Bringing together two major commissions that took the artists to Ukraine and Dubai, this exhibition continued Jane and Louise Wilson’s interest in the pathology of public buildings and the architecture and apparatus of the state. Here, they focused on the human desire to quantify and record, intensely scrutinizing the processes of looking and measuring.
The first space was dominated by Altogether(2010), a fragile recreation of one of Alexander Rodchenko’s Spatial Constructions (1918–21), which comprised interlocking wooden yardsticks and was suspended in the middle of the room. The motif also appears in the large-scale photographs that form ‘Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)’ (2010), depicting the derelict interiors of public buildings in Pripyat, the former ‘Atomic City’ created to house nuclear workers, and subsequently evacuated in 1986 following the Chernobyl disaster. A yardstick has been placed within each of these communal spaces, such as a swimming pool, a library and a classroom. The time-ravaged interiors have been subtly choreographed: an open book is positioned neatly on a desk; insulating material hangs decoratively from the pool’s high ceiling; beds are arranged symmetrically. The yardstick here acts as an acknowledgement of the artists’ intervention, as well as suggesting measurement in a number of ways, from a simple indication of scale to the passing of time and the recording of radiation levels.
Rodchenko believed that the avant-garde would be instrumental in the creation of a new Soviet society, an idea that now feels out of time, a relic from another age. The ghost of such idealism seems to haunt the photographs, too. Built in 1970 as a kind of workers’ Utopia, Pripyat was once called a ‘city of the future’. But after the repression of Stalinism and the many crises that marked Krushchev’s thaw, it was a pragmatic, Brezhnev-era solution to economic need, rather than a return to pre-Stalinist idealism. By this stage in the Soviet project, any role for radical cultural ideas had long since evaporated, but, the Wilsons seem to suggest, there is a line to be measured, from Rodchenko’s Constructivism to Chernobyl. These hastily evacuated buildings speak of abandoned ideologies, and the fact that what appears immovable and permanent can quickly crumble and fall.
The physical and ideological legacy of the collapsed Eastern Bloc has been explored by many other artists in the last decade, from Tacita Dean’s Fernsehturm (2001) to David Maljkovic’s photomontages of Zagreb. But as well as picking over the ruins of the Soviet era, in the show’s centrepiece film installation, Face Scripting – What Did the Building See? (2011), the Wilsons turn their gaze on Dubai and the signifiers of global capitalism: individuated hotel luxury instead of austere communal living, the benign ubiquity of CCTV in place of KGB-style state surveillance.
First shown at the 2011 Sharjah Biennial, Face Scripting… is based on the killing of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas official who was assassinated in a Dubai hotel in January 2010. It was produced in collaboration with architecture theorist Shumon Basar and Eyal Weizman (Professor of Spatial and Visual Culture at Goldsmiths, London). Drawing on the latter’s research into face recognition technology, the co-written text explores the technology at play in Dubai’s culture of surveillance, and is narrated by the Jordanian actor Nadim Sawalha. A single monitor played grainy CCTV footage of suspected Mossad agents in the lead up to Al-Mabhouh’s death; on the opposite wall was the Wilsons’ forensically shot HD film of the Al Bustan Rotanna Hotel, where the murder took place. Slow panning shots scrutinize the crime scene, building intrigue from close-ups of blandly ubiquitous curtains and carpets, darkened corridors, tennis courts and revolving doors.
The term ‘face scripting’ refers to the measuring process used to identify those captured on CCTV, and throughout the film the artists appear with blocks of black and white paint in various configurations around their eyes, mouth and forehead – this is dazzle camouflage, designed to disrupt digital recognition technology. These eerily primitive self-portraits also feature as stills from the film, in a series of 16 monochrome screenprints on mirrored Perspex, ‘False Positives and False Negatives’ (2012).
While the propensity to measure encourages a belief in a human society that can be quantified, understood and ultimately managed, Jane and Louise Wilson suggest otherwise. Under their intense stare, its limitations are explored and fault lines revealed.
First published in Issue 147