Fashion - Madame Death
Jane and Louise Wilson have long been a rule-proving exception in British art, perhaps the only artists ever to have exhibited at a Saatchi show who won't be assigned several years of re-education come the revolution. Their work has always been full of the things excised by their contemporaries - references to things outside art, explorations of the pleasures and terrors of lived space, an aesthetic as opposed to a signature, an exploration of history and other matter extraneous to the artistic ego. There is something curious about the fact that, given how distinctive their aesthetic actually is, it rarely actually gets talked about. The current work at the NFT (or ahem 'BFI Southbank') is a case in point. Unfolding the Aryan Papers is based on their work in Stanley Kubrick's voluminous archives, drawing from an unfilmed project entitled The Aryan Papers, on a Jewish family which poses as Catholic to escape the holocaust. Specifically, it draws on the wardrobe shots of the actress who was to play the lead. These shots, and re-enactments of the shots, play on a screen flanked with mirrors, while the actress reads excerpts and talks about her role in the unfinished film, briefly interspersed with production photographs, which veer from famous images of the Warsaw Ghetto to more snapshots of clothes and haircuts.
The work's self-presentation in interviews and blurbs centres on these complex stories, and their historical complications and resonances (occasionally combined with the homily that the original film was stopped because of its attempt to 'represent the unrepresentable'). There isn't much, though, about what you actually see in the work. In the sections filmed by the Wilson twins that dominate the film, what you see is a blonde woman with her hair in a bun, in a variety of 1940s outfits - dresses, fur coats, wide black trousers, seamed stockings, high heels - walking around Hornsey Town Hall. As a purely aesthetic work it's coldly intriguing, slow, stately, with a heavily erotic undercurrent. In the same issue of Sight and Sound linked above, a long article wondered why Kubrick's films were so 'unsexy', as if the absence of heat, warmth and earthiness somehow stripped them of any sexual affect. Unfolding the Aryan Papers is, like Kubrick himself, acutely aware of Benjamin's 'sex appeal of the inorganic', and the shots of stockinged legs walking up Hornsey's steps are lingering, obsessive. Both the clothes and the building seem to suggest a fundamentally aestheticised notion of the past, and especially of the 1940s. The artists mention that the town hall 'looked not dissimilar to the production stills on the costume shoot', but this seems highly disingenuous, looking at the rustic wooden door that acts as backdrop to the original photographs.
Hornsey is a very astute choice, from a visual if not archival point of view. If it had been filmed in an international style building of the same era, the temporality would have be wrong - these are buildings which frequently look like they were made yesterday, which is certainly not the case with Hornsey Town Hall's muted, sober Dudokisms, its brick, lacquered wood and austere palette of browns and darkened yellows, all of which immediately evoke the mustiness of rationing and municipal politics rather than the Meditteranean futurism of CIAM Modernism. Now abandoned and empty, the space as used here verges on austerity nostalgia, albeit with the era's strangeness and otherness emphasised rather than reduced to commentary on our consumer choices. The clothes, too, are meticulously and intriguingly chosen, and the work could easily be taken as a 17-minute film about vintage dresses, with the succession of outfits having a sharply austere glamour. On the soundtrack, there is talk about the unfinished, the fragmentary and the unrepresentable, but this is all basically non-diegetic, and doesn't act as any kind of commentary on what we see. What is actually on screen is intensely polished and cinematic, only wrenched out of any context - a shot of a hand brushing a handrail is invested with an emotional and aesthetic significance which refers to nothing much. To accuse the project of 'using the holocaust as a stage set for a fashion show' is blunt, but at least recognises that in all the material corralled together into the film, the actual historical event which Kubrick wanted to try and make a film around (not about) is demoted, unimportant. The documentary images of the Warsaw Ghetto are more to do with Kubrick's archives than the events themselves. More, this is a fashion show about Kubrick, and about a particular idea of a bureaucratic, sinister and coldly glamorous 1940s, rather than about the unmade film's original subject matter.
(the film can be watched online here)