Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, UK
How do we handle the traumas of war? What are the individual and societal responses to breaches in memory, gashes in faces and the loss of loved ones in battle? How we deal with the aftermath of conflict is a central concern in Jane and Louise Wilson’s latest exhibition, which juxtaposes two videos – We Put the World Before You (2016) and Undead Sun (2014; both commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella) – in a staging that also includes sculptures, photographs and props. In the Wilsons’ hands, the ostensible subject matter of these works, World War I, comes across as an unknowable entity. The artists retrieve discrete elements from the miasma of history, revealing their connection to contemporary industries including medicine, social media and imaging technologies.
As I entered the L-shaped gallery,
I was transfixed by a projected close-up of a woman’s face, apparently in oral ecstasy, in We Put the World Before You. Her closing eyes bring her false eyelashes to alight gently on her cheeks, while her lipstick-smeared mouth makes the quiet pops and clicks of saliva against soft tissue as she masticates, licks and swallows thin air. Then the camera switches to a wide angle, revealing a group of seated women dressed in the coquettish bright satins and costume jewellery of the 1970s. A tall man in a suit, his long blonde hair pinned up in an elegant side twist, addresses his audience: ‘Feel that, feel it running down your throat, into your chest, into your stomach.’
The mesmerized women are biting into lemons, or at least they imagine they are. Later, they perform hand gestures, bringing their palms together to form steeples with their fingers, miming pulling a needle and thread, and swiping right as though to expedite unwanted digital images. For me, this last gesture links the psychic corrosion caused by too much digital technology to the ravaging effects of trauma on the landscapes of memory.
As the 15-minute video plays out, the hypnotized women are replaced by archival photographs of victims of facial injuries, medical animations depicting the regeneration of bone and tissue cells, and spinning 3D scans of the artists’ heads. They return in a series
of dramatic tableaux vivants, which they act out with props from the earlier film, Undead Sun, including the head of a dead horse, which becomes part of a cross-species pietà.
‘We Put the World before You’ was the motto of Charles Urban, an early motion-picture pioneer, who put his innovations to educational as well as recreational ends. By combining camp ensemble scenes with hard data, the Wilsons also take a double tack, staging a kind of drama of science, locating medical and technological innovation squarely in the mystery of human experience. And when they layer images of their own faces among those of young men disfigured in World War I, the gesture reads as a loving transference of the damage wrought by the war onto their own bodies, to bring history alive in a new way.
The projection of We Put the World Before You is framed by two freestanding mesh canvases depicting a vast wind tunnel that also features at several points in Undead Sun, projected at the opposite end of the gallery. In other scenes, women in period costume support the war effort by making camouflage nets and putting the finishing touches on facial prosthetics for injured soldiers. World War I saw the development of shell weaponry, which caused new kinds of physical and psychic wounds that required innovative medical treatments. The facial trauma caused by shrapnel tearing through flesh and bones was treated with prosthetics, a medical specialism that brought about plastic surgery, which has now become a powerful industry. Technology engenders trauma engenders technology.
First published in Issue 186