Sam Taylor-Wood: “Still Life” and the Acceptance of Mortality

Sam Taylor-Wood was born in London in 1967 and is a contemporary artist who works mostly in video, video installations and photography. She has been identified as one of the leading figures in the younger British Artist Group. Sam Taylor-Wood’s video installations and photographs depict human dramas and isolated emotional situations, such as a quarreling couple and tense social gatherings, people shown in solitary, awkward, or vulnerable moments. These psychologically evocative artistic narratives are often presented on a grand scale, in room-encompassing video projections or 360-degree photographic panoramas that are accompanied by sound tracks. Taylor-Wood was nominated for England’s Turner Prize in 1998.

Her works after 1996 have often featured celebrity friends: Elton John was included in a large photo-work, and he commissioned Taylor-Wood to make a promotional video starring Robert Downey Jr. for his recording of I Want Love (1986). In 2002, she was commissioned by London’s National Portrait Gallery to make a video portrait of David Beckham sleeping. Taylor-Wood’s film David (2004) allowed gallery visitors to watch Beckham, who was then England’s football Captain, sleep. It provided viewers with an intimate, serene vision of an otherwise heavily exposed celebrity. She has also been a long-time collaborator with The Pet Shop Boys, having produced films for their Somewhere concerts in London. She was also a guest vocalist on two Pet Shop Boys produced songs, their rendition of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime…moi non plus” and Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.”

Still Life (2001) has been said to be one of the most classical works in contemporary art. It carved a permanent record for itself in art history with hardly any commentary. This is not just a Still Life. It is based upon a particular type of still life painting that developed during the 16th and 17th centuries in Flanders and the Netherlands. It is part of a classical genre that contains symbols of change or death as a reminder of their inevitability. Its focus was upon confronting the vanity of worldly things through often subtle signs of elapsing time and decay. Some of the older works had obvious references like skulls, but others simply had a watch or slightly rotting fruit.

Sam Taylor-Wood’s film represents yet another step in that direction: the image, beautiful as ever in Taylor-Wood’s universe, decomposes itself. By the end of the short film, nothing is left but a grey amorphous mass. But upon closer inspection, one detail distinguishes this picture from its predecessors. The plastic ballpoint pen, a cheap contemporary object. One that doesn’t seem to decay and doesn’t seem to be a part of the universal process of self-disappearing life. Is this what is really left here to stay after we are gone, this nothingness, this ridiculous attribute of ourselves?

This is a very poor reflection of our vanity. We have become more and more accustomed to believing that our feelings of real success and personal worth are to be measured vicariously against the lives of celebrities, business magnates and influential politicians, along with the images that they convey of power, wealth, designer fashions, and rich interiors filled with gold and crystal. But Taylor-Wood’s message is that we don’t need all of that. We get the point, nothing more is necessary. A simple basket, some light. Time. And a cheap plastic pen.

Sam Taylor-Wood: Still Life and Mortality

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