Jane and Louise Wilson are twin sisters who grew up in Newcastle. They’re also artists, and they’ve been working together for nearly three decades. Despite attending art courses in different locations, Louise in Newcastle and Jane in Dundee, their creative processes intertwined, photographing one another as subjects and using their parents’ garage as a shared studio space. When they came to graduate in 1989, their collaborative degree show ran simultaneously at both institutions.
Their artistic practice has continued in the same vein since. Together, they’ve explored issues of surveillance, isolation, conflict and historical narrative through video installations, photography, animation and sound, and now share a studio space in east London.
Their credits are formidable. They received the DAAD artists-in-residence scholarship in 1996, were nominated for The Turner Prize in 1999, completed a commission for the Imperial War Museum in 2014, and have exhibited in Korea, Turkey, the USA, Spain, Austria, Germany, Portugal and more, at biennials and world-renowned galleries. Jane is also a trustee for the Tate and both sisters became Royal Academy members in 2018.
In 2017, Newcastle University approached Jane and Louise with an unusual offer – a joint professorship. “The position was for a practice-based professorship for a fine artist and because we have a practice together and we’re a collaboration, it just seemed a wonderful opportunity to think how that could be translated,” says Louise. “It’s not something that is easy for institutions to get their heads around, so it’s really exciting that Newcastle are prepared to think in that way.”
An appealing element of the shared position at Newcastle University is the ability for the duo to continue producing art alongside their teaching duties.
“It’s really supported and that’s what I think is special about it,” says Louise. “It’s important that is acknowledged as much as the teaching side because you need that balance – you won’t get practising artists coming for those positions otherwise. It’s unique in that way.”
The Great Exhibition of the North, which took place around the region in summer 2018, featured pieces from a number of artists linked to Newcastle University. “We’ve got our piece down on the quayside,” says Jane. “Neil Bromwich is teaching at the University and he had a piece at Grey’s Monument. [At Newcastle University], practising artists are perceived [as such] – I think that’s key.”
Jane and Louise’s piece for the exhibition, Suspended Island, is a combination of film, photography and sculpture that sat in Low Yard on Newcastle’s quayside. They took inspiration from Trinity House – one of the oldest buildings in the city, set up to tax boats coming up the Tyne – exploring its history and colonial connections in parallel with imagery from an abandoned coastal fortification on Governors Island off the Manhattan coast. Voiceovers from refugees tied the piece together. “That constant feeling of coming somewhere but never really being somewhere, it’s like a suspended island,” Jane explains.
We just finished a residency in Korea… we’d love to see something happen in Newcastle as a result.
Local and international
As well as the quayside installation, Jane and Louise’s work was recently on display at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), which hosted their Imperial War Museum commission Undead Sun. They hope to exhibit more in the region but stress the importance of sharing perspectives from outside the North-East, and vice versa. “We’ve just finished doing a residency in Korea,” says Louise. “That was a really interesting experience. We made connections in Seoul, which we’d love to develop and see something happen in Newcastle as a result.”
Dedicating time to their own art and communicating with the wider art world brings benefits for Jane and Louise’s students. “It’s important that they see the potential for that themselves and I think you can’t do any better than lead by example,” Louise says. “They can see that you’re practitioners who are making a go of it, and see ways you can extend your practice through residencies, through studio spaces, through potential gallery exhibitions... We’ve had a lot of experience being self-employed and doing this for many years; we can share that experience.”
Since their time at art college in Newcastle, Jane and Louise have noted a positive change in the local art scene. “There are different ways to progress and expand what you’re doing now,” says Jane. “The Newbridge Project and other projects have been significant in extending that community, and also [allowing] graduates to stay in the North-East. When we were there 20 years ago that was not an option, and now it really is.”
With relatively cheap studio space available and growing contemporary art institutions such as the Baltic and MIMA, these regional grassroots groups are expanding, providing inspiration for current students. Louise says: “They’re the important natives that help create the artist community in the North-East.”
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