Ikon Youth Programme reviews Jane and Louise Wilson film piece at the Herbert

By Fiona Morris, Polly Welsby and Alice Tomlinson | 15 May 2013

Exhibition review: Unfolding the Aryan Papers, Jane and Louise Wilson: Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, until May 12 2013

Colour film still showing an actress in a bra or vest top
© image courtesy http://www.theherbert.org/
Ikon Youth Programme is a group of art-loving 15-19 year olds who meet regularly at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. Last month, however, they took a field trip to Coventry in order to check out the city’s Herbert Museum.

Although busy with studies, the group found time to try their hands at a spot of art journalism. I was lucky enough to meet them and offer a few pointers, and the results of their visit have surpassed all expectations...

By Fiona Morris:

Glassy and clean after its recent refurbishment, The Herbert stands behind Coventry Cathedral, and on the day of my visit with Ikon Youth Programme it held a film installation, Unfolding the Aryan Papers by Jane and Louise Wilson.

Describing the process of another film, Unfolding the Aryan Papers focuses on an actress, Johanna ter Steege, who was cast in Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the novel Wartime Lies by Louis Begley. Unfolding the Aryan Papers is, say its creators, “about a film that never happened” – for Kubrick never completed the production.

The title is a reference to documentation required in Nazi Germany to prove your "Aryan" descent. It is generally believed that Kubrick’s own research into such a dark period of history was the reason the original film was left unfinished, leaving him depressed and unwilling to create something at risk of failing his audience.

Turner Prize nominated artists Jane and Louise Wilson have worked together for more than 20 years and it shows; their film, shown in a dark mirrored room, provoked a subtle feeling of unease and shivers of self-consciousness that lingered even after leaving.

The narration and mixing of old and recreated shots were slow, giving you time to catch up - I found it hard to escape the feeling of being watched.

Later, standing in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, the film became less of an artwork and more of a reminder - though I think it probably stands somewhere between the two. Either way, Unfolding the Aryan Papers and its accompanying exhibition Caught in the Crossfire, was definitely worth visiting. The latter show remains at The Herbert until July 7 2013.

Colour photo of a film installation in a gallery
© image courtesy http://www.theherbert.org/
By Polly Welsby:

Unfolding the Aryan Papers is Jane and Louise Wilson’s edit of Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished film Aryan Papers. The title refers to documents required to prevent deportation to the death camps during the Holocaust.

This work follows the artists’ research into the Kubrick archive at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, and gives a rare insight into the life of the infamous director.

The film includes some content shot by Jane and Louise Wilson as well as archive footage of an interview with Aryan Papers’ lead actress Johanna ter Steege. Kubrick may have abandoned filming because of his anxiety about how to ethically depict the horrors of the Holocaust.

In this installation the film projection is accompanied by opposing mirrors which reflect the images endlessly and emphasise the scale of the extermination that took place. This makes the space difficult to navigate – it is much smaller that it first seems.

At times it is difficult to tell the difference between fact and fiction – archival footage, sound and image is mixed with new content. This should be seen more as a film about a film, rather than Jane and Louise Wilson’s version of Kubrick’s Aryan Papers.

It raises questions whether it is appropriate to exhibit unfinished work when the artist is not around to give permission. However, it is also a chance to see a unique interpretation of the extensive Kubrick archive.

Colour photo of a film installation. On screen an actress has her back to the viewer.
© image courtesy http://www.theherbert.org/
By Alice Tomlinson:

From the perspective of Jane and Louise Wilson, Unfolding the Aryan Papers reflects the "darker side of human experience". And I, for one, couldn’t agree more.
Following research into a Stanley Kubrick archive, this beautifully insightful short film combines new footage with the original imagery from his unfinished film, The Aryan Papers. It also documents the experience of actress Johanna ter Steege during the brief life of the project.

The original film itself sought to explore the Holocaust, delving into the story of a boy and his aunt who "represented the essence of this man-made hell" while in hiding during Nazi oppression.

With the sensitivity of themes and issues surrounding the topic, it’s easy to assume that Jane and Louise Wilson’s piece echoes feelings synonymous with other Holocaust material (which, admittedly, it does). However the significance of this particular exhibit is its focus on the individual, and it’s exploration into the complexities of human identity.

The intimacy of the piece was reflected in the studio at the Herbert; the screen showing the film was confined between two mirrors, which in turn trapped audiences within a structured space.

The use of the imposing mirrors, at first, seemed incongruent to the sparse display area; but as the film progressed, each reflection of a turned head, or hand in close up, seemed to compliment Jane and Louise Wilson’s exploration of storytelling. Such details emphasised the endless stories of faceless individuals that have been lost, hidden or - like Kubrick’s film itself- unfinished.

To conclude my feelings on the exhibition, I find myself reflecting on a quote from the film: ter Steege’s ambiguous statement ‘nobody can tell the story’.

It seems that the artists’ work is not only beautiful in its presentation and material, but even more so in its creation of a Holocaust film which doesn’t need to tell the broader story.

That story has been relayed elsewhere, but the Aryan Papers hints at differing experiences of many individuals who have stories to share. In this respect, ter Steege is right: nobody can tell the story, if only because Jane and Louise Wilson have shown that there is not one specific story to be told.

With thanks to Kate Self from Ikon and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.
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