At some point in the late 1970s the producers of Dr Who, the BBC's faltering and - in the face of Star Wars (1977) hysteria - increasingly anachronistic time-travel romp, plumped for an all-out return to spooky Victoriana, a flashback to Jules Verne in the era of industrial light and magic. The good doctor abandoned his gleaming control room (a white wedding between Fritz Lang and Mary Quant) for its wood-panelled mirror image, an eerie nook straight from the deck of Jules Verne's Nautilus (1923). The move conjures a temporal paradox: the brooding mystique of the precursor cohabiting with its pristine usurper, both lost in the whirling voids of space and time.
All this is by way of suggesting a concomitant convolution in the works of Jane and Louise Wilson, whose shift from the stark Cold War spaces of Stasi City (1997) and Gamma (1999) to the venerable corridors of Parliament (1999) mines a similar stratum of compacted chronology in that sci-fi staple the space-time continuum. The antiquated cliché that claims there is nothing so dated as past visions of the future is refashioned in their latest works into a sustained meditation on the aesthetics and politics of mid-century modernity.
The four video screens of Monument (Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee) (2003) depict Victor Pasmore's architectonic sculpture, erected at the heart of a town that itself stands as a monument to postwar architectural optimism. Pasmore placed the concrete labyrinth of the Apollo Pavilion at the centre of the town's projected pastoral refuge: bordered by a lake and parkland, it was both monument and vantage-point, artwork and amenity, in a manner that, given its subsequent neglect and decay, now seems tragically utopian. The pavilion was built between 1963 and 1970: it corresponds precisely to the trajectory of 1960s technological optimism, the arc and plunge from white heat to post-Apollo cooling-off. Immediately condemned by local residents and quickly vandalized (Pasmore later commented that graffiti had 'humanized' the structure), the work is now, as the Public Monument and Sculpture Association records, 'spalling, crumbling, friable', stranded in civic purgatory.
The Wilsons' treatment of the Apollo Pavilion - the way their camera probes, swoops and pans about its ossified surfaces - is a song of mourning to physical decrepitude, the death of a future dream, and a paradoxical effort at resuscitation. It sets dead space in motion again, restoring to the work its fantasy of flight, of airy escape from closed space into future time. The viewer turns from a shot of empty perpendiculars to the giddy image of children swarming over its surface (it was lunchtime at the school across the street from the Lisson: a neat counterpoint to four screens of ancient concrete remade as a rain-stained playground). A soundtrack scatter of birdsong serenades a monument more alive than moribund.
The critic Hubert Damisch, writing of classical labyrinths, asks: 'how many tangles does it take before a labyrinth begins to be a labyrinth?' If Monument shifts the ground of that question from space to time, Dream Time (2001), a 35mm film recording the launch of the first manned Russian mission to the international space station, has already broadened its scope to a wide-angle historical conundrum. At what point did this vast technology of detonation and flight, rendered here with all the ravishing (if familiar) iconography of post-Soviet space technology, start to look so old, so trapped in the sinuous passages of a 20th-century dream of adventure and power (controls, uniforms, furniture: a very Soviet moderne décor)?
The title is a clue: not 'Dreamtime' (as the gallery's publicity had it) but 'dream time': almost an order. Can we dream time, fantasize the pure element adrift from its spatial moorings? The film attempts just that; testament to a take-off both grandly futuristic and oddly archaic, it suggests that such dreams only seem fantastic to the waking mind: a moment of clarity captured here in the closing shots of post-lift-off space, abandoned rooms, dusty windows opening on to earthbound reality. We think we've woken from the dreamtime of science fantasy, seen it for the dated sham we should have known, but another future intervenes, just as alluringly doomed. Safe Light (2003), a series of photographs (from a future film) of the seamless space of microchip manufacture, already starts to look like a record of a lost aesthetic, a dream of clinical brilliance as quaint as a mahogany time machine.
Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.
First published in Issue 78