Data-Doubles of the Self

Twinship in contemporary art

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Richard Kriesche Zwillinge (Twins), 1977; Courtesy © The artist and DACS, London

Richard Kriesche Zwillinge (Twins), 1977; Courtesy © The artist and DACS, London

One of the puzzling features of Richard Kriesche’s installation Zwillinge (Twins) is the extent to which it is open to imitation. First staged in 1977 at documenta 6, the work uses genetically identical siblings in a striking display of human generation, reproduction and similitude. Kriesche’s contemporary audience at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste, where Zwillinge was shown recently (as part of the group exhibition ‘Vertigo of Reality’), was asked to consider how and why the work was being restaged after 37 years and, having rounded two corners in the gallery, what to make of a couple who appear as identical as an apple cleft in two.

The recent iteration of Kriesche’s work featured the identical-twin brothers, Andreas and Ralf Hilbert, dressed in duplicate outfits (featuring matching hats, trousers and pullovers), their knees at right angles, their bare feet tucked neatly beneath identical seats, reading the same edition of Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936). Although they sat in rooms separated in such a way that the viewer was prohibited from seeing them simultaneously, the twins were still linked by a video circuit that projected an image of each brother onto the wall of the other’s space. The Hilberts (who are artists) told me that the experience of being exhibited in Zwillinge ‘sometimes made us feel like animals in a zoo’ in which ‘one is a puppet and the other is real’. Being biologically and theatrically ‘beside them­selves’, each sitter was both present and technologically elsewhere, observed directly and appraised as a supplement to the other.

Zwillinge has gained a set of familiars, joined by numerous other works that draw on the serial and visually surreal quality of human twinning. Damien Hirst first used identical twins at the Unfair art fair in Cologne in 1992, in two separate installation pieces named after their participants: Marianne, Hildegard and Ingo, Torsten. (The title changes with each twin set.) He then extended this work at Tate’s ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’ in London in 2009–10, including 40 sets of twin volunteers. The popularity and simplicity of positioning twins in front of his dot paintings saw further returns to this idea for Hirst: first in 2012, at the Ruhr Triennale, and again at Art Basel in 2014. While the unusual visual relationship between each individual set of participants is integral to the iterative quality of Hirst’s series, we know that genetically identical (‘monozygotic’) twins are actually physically and behaviourally different from one another, as well as being significantly different from the other 11 million monozygotic twins that inhabit the globe. What Hirst – and Kriesche – are exploring, then, is not the identicality of the human body but, by using genetic ‘doubles’, the ways in which the human body has a capacity to riff, change and mutate over time.

Affording embodied ways to interrogate the small differences upon which repetition depends may explain why twins have so often featured in contemporary art. They are particularly prevalent in the photographic medium, whose depleted authenticity so interested Walter Benjamin – notably Twins (2003) by Mary Ellen Mark, Chimeras (2011) by Julie de Waroquier and Identical (2012) by Martin Schoeller. These photographers show how capturing the likeness of twins cannot easily be achieved within a single image but extends across and occupies spaces between many different pairs. Famously, Diane Arbus’s Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 (1967) was copied and adapted for the big screen when it became the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s use of identical-twin sisters in The Shining (1980). Kubrick’s interest in how twins can occupy a grey zone between the natural and supernatural recurs in Gregor Schneider’s Artangel work Die Familie Schneider (The Schneider Family, 2004), which featured identical-twin actors performing identical roles in neighbouring identical houses. In societies where individualism and personal agency are so highly prized, the figure of the twin can appear as an uncanny, threatening and nightmarish figuration of sameness. In word and image, we don’t seem to be able to leave twins be; they have a capacity to suggest indexical relations, not only to a wide range of philosophical, theological and anthropological debates about who ‘we’ are and might become, but also to the grail quest for accurate and self-sufficient descriptions: a body or an image of a body that is without equal.

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Damien Hirst, Hans, Georg, 1992, documentation of performance at ‘12 Rooms’, 2012, Ruhrtiennale, Museum Folkwang, Essen; Courtesy © the artist and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2015; photograph: Jens Nober

Damien Hirst, Hans, Georg, 1992, documentation of performance at ‘12 Rooms’, 2012, Ruhrtiennale, Museum Folkwang, Essen; Courtesy © the artist and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2015; photograph: Jens Nober

If there is something that twins offer artists, then it is the capacity to provide a biomorphic image of embodied time: a signature made of two bodies telling of two lives that are existentially linked. Hence, twins remain a fascination for those who are searching for living forms of intimacy, companionship, uncertainty, horror and self-scrutiny. When the Hilbert brothers weren’t ‘performing their twinship’ in Kriesche’s installation at the Akademie der Künste, they were busy making art under a common name – AnRa. (When one brother gets tired, the other takes over.) Such details do not alter the form of Kriesche’s installation and yet the work and the specific location of its performance would not be the same were it not for this kind of life-long relationship, shared and endured by two people.

It is fitting that Benjamin’s words both adorned the walls behind the Hilberts in the 2014 installation of Zwillinge and filled the pages of the texts they were reading, since the author was much concerned with the status of art in an era dominated by mechanical duplicates. Benjamin claimed he began his Passagenwerk (Arcades Project, 1927–40) when he was working at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and faced an apparition of twins: ‘There in the foreground were standing not the divinities of Olympus – not Zeus, Hephaestus, Hermes, or Hera, Artemis and Athena – but the Dioscuri.’ These Dioscuri (‘sons of god’) were the twin gods Castor and Pollux (also known variously as ‘the Gemini’ or ‘Heavenly Twins’), the warrior sons of Leda. They occupy the third sign of the zodiac and have been said to guide the travels of military men and sailors. Calling upon these twins, archetypes of a heroic version of twinship, Benjamin manipulates a multivalent image of holy movement, sacrifice, devotion, monstrosity and repetition. Born and co-created, ancient and modern, twins are malleable guides in efforts to map bodies, identities, histories and biographies: capacious figures with which to begin a work as long as life itself.

is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, UK. He is the author of  Waste: A Philosophy
of Things (2014).

Issue 169

First published in Issue 169

March 2015

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