Sam Taylor-Wood

Centre National de la Photographie

Sam Taylor-Wood makes big photographs. I like photographs that are small, made to be viewed in books or, ideally, held in one’s hands, destined to be turned, caressed, and scrutinized up close. In such experiences lies something like the essence of photography, for me. And thus I do not like Sam Taylor-Wood’s photographs.

Of course, Taylor-Wood’s images were never intended to be exceedingly photographic. They flirt with cinema (the panoramic horizontal expanse, “sound tracks,” and temporal dilation of the “Five Revolutionary Seconds” series, 1995–98). They dally with theater (the play with mise-en-scène and costume, not to mention the very title of the “Soliloquy” series, 1998–99). They have much too much truck with painting (the monumental scale, the precious wooden frames, the pretentious pastiches of Velázquez or da Vinci in the YBA icon Wrecked, 1996). A generation ago, artists like Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall were constructing photographic images at the crossroads of a variety of media, and in so doing initiating new, hybrid genres (the film still, for example, which inhabits a space between cinema and photography); today that legacy has been extended in at least two directions: toward an increasing mannerism of the hybrid photographic image as its own form (Taylor-Wood and Gregory Crewdson are exemplary here) and toward analogous experiments at the limits of other media such as film and projected-image work, where cinema meets sculpture or video (and here, too, Taylor-Wood is representative).

Unfortunately, the photographic mission of this retrospective’s venue got in the way of the fact that Taylor-Wood’s work in film and video far surpasses the rest of her oeuvre. Taylor-Wood has called this split in her work “schizophrenic,” but I think its rationale is less pathological than banal, even objective. Unlike, say, the work of Sherman—which effectively insinuates a mode of reflexivity into an intermedia space—Taylor-Wood’s photographic works simply do not articulate the terms of their hybridized medium, no matter how internally contradictory it is; her pared-down films and videos, on the other hand, almost cannot help doing so. The title “Five Revolutionary Seconds”—a moniker that registers both the exposure time of each image and the use of a revolving camera derived from military surveillance technology—does share the self-reflexive imperative suggested by the titles of so many of her non-photographic works. But her photos turn this internal self-critical energy into proclamations of sudden access to the hidden depths of subjectivity, as we see in the panoramic predellas of the “Soliloquy” series and their staging of inner thoughts, fantasies, and dreams. Nothing could be further from such a proclamation than Taylor-Wood’s deadpan 1994 video Killing Time. Here we gaze at a multichannel projection of isolated and vacant actors, each waiting in twitching boredom for his or her turn to lip-synch the lines of a different character from Richard Strauss’s Elektra, which serves as the piece’s sound track. No recent work has deflated a high-art form as efficiently as this video, which is a far cry from the obsequious pastiches from the past in the artist’s photographs. No video projection has so thoroughly figured the medium’s potential for infinite temporal expansion, its collapse of the difference between viewer and object, and its intense dispersal of the ordering procedures of and separations between traditional artistic forms. Killing Time presents in something like its pure form the chilling brand of homogenizing boredom—the special project of indistinction—that video entails.

Indeed, it is Taylor-Wood’s deployment of such indistinction between media as a self-critical tendency that has guaranteed the importance of so many of her image projections. In her first, a looped film flatly titled 16mm, 1993, an isolated female figure dances to a resounding percussive beat. Her erratic swaying impossibly quickened through editing, the dancing figure shimmers like a ghost in the darkened space, washed out to a bleary black-and-white. With typical economy, Taylor-Wood’s specter propels the viewer backward, toward the mechanical humor embedded in, for example, the artificial temporality of early silent film, or Charlie Chaplin’s absorption of the cinema’s industrial basis into the rhythms of his own body. But 16mm simultaneously thrusts the viewer forward, as its rapid dancing evokes nothing so much as an image seen in fast-forward, an experience belonging less to film than to the television-bound manipulations of video. And so one is confronted with a “film” placed squarely between film and video—split in two directions around its medium’s contemporary obsolescence.

One of the last video projections in the exhibition, Taylor-Wood’s Noli Me Tangere, 1998, clearly articulates the artist’s attraction to this space of simultaneous retrogression and progression. Recording the image of a man positioned like Atlas holding up the world, the projection existed as a physical object in the exhibition space, with a front and back that registered both sides of the performer’s pose, in a nod to earlier experiments like Michael Snow’s double-sided projection Two Sides to Every Story, 1974. Resolutely situated between video and sculpture, the work reaches back to another hybrid tradition—the caryatid—a form that itself lies halfway between sculpture and architecture. The biblical title prompted the viewer to reflect on this video’s trespassing on the traditional space of sculpture, evoking—as a taboo—the catachresis between vision and touch, and between two and three dimensions, that the projection apparatus enforced. The scene of uncanny exertion called up by the sculptural pose does, however, have a dénouement: the performer’s collapse. But instead of falling, he denies the earthbound laws of gravity, rocketing up into the air. Taylor-Wood offers a picture projected upside down, a performance that actually records a man holding a hand stand for as long as he could. It is a scene of intense deracination, reversing and yet continuing all the traditional terms of sculpture through its incorporation of the temporal flow of video. The avant-garde used to cry out Prière de toucher. Please touch. By contrast, Noli Me Tangere is something like a manifesto of the new conditions of the image today.

George Baker is a frequent contributor to Artforum.