I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Sam Taylor-Wood is an English artist who works in either photographs or video projections. Her orchestrated scenarios are photographed in 360-degree angles or filmed in unedited, real-time narratives. The photographic series Five Revolutionary Seconds , for instance, is made up of twenty-five-foot-long scenes of various people captured in the same space yet unaware of one another’s existence. The effect is cinematic, a slow camera pan, a sound track which is at the same time disjunctive but referential. The video diptych Sustaining the Crisis shows a half-naked woman striding down a street on one screen, and a man watching, fixated, on the other. Is he watching her? There seems to be a relationship between these two subjects; one which is physically suggested, emotionally feasible, but given that the two images never meet, this perceived relationship is neither necessarily spatial, nor necessarily a relationship. In another diptych, Travesty of a Mockery , the two people on the video projections do cross one another’s spatial (video) territory, but in this case they do not trespass each other’s psychic space.
Her work has been shown widely since she emerged from Goldsmiths College in 1990. Taylor-Wood won the most promising young artist award at the Venice Bienniale last year, and has recently been nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize. She was the subject of a one-person show at both the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebak, Denmark and the Kunsthalle, Zürich, Switzerland.
Bruce Ferguson How old is your child?
Sam Taylor-Wood She’s one and one month.
BF Oh my.
STW I know.
BF Does she speak?
STW She says “shoe” and she says “two.” I’m very excited that I have this genius child. I say “one” and she says “two.” And she says “juice” and “toast,” but that’s about it. She doesn’t say “mummy,” which is really annoying. She does say “daddy.”
BF What’s her name?
STW Her name’s Angelica.
BF That’s lovely.
STW It took us three weeks to come up with that name. It’s more difficult than naming a piece of work. People are calling her Jelly and Angel.
BF With that, I’ll start out by asking you about the group of young British artists who have emerged together, perhaps accidentally. There is a sense of them as a generation of artists with something in common. Is this a marketing device or an artistic manifesto? There seemsto be something like a discourse.
STW The only thing I can see we have in common is that we drink too much.
BF Which just means that you are English. (laughter)
STW The work that’s being made is incredibly diverse: the Chapman Brothers, Sarah Lucas, and then Rachel Whiteread and me, to name a few. From the outside we might look incredibly English and seem to be a lot about British culture.
BF You do. Aesthetically and procedurally you are all quite different, but in this moment there are particular anxieties and interests in Britain. I wouldn’t want to talk about a zeitgeist, or a nationalist art, but at the same time, there are things I look at from the outside and say: Oh yeah, Britain went through the conservative Thatcher government, and now the business of trying to join or not join Europe, the new liberalism with Tony Blair, plus there’s this sensationalist tabloid journalism … .
STW Which is very much a part of our culture. You’re right. Although British art of the moment can be diverse, it talks about similar things. A lot of the work’s strength is coming from the strength of the artist, which in turn has come from having had to go through what was a very artistically difficult time under Thatcher. Her government starved the artist to the degree that people got an incredible determination and strength to push themselves, which made them the artists they are now. Everyone seems to have this feisty, fighter spirit about them. It is a dour thing to say, but I do feel like the schools, Goldsmiths in particular, were quite the big influence on everyone. Goldsmiths encouraged people to have conviction and strength in themselves, and a broad and good dialogue with other artists. A lot of artists came from outside to give lectures, so it constantly felt fresh and exciting. At Goldsmiths you were considered an artist and you were given your space and you were left to find out who you were. You were left to your own neurosis.
BF Well I’m glad you found yours. (laughter)
STW I spent my whole time at Goldsmiths making wooden boxes and neurotically sanding them to perfection because I didn’t quite know what direction I wanted to go in. This was a way of keeping myself busy and quiet and able to observe from a distance.
BF What did you think the wooden boxes were about?
STW I attached heaps of conceptual labels to them. They were about total perfection. I was very much into things being confrontational at the time—and being held back and not being very inviting. Which is so different from how I work now.
STW You could probably judge this issue of commonality better than I.
BF I don’t think it is a judgement but an interpretation. What about the difference between photography and moving pictures? There are limits to the narrative in a typical photograph. Yet your photographs engender narrative. And then time and sound are elements brought in from cinema. I’m interested in your oscillation between the two media.
STW In one sense, the process of making the films or photographs is almost identical. Both take an inordinate amount of organization: finding a location, finding however many people I need, getting the equipment. Generally, it takes a month to six weeks to go through the initial process, for one day of execution. The difference between the two media is that I see them in different speeds. Films, I do in a very speedy way. With the photographs I give myself time to calm down. So the photographs are the punctuation points in my work process. But I do see them as dysfunctional narratives. They look like they’re beginning to tell a story; you try to make associations between the people and what they’re doing but you can’t necessarily find a narrative, even when the photos have sound tracks. The scale of them as well—Five Revolutionary Seconds is twenty-five feet long. So you’re looking at the photographs in the same way you might look at a film, because you can’t take in the whole image in one go. You’re editing what you’re looking at, you’re flipping between people and giving the story a different structure. Having the sound, even though it’s ambient, gives you a hint of the atmosphere within the photograph’s space. You get a sense of who the people are and what music is being played or what people are talking about. Again, the photograph gives a different impression of time and scale. But the actual work process is almost identical to the filmmaking. I don’t see them as two completely separate ways of thinking. In the films I focus in on one or two of the characters who could be within a photograph. It could be a detail from one of the photographs projected a little longer.
BF When you say it’s like the beginning of a story, I was wondering if it’s not sometimes also like the middle of the story?
STW Yeah. Slip of the tongue.
BF I’m interested in that difference because the beginning is obviously part of a traditional narrative structure, but the middle means something has happened before and something will happen after. It seems to me that you are often capturing something right at that point—in film they’d call it a plot point—on which the thing is hinged and will move in a different direction from that point on.
STW Actually, that’s how I feel as well. Particularly with Atlantic. I wanted it to feel like you could be coming in, as you say, at any point, not necessarily at the beginning, or the end, but somewhere towards the middle where something is about to happen. It could be the beginning of an argument or an argument petering out.
BF The work often shows something that claims to be a relationship but may be an illusion. The subjects might be in the same place at different times or are people who have no relationship to each other whatsoever.
STW Definitely, the only thing those people have in common is the space they occupy. They are totally isolated within their own activity or mental space. Going back to Atlantic, you are looking at two people interacting but you project what the discussion or argument is about. The viewer is put in the position of the people in the restaurant who are onlookers. And as an onlooker you’re straining to understand what exactly is taking place. I want people to construct their own narrative, so they’re looking at it and giving it endless possibilities.
BF From a viewer’s perspective, there seems to be this distance from the subject, and there’s also distance between the subjects in relation to each other. I’m wondering if you see that idea of distance as a kind of objectivity. What do you think you achieve by using that objectivity?
STW The piece which I think best illustrates that is Travesty of a Mockery.
BF The couple.
STW Yes, the couple. They are seen as two separate projections but were shot at the same time in the same room. I showed it at my gallery, White Cube, which is quite an intimate space. The piece confronts you immediately with a couple in a very intense argument. Because the space itself is so confined, you’re almost thrown into the midst of it, you’re caught in the middle. Here are a man and a woman engaged in what could possibly be, other than sex, the most passionate exchange between two people, but they are separated, they each occupy their own screen—and there’s a two-foot gap between the screens. This gap becomes quite a strong boundary, and when the actors cross the boundary, that action becomes very invasive. There’s this frustration about having this sort of argument. However involved or heated the argument becomes, you always feel isolated within yourself and your views and who you are. Travesty of a Mockery is the physical realization of that feeling. Having two different areas in which these people act creates this divide, this private space indicative of a mental space.
BF To go back a step, you as the director, produce writer—whatever the terms are—
STW All of them.
BF —As the artist. There’s a tremendous amount of energy that goes into the preparation and the rehearsal of the work, yet in the recording, the camera doesn’t do anything, it’s a witness. Do you feel it’s objective or subjective? Where are you positioning yourself in relation to all of that?
STW I want you, the viewer, to be following a natural progression, a natural course of events. By having the camera as a witness—I’m not tampering. Most of my work isn’t edited. I always think that by editing I’m giving it a lot of narrative, making decisions about how things should then be, or how things should then transpire. Whereas if the camera’s just sitting there, running, it becomes a more natural process.
BF It’s like the oxymoron, “act naturally.”
STW Yeah, because if the camera is passive, the viewer becomes a witness as well, although I’ve tried to orchestrate the viewer so that there is some involvement. You do feel like you’re caught within. In Travesty of a Mockery I placed the camera so that you’re caught between it, so you start to feel the physical space between the couple’s words and actions. There isn’t much dialogue in that piece but … with Pent-Up, which is one tape where the camera does move around—when the dialogue starts going between one character and another, to another, you find yourself being orchestrated around the space. Even though the camera is passive, the viewer becomes quite active.
BF I spent a lot of time with Pent-Up out in Santa Fe. I saw it over and over. It had that kind of Brechtian element, where language both alienated and isolated the viewer, but also reconstituted the world. I eventually convinced myself that there was a narrative with an order and that if I could just catch that order, the monologues would all be speaking to each other in a regular conversation. Was that a hallucination?
STW A total hallucination, you’ve watched it far too much. (laughter) I love that. I wanted that feeling—you would see five totally separate people in separate places without anything that could link them, and then as they spoke, you would try to make sense of it. You would immediately try to make a narrative or make a person’s monologue seem to be a reaction to the previous person’s. But every time you felt like, Ahh, now this person has a relationship with that person—just as you began to feel that—it was switched and it changed, and so it kept you thinking that there could be a possibility of a relationship. In my mind, as I was making it, I did make a relationship between the people, because it was the only way I could figure exactly how to script it, which was a nightmare, but that’s another story.
BF It wasn’t like I could listen to them all simultaneously, I had to walk from one screen to the next and back and eventually when this hallucination became strong enough, it was almost like running from one place to another to get it. It created this incredible anxiety, parallel to some of the anxieties on the screens.
STW Having that many screens on the wall makes it impossible to see the whole thing at once. So you do go back and forth. The way Pent-Up works was very similar to how Five Revolutionary Seconds works. You’re trying to find relationships between people and you’re walking up and down, trying to work out who’s possibly with whom and what they’re doing, and if they could be looking at each other. With Pent-Up I wanted it to seem that everybody was expressing their mental anxiety, that it could be that these five people were also thinking about the people on the other screens. A possible meaning might be that this is their anxiety. You know, the woman sitting in the bar, she’s been stood up by the man in the bathroom, who’s angry at his father, who’s sitting up late, who’s just left the woman walking around the square for another woman, and then there’s the poor fucked-up son at the other end, shouting in the garden.
BF So you actually created a dysfunctional family.
STW Yeah. That’s not how I saw it at the time. I was thinking, as I was making it, that they could be having an ESP kind of relationship.
BF And it could be real or it could be imagined or it could be—
STW I left it quite open, I wanted to give it a neurotic, psychotic feel.
BF It succeeds.
STW (laughter) On the brink of both.
BF There’s a notion in cultural anthropology that comes from research into tourism called “staged authenticity.” It is the idea that authenticity is somewhere else, in another historical time or culture, and it has to be recreated. One of the people who’s written about this in relation to your work is Michael O’Pray. He talks about the difference between coherence and closure in narrative, and the way that the people are obviously acting. This idea of “staged authenticity,” a way in which there’s a desire for something like authenticity, is always being undercut because you’re not sure if it’s an act or not an act. You seem to stage your work as authentic and non-authentic, simultaneously.
STW Michael O’Pray taught me at college a long time ago. He’s a really good writer, sort of Warholish in attitude. He set me on the right track. The woman in Travesty of a Mockery is an actress—
BF Amanda Ooms.
STW Yeah. Do you know her?
BF I do. She was in a film by Rebecca Horn that I worked on called Buster’s Bedroom.
STW She’s great, really good to work with. She knows exactly how I think and how I want things. With that piece, she is the actress and the man is a friend of mine. I was interested in how their relationship would work. Amanda and he met the night before and Amanda, being Amanda, struck up a very quick, good relationship, and then the next day they had to go through this fight. In the video, she seems like the one who doesn’t have much control. But the reality of it was that she was in total control of the situation, whereas he was just reacting. It felt authentic and part staged because these two elements were battling it out, and there were times when I could see his frustrations with her were totally real. It was quite an obvious mixture of both the staged and the authentic. But I’m trying to make that obvious to the viewer. It’s quite self-conscious, very filmic, glossy cinema, and you’re looking at something which normally, if you watched a commercial film, you’d see as a thirty-second edit of an argument. Whereas I let it run its natural course so that you see everything, which lasts, say, ten minutes.
BF It’s inevitable that you are compared to other artists. Tina Barney and of course Bruce Nauman come to mind. I was thinking of Bruce’s earlier work where he recorded performances in the studio. Particularly your Killing Time seemed like an updated version of his early existential dilemma tapes. Are there influences or people that you look to for inspiration?
STW My influences are easy. When I first saw Warhol’s films I was totally over-excited by the concept that something could be just how it was, how it was presented. The obvious influence is the fact that he used real time, so what you’re looking at is a film of something that naturally transpires, although, obviously, things were orchestrated. Michael O’Pray did a season of Warhol’s films here, so I got to see Blowjob, Chelsea Girls, Summer Hustler. I go to the cinema a lot. I look to the kind of gritty realism of filmmakers like Cassavetes. They’re more of an influence than other photographers. I’ve always thought of Bruce Nauman as a brilliant artist, but he’s not somebody I am really inspired by.
BF You didn’t look at his early videos?
STW No, I haven’t seen them. I can understand the comparison, but there is a difference. He has more formal concerns. I like photography. I’m also a big Caravaggio fan. I love all kinds of theater. And with cinema, even though I mention people like Warhol and Cassavetes, I’m equally a fan of Demolition Man.
BF Could you talk about the notion of opera? It is a part of your history. In opera emotions are so highly articulated as to almost be false, but then simultaneously they have a reality. What is the role of opera in your work?
STW Well, it is quite specific. I used to work backstage at the opera and became interested in how the authentic is experienced via opera. Somebody who can sing really beautifully but who can hardly act, yet has to act, is an absolutely appalling idea. I always felt like I was watching amateur dramatics with the most beautiful soundtrack. Also, the backstage was as dramatic as what was going on in the front of the house. The whole opera house was piped so that you’d hear opera when you were walking down the corridor, in the dressing room, and in the bathroom you’d be pissing to Wagner, washing your hands to Wagner. It felt like everything was given a significance.
BF But the wrong soundtrack.
STW Yes. Even minor gestures had importance. I might be walking down a corridor when the death of Siegfried and the Ring Cycle is coming on and find myself taking heavier steps and swinging in a different way. And that was all day, every day. That had such a big influence on me. I made Killing Time within a year after leaving there. Four people in different spaces, all joined together by this wonderfully dramatic music. They were four friends of mine who were forced to learn two hours of German opera. I wanted them to sit and be very nonchalant and fairly bored but with this high drama taking place, almost as if it was in their desires and thoughts. There is a point where they all come together in unison, when the music allows them to. With opera everything is blown out of proportion, detailed as these great big mythological stories set to wonderful music but with this strained, mannered acting.
BF You mentioned Caravaggio earlier. Would it be fair to say that you’re interested in the Baroque? Like opera, your work has this commitment to multiplicity and sensation beyond logic. Is that reductive?
STW I never thought of myself as a Baroque artist until now. I’d love to think about it, but I’d say it was just one aspect, a possibility.
BF One of the frequent subjects of British art, whether it be literature or film or contemporary art, is class. In Misfit, or Five Revolutionary Seconds, there seems to be a speculation about class or at least the idea of luxury, abundance, aristocracy—all those things.
STW It’s there. It has a lot to do with my background. I’ve got to think about this quite carefully—so I don’t reveal myself too much. I come from quite a dysfunctional family background. I lived in a family that was totally unemployable. My mom has been married a few times, but the most memorable time was to my second father. They were completely poor, had absolutely no money, but at the same time everything was aspirational: “We’re like this now but next week we won’t be.”
BF It was actually hopeful, or optimistic?
STW Yeah, nonstop hopeful and even though we were—I don’t know if you have this system in America—but at school you’re defined as a free-school-dinner kid or not.
BF That means you’re being subsidized.
STW Yeah, the long and the short of it is, if you can’t to afford to buy your own lunch at school, they pay for it. There were two different queues and I was always in the free-school-dinner’s. I remember thinking, this is wrong because we felt much richer.
BF They were only acting poor.
STW Yeah. It was a very strange feeling, because we were permanently on the cusp, that feeling that next week, next week … At the same time there was a hippie rejection of riches.
When you’re an artist, you can transcend in so many different directions. You become this very particular citizen. It’s okay if you’re from a working-class, poor background. You can enter into aristocracy if you want; art gives you a passport to so many different possibilities. You’ve asked me questions which I haven’t been asked before so I’m having to really think. But it’s a way of trying to make sense of that, and also feeling myself being placed in many different social situations and environments, and becoming a chameleon within that. As an artist, you’re not actually part of it, you’re always an onlooker rather than a participant.
BF Warhol was very aware of the fact that, in America at least, there are three ways of transcending class: sports, sex and art. Those are the three bridges through class. I was interested in the question of class because there are so many moments, particularly in Five Revolutionary Seconds, the details within those environments are luxurious and abundant.
STW When I was first making the movie it was partly about the idea of decadence, and how people behave within that. And having these dysfunctional social situations in which people don’t interact with each other. Each person is isolated within their thoughts, worlds and actions, but held together by this surrounding abundance.
BF I’m going to ask you one more question and then let you off.
STW That’s okay, don’t worry. I feel like I’ve lapped the coffee table.
BF I’m on my third actually as we’re talking here.
STW No, I mean I’m walking around it. I’ve paced around this area for about thirteen miles.
BF (laughter) The last thing I want to talk about is the idea of pessimism or cynicism. Looking at the relationships developed in your works, it seems that they’re not just difficult but maybe impossible. Sustaining the Crisis seems to project the idea that the relationship of power between the man and the woman remains the same regardless of the fact that she’s very aggressive or confident. As in Travesty of a Mockery, you set up opposites or differences that are gender differences throughout. My sense of them, and you can certainly disagree, is that the differences seem irreconcilable, which is reinforced by the fact that they’re on other screens or in other images. In the final analysis, is that pessimistic, or is that something you think is realistic?
STW I like to think of myself as optimistic, but I can see what you mean. Yeah, it’s realistic. With Sustaining the Crisis you obviously have a woman in what seems to be an extremely vulnerable state in a very public place, but at the same time, the power balance is contested. It’s not necessarily true that one is stronger than the other. I was trying to make the man look equally vulnerable, where he’s having to react to something which he can’t see, but he’s told is happening. I was playing with two possible vulnerabilities within a powerful situation. I’m not good with the final analysis.
BF You don’t want to go that far.
STW Everyone else can do the final analysis.
Bruce Ferguson is a writer, critic and, at present, Executive Director of the New York Academy.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee