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Seeing double: artist duos in the Summer Exhibition

Published 19 May 2016

Artist duos are challenging the concept of individual authorship. Now they are celebrated at this year’s Summer Exhibition. Fiona Maddocks asks four pairs of artists how they collaborate.

  • From the Summer 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Laurel & Hardy, Joel & Ethan Cohen, Herzog & de Meuron, Gilbert & George. Spot the odd one out.

    Comedy duos are part of the landscape.The Coen Brothers have been making films together since 1984. Architects commonly work in pairs, as do singers and songwriters, creators of musicals, or opera composers and librettists. In those cases, at least, one can imagine the division of labour. When it comes to Gilbert & George, world famous, working together for more than four decades and jointly creating single works of art, eyebrows are still raised. Who knows who does what, let alone what their surnames are? Does it matter? To the public, they are one entity, joined indelibly by an ampersand, trendsetters for a way of making art collaboratively which has become almost a norm in the past half century.

    This year’s Summer Exhibition, which is co-ordinated by sculptor Richard Wilson RA, celebrates this phenomenon with works by more than 15 two-people partnerships: men, women, man and woman, women who have been men, twins, siblings, friends, lovers, ex-lovers, spouses. Historically the statutes of the Royal Academy do not permit joint membership, so these artists are not, or cannot be, Academicians. Is it time to change?

    “It wasn’t my idea to politicise the issue,” Wilson says. “That said, some of us have raised the issue over the years but we tend to get tripped up by the mechanics of how it could work – would a duo have a single vote on Academy issues? What if they disagreed or split up or one died? None of these obstacles are insurmountable but they take some disentangling and if this year’s Summer Exhibition helps bring the matter to the fore, that can’t be a bad thing. These are important artists, part of the debate.” The RA’s General Assembly meets again in June to discuss a law change.

    Wilson praises Michael Craig-Martin RA for introducing bold changes to last year’s Summer Show. “It’s important to build on that. Michael moved the goal-posts. It was a fantastic success. Even putting Jim Lambie’s stripes on the main staircase was an adventure. Michael’s idea of having a couple of shows-within-the-show made an impact too. This year, the works by duos won’t be seen quite like that, all located in one place, but will appear throughout the exhibition, from the opening staircase too – with the photographs of Jane & Louise Wilson.”

    Some exhibits are already world famous. Peter Fischli & David Weiss will show their six-minute video Büsi (Kitty) from 2001, in which a cat laps milk; it caught worldwide attention when it was displayed on electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square. Five years ago the selection committee for the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale chose an artist duo for the first time: Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, based in Puerto Rico, whose work combines sculpture, performance, photography, video and sound. Their 2 Hose Petrified Petrol Pump (2012) – which, yes, is a stone carving of a petrol pump – will feature in the RA show. The Berlin couple EVA & ADELE who dress identically and flamboyantly, describing themselves as “an artwork” from the future, have submitted a canvas entitled Double Act XIII (2015). Wilson is particularly delighted that Gilbert & George, known for refusing to appear in group shows, have made a major new work. Ackroyd & Harvey, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Langlands & Bell, Zatorski & Zatorski, and The Kipper Kids – a duo since the 1970s – will be among those showing too.

    As Wilson points out, few artists today work without some kind of collaboration. His own sculpture, so often resulting in site-specific installations requiring many levels of practical and technical input, is reliant on others: “In the past, too, most of the great artists had assistants and workshops. We cannot know exactly who did what. It challenges the idea of artists working in isolation and begs the question, “Can good art only come from a single artist working alone?” I certainly believe in the collective consciousness, the shared experience.” And if there are duo RAs in future? “I always joke that at the annual banquet they would have to share a dinner…”

  • Jake and Dinos Chapman

    Jake and Dinos Chapman

    Photo: Rachel King

  • Jake & Dinos Chapman

    Jake & Dinos Chapman – born in Cheltenham in 1966 and London in 1962, full names Iakovos and Konstantinos, always nominated in that order – have made work together and apart but are known best as the Chapman brothers. They first collaborated publicly in 1991, after leaving the Royal College of Art. They were included in YBA shows in the 1990s, and were nominated – as one unit – for the Turner Prize in 2003. Their work is predominantly sculptural, often using multitudes of tiny figures. For Hell (2000), an apocalyptic depiction of man’s inhumanity to man, they chopped up, remodelled and recast 60,000 toy soldiers. Dinos recently moved to Los Angeles. Jake still works in their Hackney studio, from which he gave this interview.

    “How do two people work together? By a process of conversation – that’s our perpetual answer. Our interest is not in making some sort of autobiographical rumination but of asking how the world works, and how art operates in the world. It’s more discursive, not a manifestation of internal angst.

    Being brothers must have some effect on the levels of tolerance we accord each other, but I don’t think having a sibling relationship means there’s some sort of genetic, telepathic, aesthetic, telekinesis going on. We discuss the work. It’s an aggregate of all sorts of conversations. We work with each other because we like each other’s ideas. There’s no separation of talents or assumed talents. It’s interchangeable.

    Working together was a way of destroying that notion of the reduction to the signature of an artist. Is there something duplicitous about the work coming from two people, rather than one single artistic truth? If you multiply the entities involved in a work it becomes even more schizoid. That’s what we’re interested in.

    But it’s not four hands on one object. We do things separately a lot of the time. We say if we don’t like something the other does. We are very unsentimental about our practice. We made a show called Jake not Dinos. Or was it Dinos not Jake… I can’t remember. The presumption was that if we worked separately for a year the work might veer towards the more autobiographical. But all that happened was that after that year we were back exactly as before. Early on we had worked for Gilbert & George – though their work, unlike ours, tends towards symbiosis, two people merging into one. We’re the opposite. Some of our favourite artists were people like Art & Language, Fischli and Weiss, people who worked in multitudes rather than singularities. It gave us the idea that we could work like that. We didn’t work like that as children. My brother is nearly five years older than me, so we didn’t play much. Yes, making art has an element of play to it but there’s no return on making art together if you just happened to play together. Let’s nip that in the bud.

    Dinos has moved to LA, maybe not permanently, I don’t know. We’ve worked exhaustively over a number of years. The hiatus caused by distance and logistics nowadays just makes us think about it all the harder. Instead of just floating into the studio every day because it happens to be there, we are forced to question what we are doing and why, which I think is a good thing. Short answer: Skype.

    The work for the Summer Exhibition consists of a bronze machine called Striptease and an attendant nuclear family viewing it. I’m not sure the work has a specific narrative. We’ve done exhibitions before where we’ve made figures as an audience adoring a work of art. Instead of waiting for that audience we’ve made our own.”

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    In the studio with Jake Chapman

    We visited Jake Chapman in his studio in Hackney to hear about working as a duo – and life without Dinos, since his artist brother moved to Los Angeles.

  • The Singh Twins

    The Singh Twins, Amrit and Rabindra, were born in London and grew up in Liverpool. Identical in appearance and dress, their “oneness” extends to their work, which draws inspiration from the vivid colours and fertile detail of Mughal miniatures. Many of their works trace the way Indian and British cultures merge, and also explore the sisters’ own duality, as British, Liverpudlian, Indian and Sikh twins. Their work is overtly political and has embraced global events such as the Iraq War and the Indian Army’s storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. A splash of decorative red on a Singh Twins miniature may turn out to be a pool of blood. Central to their work is a belief in the role of the artist as a recorder of history.

    “Our artwork for the Summer Exhibition, titled London’s Burning: Read All About It, explores various historical burnings of London, from the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Fire of London and the Gordon Riots to the Blitz and, most recently, the riots of 2011.

    It mixes the flattened perspective of Indian miniature styles with linear perspective, and combines digital technology with hand-painted techniques, including gold work. The work is inspired by a 15th-century illuminated manuscript, said to be the earliest topographical representation of London, depicting the Duke of Orléans in the Tower and illustrating verses from one of his poems that begin "News from London”. That ‘headline news’ feel and notion of art as documentation underpins the artwork.

    Every artwork starts with research. We go away, think, read and make notes independently, then come back and pool our ideas. It’s rare that we disagree about the main scheme of things: we have the same aesthetic and political outlook. We might argue over a colour for this detail or that, but not often. We divide the different elements of fauna, flora, portraiture, architecture and decoration between us evenly. Of course we know our own work, but others find it difficult to tell who did what – and that’s as we like it.

    We haven’t felt the need to go separate ways or stress our individuality. As children, we were given the same creative opportunities – often drawing and painting together – and we shared the same education and life experiences. So perhaps, there was a certain inevitability to our artistic partnership.

    As individual artists who happen to be twins, we have faced criticism, and even been accused of copying each other. Our professional partnership has been about responding to that with a united front. But it’s also a political statement against the false perception and concept of “true” art as the work of the individual genius, when even great artists of the past were influenced by others or worked with assistants and a workshop. Over time, the idea of the individual artist has become more about the individual than the art. It’s important to challenge how art has come to be defined and valued in this way because so many artists are working outside that solo framework. And genius can be collective too.“

  • The Singh Twins

    The Singh Twins

    Photo: Matt Thomas

  • Jane & Louise Wilson

    The sisters Jane & Louise Wilson began working together in 1989. Born in Newcastle in 1967, they studied respectively at Newcastle Polytechnic and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee, then together at Goldsmiths, after which they became associated with the YBAs. Their photography, film and video works have often featured institutional spaces, from the Houses of Parliament to the Stasi archives of former East Germany, and they were nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999. They are identical twins but do not dress alike. In conversation they overlap, one continuing the thread of the other and are happy to be represented as one voice.

    “We first came out as working together at the end of our undergraduate art courses. It was a natural extension, so to speak, as before then, in Newcastle at our comprehensive school, we were the only two in our year doing an art A-Level. There was a general perception then that you were a bit of a loser if you were doing art.

    After we left school we went to study at different art colleges. At the end of three years we produced identical degree shows, which meant that examiners in both colleges had to collaborate because if they’d passed one of us and failed the other they would have effectively been judging the same work.

    One of the reasons we collaborate is because of the pleasure we derive from working together. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. We’re very conscious of the dialogue that we have and it feels somehow liberating to exist within that dialogue. Of course, we grew up making things together as children, and that then evolved.

    Working together as two female artists and twin sisters has the potential to place you outside somehow. It makes for a certain kind of tension that perhaps happens with all artist collaborations, when two artists work together as one, actively looking for that space to oppose the orthodoxy of the single artistic ego.

    Our work for the Summer Exhibition will be displayed in a double-height, salon-style hang on either side of the entrance staircase. We’re showing a photographic series we made in Ukraine in 2010. It’s titled Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) and commemorates the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. The photographs document the city of Pripyat, which is within the 30km exclusion zone and is now all but deserted, abandoned in haste – civic and public buildings, the People’s Palace, hotel, kindergarten, swimming pool, cinema. The work explores the ideas around "dark tourism”. Anyone can now take a tour bus from Kiev and visit the exclusion zone and Pripyat for the day.

    Imagine this city was once considered a Utopian new town, a place where the idea of progress would happen through the wealth created by nuclear power. Instead, it’s now empty, devastated. It was completed in the 1970s just before the explosion.

    When we went to Pripyat, as a result of an invitation from the British Council and with the support of Forma Arts and Media, we took camera equipment and film and a prop in the form of a single yardstick measure. You are discouraged from removing anything from within the zone, so instead we decided to bring this yardstick with us. It is an obsolete, imperial measure, two yards long, and it acts in the series like a marker, an intervention.

    We placed the yardstick within each of the Pripyat interiors that we photographed, using the object as a recurring motif. We had a desire to make conscious the act of us entering and photographing these spaces. The sites are constantly being measured and monitored for radiation. We needed something to make manifest this act of measuring.“

  • Jane & Louise Wilson

    Jane & Louise Wilson

    Photo: Mark Blower

  • Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

    The Kabakovs – who are husband and wife, Soviet-born in Dnepropetrovsk and now living in Long Island, US – began working side by side in 1989 but only announced themselves as a joint partnership in the mid-1990s. Ilya (b.1933), first a children’s book illustrator and then part of a conceptual group in Moscow, working outside the Soviet system, came to the West in 1985. Emilia (b.1945) studied music and originally planned to become a professional pianist. After emigrating to Israel, she moved to New York in 1975 and worked as a curator and art dealer. Distantly related as cousins, and having known each other all Emilia’s life, the pair eventually married in 1992. They make monumental “total installations” large enough for the viewer to enter. Next year they have a major retrospective at Tate. Emilia is the spokesperson for the duo.“

    ‘Our piece in the Summer Exhibition is an oil painting of autumn leaves and trees, Emergency Exit 4. It was part of an installation for the 1993 Lyon Biennale based on the idea of an artist’s studio, full of unfinished work, out of which the visitor tries hard to escape. There was a sense of fantasy. Despite the idea of escape, the colours of the trees are beautiful.

    We decided to show an existing work because the RA show is a big exhibition, with lots of new works already. Ilya is 83 and I too am of a certain age. We thought it wouldn’t make sense to compete with the young generation. We still do new work of course, but it’s more important to show something established.

    How do we work together? That is the hardest question to answer. We’ve been doing it for some 27 years. Ilya paints. He is the painter, I am not. Everything else – everything – we do together.

    I work on the installations. I travel and discuss and shape ideas. I write. We were both uprooted from the Soviet Union. To go to live in another place, emotionally and physically, is to go to another planet. If you change your surroundings, leave behind friends and family, it can make you angry and bitter. You have to change too, or else you die. This was true both for Ilya and for me.

    I didn’t start out as an artist but as a musician. When it came to adding my name to the work, Ilya wanted me to but I was a bit nervous, and had serious reservations. It’s a very serious question: whose art is it? I felt I was a musician, not an artist. But the Oldenbergs [artist duo Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen] urged me – they said, “You are working together, you are contributing to the finished result, your ideas are there as well as Ilya’s.”

    Now I represent our work around the world as Ilya is not well enough to travel. I always say working together is like a marriage. How do you explain it? In our case, it is a marriage!”

  • Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

    Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

    Yuri Rost

  • The Summer Exhibition 2016 is in the Main Galleries from 13 June — 21 August 2016.

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist, broadcaster and Classical Music Critic for the Observer.

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