Jane and Louise Wilson (b.1967) began working together in 1989, and use film, photography and sculpture, to create arresting, highly theatrical and atmospheric installations that grapple with often challenging subject matter. For the Great Exhibition of the North, the artists will expand upon the idea of a ‘Suspended Island’, one which hints at the current political flux and the perception of the North East: closer to Scotland but still remaining part of England. This video installation is their first outdoor public commission. In the context of Brexit, the image of the island becomes all the more resonant as the artists consider not only what it means to be British, but significantly, what it means to be Northern.
The artists are interested in what happens when the geography of a location takes on a porous identity, or becomes a place outside its own border. Suspended Island impresses upon the viewer the presence of absence. The work reveals on one hand, a lost urban geography that most people won't see and on the other it uncovers - through moving image - the kinetic relationship between the architecture of two distinct sites: Trinity House on Newcastle upon Tyne quayside and the now abandoned coastal fortifications on Governors Island off the coast of Manhattan.
Set back from Newcastle quayside, Trinity House, established 500 years ago, initially regulated the pilotage on the River Tyne and provided for aged mariners. Its first charter permitted the Brethren of Trinity House to levy dues on ships trading into the River Tyne, at the rate of two pence per English ship and four pence per foreign ship. It also, however, required certain duties in exchange from the Brethren, principally that they “build, fortify, moat, embattle and garrison two towers on the north side of the entrance to the River Tyne” in which the lights for the safety of navigation would be maintained. The image of the Brethren and the importance of the lights come together for the artists on a personal and biographical level in the form of a family recording made in 1930 of a Brethren, evangelical song. The lyrics describe the guiding lights towards the golden gate of the shore and to safety.
The song is woven together with film footage, animation and a voice over narrative including a series of interviews with refugees from Bosnia, Kurdistan, Ukraine and Democratic Republic of the Congo that were recorded at a refugee drop in centre in Derby. A structure comprised of two architectural reclaimed diving board platforms, minus their boards in acknowledgement of their dysfunction, accompanies the film. The structures suggest a kind of suspension and at the same time register the sense of misplaced nostalgia for a lost urban geography within an island mentality.