Sam Taylor-Wood: Portraits of Moments with Crying Men

Sam Taylor-Wood: Portraits of Moments with Crying Men

Sam Taylor-Wood: Crying Men

Prior to being diagnosed with cancer eleven years ago, Sam Taylor-Wood was the darling party girl of Young British Art. Now, at the age of 41, Sam Taylor-Wood has become the British art world’s acceptable face: a mature artist with an A-list address book and, with her husband, Jay Jopling, a place at the new art establishment’s top table. Grown men have wept for her, but how will they remember her? She could have sat for Modigliani. Her long face, the slim figure, the strong, bony hands echo the left-field sensuality and elongated elegance of his models. There are hints of it in her own self-portraits, especially the strangely balletic Self-Portrait Suspended, which was made after she had filmed and photographed members of Great Britain’s Royal Ballet. This is a forgivable display of narcissism; a creative work that is evoked by a dream of swimming in air can hardly be a legitimate source of public outrage in the art world.

Taylor-Wood’s acclaimed earlier experimental short film, Still Life, in which a bowl of fruit was filmed slowly rotting away, is about mortality and life’s inevitable transience; her later work, Crying Men, is a treatise on the theme of sadness. Her new series of photographs in Crying Men attempts to capture the moment between the real and the unreal, the imitation and the authentic. By her use of celebrity actors as models, the viewer debates whether their tears of sadness (and therefore their emotions) are genuine. If the models were anonymous the question wouldn’t arise. It is a subtle challenge and typical of Taylor-Wood’s increasing degree of maturity as a visual artist.

Sam Taylor-Wood: Crying Men

BBC Interview: Taylor Wood about “Crying Men”

Pietà: An Icon of Exhaustion and Distress

In Pietà, Sam Taylor-Wood labors to support the draped body of Robert Downey Jr. Downey, laid out like Holbein’s Dead Christ in the Tomb, is presented in a manner that is so matter of fact, so drained of real importance, that the idea of death asserts itself with the chilled subtlety of a business card dropped on a dinner setting. Why him, one might ask, and for that matter, why her? Why ask, would be her likely reply. Taylor-Wood has appropriated widely in the past, from Atlas to Roman orgy scenes (updated to the present day) to Hollywood movies. Here, as elsewhere in her work, feelings of emotional and physical distress take the place of narrative. The Pietà becomes an icon of exhaustion and distress, in her hands. Or obversely, exhaustion and distress become iconic, if only by association.

Pieta: A World of Exhaustion and Distress

I Want Love: The Paradox of Love

Finally, seen from the bleak landscape of Taylor-Wood’s transient, sad, exhausting and distressing world, I Want Love, the Elton John music video produced by Taylor-Wood, becomes an awkwardly painful statement about the paradox of love. The desperate self says, “I want love, but I want nothing you do or say to affect me, I am who I am.” In its encounter with the other, the self wishes to affirm its absolute independence, even though its need for the other and the other’s similar wish give the lie to it.

I Want Love: Elton John, Acting by Robert Downey Jr.

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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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