Interview with Jane and Louise Wilson: Stanley Kubrick’s photographs brought to life

The sisters had access to the late film-maker’s huge archive and focused on a film about the Holocaust which never got made


Twin sisters Jane and Louise Wilson have been working together since the late 1980s, making psychologically charged films, videos and photographs which explore evocative and often historically resonant spaces. These have included the former Stasi headquarters in East Germany, the decommissioned US military base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, and the houses of Parliament. More recently they have turned their attention to disused World War II bunkers in Normandy, a microchip manufacturing plant in Tyneside and Victor Pasmore’s modernist pavilion for the new town of Peterlee in County Durham, all of which the Wilsons present from multiple viewpoints and in often intricate installations.

Last year the sisters—who were nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999—were commissioned by Animate Projects to respond to the late American, British-based film-maker Stanley Kubrick’s voluminous archive, which since 2007 has been housed in a state-of-the-art facility at the London College of Communication, in the Elephant & Castle, South London. The result is an installation entitled Unfolding the Aryan Papers which goes on display this month at the British Film Institute to coincide with a major Kubrick season. The work focuses on a film about the Holocaust and a young Jewish boy hidden by his aunt, which despite researching for many years, Kubrick never brought to completion.

The Art Newspaper: Before you had access to his archive you’ve cited Stanley Kubrickas an important influence—can you say in what ways?

Jane Wilson: What is so compelling for us is that he was a photographer first and foremost: he’s got that photographer’s eye. He is somebody for whom every other frame is a still and that’s so exceptional. Tarkovsky and others create a much more poetic lyrical sense but Kubrick really had the attention to make something occur purely from the visual link, it didn’t just come out of the script and the paper. Then there’s all the documentation, all of the research, all of the visual material that also lies behind all his images.

Louise Wilson: There’s an incredible obsessiveness, but at the same time there’s an incredible degree of objectivity which is something you don’t often see. To really unpick something, to be methodical like that and to have that obsessiveness with the compiling of detail is fascinating, it’s almost like OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder]. To absorb that amount of information and to be processing that amount of detail while being that objective takes an incredible mind, which resulted in a phenomenal vision.

TAN: What made you decide to focus on Aryan Papers, a film that was never shot?

JW: To begin with we were given ten days’ access to the Kubrick Archive to come up with an idea which was very daunting as the archive is so extensive. So looking at the projects that never got made was a way for us to make a decision about where we wanted to begin. Another thing that was appealing about the Aryan Papers was that because it never got made, we wouldn’t have to deal with Warner Brothers!

LW: Also because Kubrick’s films are so iconic and embedded in everyone’s consciousness there was something really interesting about looking at a project that was in the process of becoming but which never happened. Many of the elements are there, but it never actually materialised. We were also intrigued by the fact that it maybe was the closest thing to being autobiographical: it would obviously have had a big personal connection to Kubrick’s own personal history [his grandparents were Jews from Austria, Romania and Poland]. In the archive there’s an enormous amount of material related to the Aryan Project, this was obviously something he’d researched for a long, long time, from the late 70s until 1993 when Schindler’s List came out, which was perhaps one of the reasons why the project was pulled. With the Aryan Papers I also think that Kubrick’s objectivity slipped, possibly because of its relationship to his family history, and in a way the material became a lot more subjective for him. Just by flicking through material in the few days that we had, we got a sense that it must have been an emotionally traumatic endeavour.

TAN: Your film focuses on Johanna Ter Steege, the actress who would have been the lead.

JW: We found all these wonderful photographs of Johanna in a wardrobe shoot where she was in costume and in character, and we thought she was just a wardrobe model. The photographs were taken from the back, side and front, and looked almost Cindy Sherman-esque in a way. So we conceived the piece around this shoot with her as this anonymous individual, a cipher figure that represented what would have been. It was only when we did more research and found the script that we realised she was this established actress who’d already been in several films and who was actually going to be the lead.

LW: Then we contacted her and went to her home just outside Amsterdam and interviewed her for a full day, and she turned out to be incredibly behind the project and agreed to come to the UK. Then we sourced costumes and a location—Hornsey Town Hall—that looked not dissimilar to the production stills on the costume shoot and we recreated them, not absolutely faithfully but enough to give an impression. In our footage Johanna is acting but she’s not saying anything—she’s performing the stills, it’s the stills coming alive in a way…

TAN: What do you want the film to express?

JW: Our film is really about Johanna’s journey, seen through her eyes. We are drawing together not only Johanna’s voice in terms of the script but Johanna’s recollections of her experiences as an actress going through this journey and this journey never really coming to fruition. So there’s a lot of bittersweet memories around that, and wondering what would be…

TAN: So this is not a film about the Holocaust?

JW: We hardly mention the Holocaust, it’s not the direction we chose to take. It’s about looking at Johanna, and Johanna as Tanya and thinking about where that experience took her. In our film she reads archive lists from the boxes so she’s also quoting the archive, as well as quoting the script. She’s also talking about her own encounter with Kubrick and so there are different levels running at different points and there are different voices. I think what we want to come through is the different voices.

LW: But the visual image of Johanna is always either through the original stills or where we have filmed her, it never takes the form of a documentary where we interview her.

TAN: In Aryan Papers you use the spoken word for the first time.

JW: Absolutely. Using a voice or a voice over has been an important development for us. A lot of our work has been about architectural, psychological sites where the sense of space and place feeds down into their own narratives, introducing a performative element in terms of a person or a persona; this opens up a whole new range of possibilities. Recently it has been a big influence on a Film Four commission which will be shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival later this year. It’s called Songs from My Mother and we are in the middle of writing our first script!

TAN: How do you work together? Do you each have designated tasks?

LW: It’s pretty fluid, but that’s the nature of working in film.

JW: We’re both artists, we don’t come from film, we just studied art, so we’ve never had that kind of infrastructure. But when you’ve got limited time you can cover a lot of territory with two people working instead of one.

TAN: There’s the now well-known story of you both going to separate art colleges but putting on identical degree shows. Did you decide to work together right from the start?

JW: Because we’d always be talking about ideas and we’d use each other in situations and setups it just didn’t seem like it was such an artificial thing, it was very organic.

I don’t think we would have started working together had we not had that experience of being at separate art colleges—if we’d been at the same school we probably would have wanted to do the opposite and escape from each other...

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Stanley Kubrick’s photographs brought to life by Jane and Louise Wilson'