A Little Death
Courtesy Jay Jopling / White Cube, London
lives in London
Sam Taylor-Wood is part of an extremely talented group of British artists, the so-called YBA, Young British artists, who drove out the avant-garde in the eighties and nineties, together with rising stars such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman. It was art collector Charles Saatchi who brought them all together at the famous Sensation exhibition in 1997. Sam is perhaps the least extravert, but the most romantic of this colourful movement. Her emotions and life experience are strongly present in her work, but always in a sublimated way, in sharp and compelling metaphors. In her photo’s and especially in her films and video installations, she is in search of the sublime, to which she wants to give a very personal and actual interpretation. The sublime, within the meaning of philosophers such as Kant and Lyotard, the seeming contradiction between the unspeakable of the sublime and the ability of art to function as a medium for elevated experiences. She finds many of her starting points in the history of the visual arts (gripping sculptures by Michelangelo, dramatic landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich), in classical theatre, ballet and films (the masterly suspense of Hitchcock). But she also finds sublime elements in mass popular culture. Men Crying is a series of portraits of famous Hollywood actors in tears: Paul Newman, Laurence Fishbourne, Ed Harris… Are they playing a role or are they really crying? To the public they are idols, heroes of our time. According to the patriarchal myth that is still in force, heroes are not allowed to show their inner weakness. And if he does cry, it is like the catharsis in a Greek tragedy.
In her Pietà, on one of the rare occasions, Sam shows herself,. She is sitting on a monumental staircase and has film actor Robert Downey Jr on her lap, potraying a suffering individual. The pose refers to the sculpture by Michelangelo of the same name, that can be seen in Saint Peter’s in Rome. It shows Mary weeping over her dead son. But Sam Taylor-Wood doesn’t just appropriate the sublime image in order to simply transfer it to a modern medium. To her, at a certain moment, it was the perfect image to give expression to her own inner situation. This pietà is her own confrontation with a big grief – she has been treated twice for cancer, which was largely covered by the media just because she is a well-known artist – and, at the same time, it is a meditation on mortality and the fleetingness of fame. She has trouble carrying the heavy burden as the body, that lies backwards in her arms, becomes contorted. Because the image is in extreme slow-motion, it becomes a long-drawn-out cry of physical and mental pain on the verge of exhaustion.
A little Death is also about the finiteness of life. It is a still life in the style of vanitas paintings, loaded with transient elements and popular from Renaissance to Rococo. She more specifically joined in with the great French specialist of this genre, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). A dead hare is pinned to a nail. Next to the animal lies a peach. The vanitas painting continues here. The corpse decomposes. For a second, it looks as though it moves, but it’s the worms devouring the flesh. Thus, death generates life, life is dependant of death. The hare is also a symbol of sexual lust. There is a self-portrait of Sam Taylor-Wood, in a dandy-like outfit, posing with a stuffed hare (Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001). Moreover, the title of the video, A little Death, refers to the term French philosopher Georges Bataille used for an orgasm (une petite mort). What does that peach, that keeps so wonderfully well next to the decaying hare, actually mean?