PRINT November 1996


Whereas a number of the contemporary artists forsaking canvas for celluloid have produced rather traditional films, Sam Taylor-Wood merges cinematic sensibility and technique with the particularities of photography and videomaking to create an oddball art-film hybrid.

Seemingly straightforward, even commonplace, Taylor-Wood’s photographs always appear to hide something—a mysterious intrigue or a violent event that occurred just before she turned on the video camera or clicked the shutter. One image, Slut, 1993, shows the artist herself, her neck covered with brutal love bites; another, Dog, 1995, presents a young woman in a white dress crawling on all fours across a vast field, the sky above her scintillating with a dazzling light as if from a nuclear explosion; and in Better To Be a Schizophrenic Out on a Walk Than a Patient in a Psychiatrist’s Chair, 1995, a calm young woman with a vacuous expression sits alone on a park bench, in sharp contrast to the psychic chaos the title leads the viewer to expect.

Sometimes Taylor-Wood’s photographs are in fact reconstructions of movie scenes, the most obvious example being her fake film still Taxi Driver, 1995, but the proximity of her work to cinematic drama is even more evident in her video pieces, some of which resemble fragments from an intense and demanding acting class. One such piece, Method in Madness, 1995, portrays an actor playing a man having a nervous breakdown during which torturous silences interrupted by pathetic sobs follow violent screaming.

Taking inner turmoil to even greater heights, Travesty of a Mockery, 1995, two video projections displayed on adjacent walls, depicts a young couple engaged in domestic warfare. The characters hurl abuse at each other across the room, placing the viewer in the center of this behind-closed-doors drama. Aggressive banalities such as “You don’t fucking love me!,” or “Shut the fuck up!” pierce the air, as do some physical objects—a cooking pot and a lighter seem to hurtle right past the viewer’s head to eventually collide with the wall. At times the man enters the space that frames the woman’s actions—the kitchen. She rewards his attempts to kiss her by spitting in his face. While he sits sourly on a chair staring at her, she smokes silently then enters his projection screen and slaps him across the face.

Just as the man and the woman interact but remain separated by a literal gulf, the narrative takes the form of fifteen vignettes, each accompanied by music from a different radio station. This very human predicament of being alone in company is one to which Taylor-Wood continually returns. In a number of other video pieces, this characteristic sense of aloneness is only exacerbated by an intentional tension, even conflict, between sound and image. Brontosaurus, 1995, depicts a naked man dancing ecstatically to Samuel Barber’s mournful Adagio for Strings. Shown in slow motion, his techno movements exude a strange melancholy as he slowly lulls the viewer into a meditative stupor. The opposite mood infuses the film 16 mm, 1993, in which a woman dances to the tune of machine-gun fire.

A recent four-part project, Five Revolutionary Seconds I–IV, 1995–96, brings together various threads of Taylor-Wood’s work. In each, recordings of background noise and snippets of conversation form a kind of “soundtrack” for a 360-degree photographic panorama, made up of seemingly discontinuous cells separated by invisible frontiers, which physically incarnate the signature isolation of Taylor-Wood’s subjects. This seamless yet heterogeneous space is inhabited by people who, though very close to one another, seem infinitely distant. Each “cell” includes a solitary person or a small group: an elegantly dressed woman with her dog pondering some distressing puzzle in her plush living room; a young couple having sex in a green armchair; a mother and twin brothers all turned, somewhat mechanically, in the same direction; a naked girl meditating in the bright light streaming in through the window. One longs to bring these people and activities into hermeneutic or allegorical harmony, hoping that the soundtrack, if listened to carefully, will make it all coalesce. Such hopes are in vain. These people, despite their proximity, take no notice of each other.

Here the cinematic sensibility already present in Taylor-Wood’s more traditional photographs has given rise to a new genre. It is as if the sequential unfolding of time is compressed into a single, momentary gaze; an entire movie, or different movies, frozen into one paradoxical frame. Art and film cohabiting at last, but in an inharmonious and impossible space. In Five Revolutionary Seconds I–IV, the baroque multiplicity of worldly affairs is irreducible, an infinite web of inexplicable events and textured sensations. Operatic in nature, these scenes are a concatenation of unrelated episodes, for which a libretto has yet to be written.

Daniel Birnbaum is a writer living in Stockholm. He contributes regularly to Artforum.