sets the present in relation to the past as the adult to the child, Getting to Know You pits Georgina Starr against the particular unknown that is any other person. Drawing on a mixture of chance and determination, the circumstances she arbitrarily sets up or accidentally encounters in these early pieces provoke events that channel behaviour, whether human or otherwise, that is then described or assembled in narratives. From some improbable circumstance, in the end, a comprehensive picture or portrait is produced. Whether these portraits correspond to the individuals—or whether the pseudo-events have the analytic status she spins out—is not the point of the exercise. The portraits divine a skewed knowledge of Starr herself.
The image of an other is as much conjured as fabricated. In Getting to Know You, having solicited the cooperation of a Dutch writer who was unknown to her, Starr proceeded to build up a picture of the man from long distance, using the barely credible techniques of various pseudo-sciences. ("I thought it would be fascinating to have a sense of someone's character knowing only a name.") Based on material that she requested and he sent, she consulted graphologists, physionomists, palmists, astrologers, tea-leaf readers, numerologists, and dream analysts. She had him answer questionnaires of likes and dislikes and describe his features, from which she attempted sketches of his likeness. For each of the tests on him, she did one on herself, and a series of videotapes show her pursuing these divinations to their sometimes startling conclusions. The composite display combining psychic research on Gerard Stigter and Georgina Starr, two persons unknown to each other except through letters of instruction and compliance, has the look of a police operations room during a murder case. This exercise in detection, however, has no conclusion other than the birth of a new character, a quasi-fictional person, made of the unlikely mix of accurate and inaccurate information, conjecture and psychic insight. Like the entanglement of memory with the childhood fascination of Visit to a Small Planet, these psychic phenomena verge towards the domains of both absurdity and insight. That identity may be dependent on such arbitrary vissitudes is not a worry. Instead, Starr's works reveal and revel in the capacity of the mind to be tricked and teased, to spin wonders from an obsessive cataloguing and dramatizing, willing itself and making its own meaning on the basis of chance phenomena or its own arbitrary decisions.
1. Heidi Reitmaeir, “Things You Always Wanted to Do but Were Afraid to,” Women's Art (January-February 1996): 12. Adam Chodzko, “Georgina Starr,” Tate The Art Magazine (Spring 1996), 37.
2. Reitmaier, 15.
Jane and Louise Wilson
Although not a new strategy, collaboration has more and more become a means for young artists to broaden issues of artistic production and context, and to move beyond individual studio concerns. This interest has manifested itself in a merging of media, disciplines, sites, and functions as art attempts to address a larger audience. The resulting works tend to assume the look or mimic the effects of the spectacles of advertising, entertainment, and the mass media all of which art must compete with today; moreover, these spectacles help form our sense of identity or at least provide a vocabulary for imagining it. One result of such collaboration has been to submerge individual ego in corporate structures, thereby implicitly questioning identity in art. Jane and Louise Wilson have an unfair advantage over other such practioners when it comes to collaboration and identity, perhaps: they are identical twins who work together.
Jane and Louise Wilson have collaborated as artists since they presented their B.F.A. thesis exhibitions at their respective art schools in 1989; exactly the same work appeared in two locations, Newcastle and Dundee. (They then both studied at Goldsmiths’ College and graduated in 1992.) Needless to say, the conventions to establish competence in granting degrees were unsettled by such a play with identity. A British writer, Adrian Searle, has described one of their thesis works, a two-panel photowork titled Garage: “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.”1
Those tensions were seemingly relaxed in a 1993 work called Hypnotic Suggestion 505. Here the Wilsons were hypnotized--twice, once in Portuguese (the original installation of the piece was in Oporto) and then in English, by two different mesmerists. In the work set up as a video projection, we see the twins sitting in office armchairs before a blue curtain, slowly being inducted into a hypnotic trance. If in Garage the sisters were about to go in opposite directions towards the same end, the downwardness of drowning and the uplift of hanging, in Hypnotic Suggestion 505, their actions uncannily correspond. One voice instructs, and the two move in tandem. At the end of the hypnosis, as if it were following the cadence of the hypnotist's voice, the camera slowly rises over the heads of the artists until the blue curtain fills the screen. For us onlookers, the blue realm of a mystic void perhaps corresponds to the blissful hypnotized state of the artists--but only if we take this end to be a resolution and not a pause that opens up, behind the curtain, an abyss of questions.
There are two, initially contradictory, interpretations of the artists’ role in this work. One is that the Wilsons have put themselves into a situation they do not control, and thus are vulnerable; the other is that they are in supreme control, that they “merely posed as victims, never losing control for a moment as artists, as directors.” One assumes that the artists offer themselves (to us) as subjects of the work, the other that they make themselves visible as subjects and authors of the work. In the former case, they submit to the mastery and authority of the male hypnotist, the absent stand-in for the viewer/voyeur, modelled on the male subject; in the latter, the artists usurp that mastery. By invoking this involuntary state, by undertaking hypnosis together, but by also being twins, the Wilsons neatly and succinctly raise a host of questions about identity. What does the work suggest about individual identity, when different individuals act the same in a hypnotic state? Is it merely as a group subject of hypnosis that the two perform this way, or because they are twins? Twins have always confronted society with problems of identity, as much as, at times, twinning has affronted people with a worrisome spectacle of reproduction. Yet it is the Wilsons' willingness not to just invoke altered states, as in the suicidal despair (or pact?) of Garage, but to assume the risks of this self-exposure that in Hypnotic Suggestion 505 turned out to be benign. This self-exposure is put to an end that they as artists ultimately control, of course, in releasing an artwork to view. But exactly what they wish to expose us to is not always benign, and it will be the role of the photographic image to evoke implicit threat.
Although the Wilsons' installations have tended towards the unity of filmic space and time (absent of straightforward narrative, however), their first works kept the staged moment of photography and the temporality of the moving image apart. Either they showed the enactment of some transformation of consciousness (conforming to the temporality of the medium of film or video), which was also a voyeuristic display of a state over which the artists seemingly had no control, as in Hypnotic Suggestion 505; or they pictured some usually decrepit or vaguely threatening locale in which the event had taken or was taking place, as in Garage. Most of the latter, the photographic works, set scenes without an acting role for the artists. Ambiguous scenarios were established, stage sets created with various detritus that produced an anxious aura of what one writer has described as “understated subterranean domestic horror.” It was left to the viewer not to decipher the evidence of what seemed empty of motive, because the “documentation” pointed to nothing confirmable, but to register the unease of what the same writer labelled an “aesthetic of derangement,” a sort of dis-ease of the space.
Subsequent works combined these two aspects in installations that mixed large-scale photographic panels with video displays, creating corollaries of situation and state, setting and subject (the artists themselves). Routes 1 & 9 North, 1994, also involved hypnotism, but set within a series of seamy American motel rooms on main highways long bypassed by the Interstate. Cult Cabin, 1994, pursues a particularly American state of mind. Back in Europe, the dereliction of past glory is recorded in 1:1 scale colour photographs of the Kaiser Wilhelm Suite of the Hotel Orient in Vienna, where the artists made Crawl Space 1994. As they have with other works (such as Bed & Breakfast, 1993), they lived in the rooms in which a private “performance” occurred behind closed doors—a performance of consciousness: here they took an LSD trip for the first time. The delapidated splendour of the plush baroque decor of their suite provides the backdrop for what turned out to be a retro-trip: in the videotape they use the cheap effect of strobe lights, which flash before their gleeful faces, to signify the drug era familiar from classic sixties exploitation films like The Trip, directed by Roger Corman.
That such films as Corman’s make us anticipate future experiences (however off the mark) suggests the formative effect of even genre or B-movies on our desires and identities. As the Wilsons bring their work closer to the strategies of film, both as a repertoire of techniques and a rich source of genre storylines and characters, this informing—or deforming—power directs their scenarios. Even though the video projection of Crawl Space 1995 (a second work with the same title) is accompanied by a photographic component, it is the spatio-temporal representations of film that make this medium attractive for the Wilsons' use. Melding situation and consciousness in action and mood, film combines that which was previously kept apart in the Wilsons’ work. Now a space itself, for instance, not just a character, can convey an altered consciousness. (The Wilsons utilize not only the resources of commercial film but experimental and underground film as well.)
If the film in Crawl Space 1994 was a high, that of its like-titled companion of 1995 is a bad trip. Crawl Space 1995 is an anthology of hammy horror highlights: within its short nine minutes it condenses the psychokinesis of Carrie and the bodily eruptions of The Exorcist, the groping walls of Repulsion, the twisted camp scenario of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and the engorging bubble of The Prisoner, among other references to the psychological horror genre as a whole. In fact, it evokes every horror movie wherein a house itself is a living, malevolent consciousness, a projection of some diseased mind or psychological evil.
As the camera tracks down hallways and enters destroyed rooms from basement to attic in this sprawling, abandoned nursing home, typically in falling-down disrepair, we think maybe the camera frame itself is a “crawl space,” not solely the corridors of this nightmarish place. The continuously moving camera acts as our eyes, but more likely the "eyes" belong to the disembodied consciousnesses of the plot. If we can extrapolate from the fact that the Wilsons are twins and from the bondage wheelchair references to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the plot seems to revolve around a crisis of identity in a conflict between two sisters. At the beginning of the film, one of the Wilsons releases the other trapped as a bubble from her mouth, only to re-engorge her at the end. Between these two moments, the other sister is imprisoned in the shimmering sphere and also a captive of the house through which it endlessly floats (pursued by the evil twin?).
In Crawl Space 1995, we witness a “power struggle” that the Wilsons previously kept in balance, even if the two mutually appeared to have abandoned control, as in Hypnotic Suggestion 505. In Crawl Space 1995, one twin was victim of the other—as well as of the house of horror. The original balance is restored in their next film work, Normapaths, even when the two as actors seem to be in conflict. Normapaths (1995, installed as a double video projection along with part of its set) is an explosion of action compared with the passivity of Hypnotic Suggestion 505. As if they were a trailer for an action film, the events are condensed to their kinetic highlights: aerial acrobatics on a trampoline, a figure on fire, simulated karate fights, smashing through walls of the fake set. Whatever narrative there is is abandoned to the flow of these supercharged events within the stasis of a huge empty brewery building as the three cat-suited Emma Peels—the artists and one other woman—enact a drama of release (from expectations represented by the ruined domestic space of the set they charge through?). The title Normapaths is a neologism coined by the psychiatrist Félix Guattari, suggesting that normality itself is a pathological state. Appropriately, at the end, the Wilson sisters face each other (the other who is part of the same self?), exploring each other’s features with the caress of mutated appendages, feet having replaced their hands.
1. Adrian Searle, “Would you want to live next door to these two sisters,” The Independent (Section two), October 10, 1995.
2. Cherry Smyth, “Psychic Trails,” Normapaths (London: Chisenhale Gallery, 1995), n.p.
3. Greg Hilty, “Beside Themselves,” Frieze 42.
4. In medical terminology, the bodily absorption of one twin by the other in the uterus is called, after the mythological creature, a chimera.
NOTE: This text may not correspond exactly to its published form.