By Dr Kostas Prapoglou
Undead Sun: We Put the World Before You is the solo show of Turner prize nominated artists Jane and Louise Wilson at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) in the UK. The show comprises the second stage in a three-part project commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) for the centenary of the First World War. The duo presents two films, Undead Sun (2014) which premiered at the Imperial War Museum in London two years ago and We Put the World Before You (2016), made especially for this exhibition. Sculptures that are conceptually in line with the narrative of the two videos are positioned in the surrounding gallery space.
The two films unfold aspects of social history related to the nation’s trajectory over the course of time, and are particularly associated with its involvement in the First World War. Jane and Louise Wilson have developed a keen interest in how warfare situations affect populations—not just in the domain of psychological consciousness, but also in the sphere of corporeality. Their painstaking research of archival material puts the human factor at its epicenter, analyzed and exposed through the prism of diverse emotional and behavioral states, as a response to its engagement in extreme situations of war and conflict.
Undead Sun (2014) surveys notions of technological development encompassing the spectrum of war tactics and aviation. Filmed at one of the colossal wind tunnels in Farnborough, a location where classified research projects used to take place incorporating—among others—supersonic testing of newly built aircrafts, the artists reveal an essence of the scale of backstage action during the times of war. The 14-minute long film accentuates a commentary on the life of soldiers and their part in fighting against the enemy. Viewers witness numerous practises that were implemented taking advantage of the natural environment, such as the placement of wooden decoy tanks in specific points of open landscape, sniper hideaways within horse carcasses, and rail track impressions drawn on fabric surfaces to confuse those flying from above as well as dazzle camouflage methods to mislead the enemy during the process of attack. The film also expands on the medical progress initiated following the disfigurement and mutilations of the fighters. The growth of science in the disciplines of medicine and reconstructive plastic surgery helped countless patients with the employment of prosthetics and artificial limbs, what at the time seemed to be considered as cosmetic procedures. Carefully infused with emotional intensity, which permeates the images of the protagonist soldiers and the women who played an important role during the war, the artists utilize in the narration of the film the performing German words from Tom McCarthy’s novel C written in 2010 reflecting reality before and after World War I.
Embarking from the same story of war injuries and the subsequent advancements in the plastic surgery sector, the video We Put the World Before You (2016) processes ideas related to the aftermath of war and places emphasis on manifold social interpretations. The impact of the returning impaired soldiers from the frontline trenches was hugely harmful to the social fabric of the community and its morale; it soon became a living memento mori evoking those who never made it back. Post-war governments invested greatly in new techniques to help and better the survivors’ quality of life. The 15-minute long video sheds light on new means and applications for facial mapping and reconstruction, undoubtedly affecting a great portion of the population after both world wars. But the Wilson sisters go a step further with this video by speaking about other, not so broadly known, sensitive topics such as that of communication through hypnosis that became a popular modus operandi during the wars, a popular phenomenon that re-emerged in later decades. A scene of fifteen women guided by a hypnotist re-enacts analogous gatherings of the past, searching for answers. The close-ups of their hand gestures and delicate finger movements are redolent of everyday activities such as weaving but they also divert us kinesiologically towards more contemporary approaches attached to our digital and the touch-screen technological era. The feel of touch is also equated with the praxis of healing; our hands can fulfil the esoteric need to investigate, excavate, discover, and restore.
Undead Sun: We Put the World Before You is an homage to traumatic histories of the past, and a lesson for the generations of today. Despite its didactic character, it takes the viewer on a journey not so far away from today’s parallel war situations worldwide—concurrently constructing a message of life highlighting the human need for survival and its continuation for existence. The works on display merge together into a narrative of raw realism, rendering a layer of poeticism that has the uncanny ability to metamorphose melancholy into hope.
Undead Sun: We Put the World Before You at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) runs through January 15, 2017.
Dr. Kostas Prapoglou is an archaeologist-architect, contemporary art writer, critic and curator based in London, UK and Athens, Greece.