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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Yukio Mishima: Eternal Exclusion and the Tragic Search for Recognition

Yukio Mishima (1925-1970)

Mishima’s Early Years

Kimitake Hiraoka, better known to the world by his pen name of Yukio Mishima, was born in Tokyo in 1925. His first long work The Forest in Full Bloom was published in a magazine called Bungei Bunka in 1941, when Mishima was sixteen years old. In 1943, he entered Tokyo Imperial University where he studied law. In 1944, Mishima had his first major work, The Forest in Full Bloom, published in Tokyo. To have a book published in the last year of the war was considered a great achievement for any Japanese writer, since due to a shortage of paper many books weren’t being published. The publisher printed 4000 copies for the first printing of the book, which completely sold out in one week.

Mishima graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1947 and worked for a brief time as an official at the Finance Ministry. During his time at the university, his father had strictly opposed Mishima’s writing. Nevertheless, Mishima continued to write secretly every night, supported and protected by his mother, who was always the first to read a new story. Attending lectures during the day and writing at night, Mishima had exhausted himself so much that his father agreed to his resignation from his position at the Finance Ministry during his first year during his first year of work there. He resigned from the ministry in 1948 and decided to support himself exclusively from his writing.

Mishima with the Governor of Tokyo, 1956

The Literary Years

His first novel, Confessions of a Mask, was published in July of 1949, causing Mishima to be called one of Japan’s most promising new writers. Between 1950 and 1964 Mishima turned out a prolific body of writings ranging from novels, plays, short stories, essays to travel books and articles for magazines. Some the most important and successful novels that were written during this time included: Thirst for Love, Forbidden Colors, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, Silk and Insight, After the Banquet and The Sound of the Waves. In 1956 Mishima published Temple of the Golden Pavilion, his most commercially successful work of this period.

From 1964 to November 25, 1970, Mishima worked on the Sea of Fertility novels. This tetralogy is considered to be his masterwork. Together the four works depict a portrait of Japanese life fom 1912 to 1970. By the time of his death at the age of forty-five, Yukio Mishima had written twenty-four novels, more than forty plays, over ninety short stories, several poetry and travel volumes, and hundreds of essays.

Mishima was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times and was particularly popular with many foreign publications. However, in 1968 his early mentor Kawabata won the Nobel Prize, and Mishima realized that the chances of it being given to another Japanese author in the near future were slim. It is also believed that Mishima wanted to leave the prize to the aging Kawabata, out of respect for the man who had first introduced him to the literary circles of Tokyo in the 1940s.

The Years of Military Nationalism

In 1967, Mishima enlisted in the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) and underwent basic training. A year later, he formed the Tatenokai, The Shield Society, which was a private army composed primarily of young students who studied martial principles and physical discipline, and swore to protect the emperor. Mishima trained them himself. However, under Mishima’s ideology, the emperor was not necessarily the reigning emperor, but rather the abstract essence of Japan. In Eirei no Koe (Voices of the Heroic Dead) Mishima actually denounced Emperor Hirohito for renouncing his divinity at the end of World War II.

On November 25, 1970, the very same day that he finished the last novel of Sea of Fertiliity, Yukio Mishima and several members of his Shield Society took over a military base in Ichigaya, the Ichigaya Camp that served as the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. For some time, Mishima had utilized his Shield Society as an endeavor to challenge his country to seriously reconsider the westernized direction that they were taking.

Once inside the main headquarters building, they barricaded the office, held the commandant hostage and demanded the resignation of Japan’s prime minister. With a prepared manifesto and banner listing their demands, Mishima stepped onto the balcony to address the soldiers gathered below. Reading the manifesto to the soldiers who had crowded into the courtyard beneath him, Mishima exhorted them to rise up and save Japan. When his actions failed to rouse the soldiers at Ichigaya to rise up in revolt, he committed seppuka (ritual suicide). He was only 45 years old.

The Life of Yukio Mishima: A Tragic Search for Recognition

Slide Show: Yukio Mishima/The Grief of Eternal Exclusion

(Please Click Image to View Gallery)

Attempts to understand the life and death of Yukio Mishima, as well as his considerable body of published works, are quite possibly helpful in gaining insight about suicide terrorists in the Middle-East today. One might reasonably consider his ideology of nationalistic, perhaps totalitarian, martyrdom as a prelude to the contemporary mythology of martyrdom in Iraq and similar countries.

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