in Features | 01 JAN 99
Featured in
Issue 44

Making a Drama Out of a Crisis

The photography of Sam Taylor-Wood

in Features | 01 JAN 99

Sometimes you just don't know what to do. You're in a situation so unbearable that you want to disengage from it completely; you just want it to be in the past. It's hard to know how to respond when you feel that anything you might say or do will only prolong your discomfort, keep you there longer, make things worse. At times like these it's best to be somebody else, someone with fewer dimensions, someone a little further away - like an actor or a character in a novel - whose responses are more measured, more predictable and somehow less yours.

Being someone else is useful in all sorts of situations: when you just can't cope with the emotional trauma of a disintegrating relationship; when your life seems insignificant and peripheral; or when you live at a time when there is nothing left to believe in and belief itself is reassuringly nostalgic but seemingly unobtainable. Perhaps there is a moment, as you walk down the street, when you feel like somebody else. A person from a film, someone in a photograph. At this moment, it becomes possible to frame your life and see it from the outside, as somehow making sense, as being comfortably familiar - a readymade. You know how to react because your thoughts, your feelings and your responses can now be given parameters, defined and freed from uncertainty. The world surrounding you then becomes your world. The pavement, buildings, shop-fronts, furniture, even the people around you, become part of a set - no longer alien or resistant, but absorbed into the space in which your drama is unfolding.

In Sam Taylor-Wood's series 'Five Revolutionary Seconds', various events take place in a selection of interiors. Each panoramic image comprises isolated incidents that may or may not be related to each other in a narrative sense. On one level, the photographs have a similar feeling to footage of Warhol's Factory: self-absorbed individuals, either singly or in uncommunicative groups, apparently unknowingly go about their activities while the camera observes and pans across space. Unlike shots of Warhol's Factory though, the figures populating Taylor-Wood's images are not celebrities or even 'personalities'. They do have a very particular appearance, however. They look like 'other' people - people from magazines, the kind of people you are supposed to network with, important people; the kind of boys and girls you are supposed to find attractive and who know that they are. But there is something peculiarly inbred about it all: a kind of upper middle-class British malaise that fetches you up in Weston Super Mare or hanging self-suffocated in your basement somewhere in the stockbroker belt. It is hard to say what it is that is so empty about these people and what is so unnervingly alien about the spaces they inhabit. It is perhaps a lack of life (and maybe that is what everyone is thinking about or trying not to think about) in their narcissistic introspections. No one looks remotely happy. Even the couple having sex in Five Revolutionary Seconds III (1996) don't seem to be enjoying themselves enough to work up a sweat. It is as if sex is something that couples are meant to do, so they go through the motions in a dispassionate dress rehearsal.

Perhaps it's the interiors that make everything seem so viciously bleak. They frequently look like film sets of the kind of places where 'creative professionals' live: designer furniture, bad contemporary art, lots of empty, expensive space. Everything's very muted in a Next catalogue kind of way; there is a lot of calm, diffused white light bleeding through large windows (windows through which a glimpse of green foliage can be seen); there are shelves full of books (big books with lots of pictures); there are glassy grand pianos and acoustic guitars; there is arbitrary domestic nudity. Sometimes they are reminiscent of a Helmut Newton fashion plate, especially at the moments when the outside world intrudes - the arrival of a courier - or in the sparks of activity - an argument, a girl in her underwear dragging a boy into the light of a room beyond. It is as if the moments at which the figures escape their own inertia have to be exaggerated to draw attention to themselves - look, we're alive, really! Newton's imagery has a way of constructing a facade of activity, vibrancy and liveliness over a heart of vapid, meaningless, inner death. Fuck to prove you're alive and you could create life (if only you had the free time and the commitment). Argue to prove you are a free-thinking individual with your own identity and opinions, needs and desires (if only you knew what they were). Many of the figures in these photographs have a look that verges on arrogance; it seems to be saying that what they are doing is more serious, more important, than the things that you, the viewer, do. They seem to be claiming the world they occupy as the real world, a centre that revolves around the axes of urban wealth and bohemianism. It might be a question of power, or affluence, or class. Or it might simply be a question of aesthetic decisions; having the right look.

In her most recent series, entitled 'Soliloquy', the panoramic image has become a satellite to a much larger, more composed image of an individual. Perhaps the first response might be to see the panorama as a representation of the interior world of the figure presented above, but it works the other way around as well: the upper image reflecting the self-image of the isolated figure above as they are absorbed into the cyclical scene illustrated below. Several of the individual portraits are remakes of well-known paintings in the manner of Taylor-Wood's earlier Wrecked (1996), a reconstruction of da Vinci's Last Supper (1497). Soliloquy I and III (1998) recreate Henry Wallis' Death of Chatterton (1854) and Velászquez' Toilet of Venus (1650) respectively, and both play upon personality clichés - the misunderstood genius and the narcissistic femme fatale - that can be conveniently adopted to deal with failure. Perhaps you are just too far ahead of your time to achieve recognition; perhaps you are just too beautiful to succeed in a relationship with mere mortals. Soliloquy IV (1998) is somewhat more complicated in that the figure, Sue Tilley, appears to be recreating a Lucien Freud painting for which she originally modelled, raising the question of how your absorption into a defined genre - the Existential urban bohemianism of the School of London - might mediate the understanding of your own experiences.

It can be revealing to look at reconstructions of well-known images because, given the fixed parameters within which they must be created, difference is telling. In Godard's Passion (1981), for example, amateur actors and actresses recreated the figure groupings of famous historical paintings. But the look of Godard's cast was stubborn and naive - perhaps it can even be described as healthy. The overwhelming impression is one of a search for purity and sincerity; a remnant of Godard's post-68 trauma that suggests a desire to find the kind of adolescent self-centredness and self-belief that makes idealism possible. There is no room for idealism in Taylor-Wood's work; even her own reconstruction of the famous image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, October 26th 1993 (1993), seems resigned to the fact that idealism, like hedonism (doesn't the figure in Soliloquy V (1998) look like a dispirited version of David Bowie from the cover of Ziggy Stardust?), are things that belong to another time. All that remains of them today are a sequence of poses, a look, a lifestyle.

In the 19th century countless middle-class men and women lived their lives mediated through the form of the novel or poetry, from which they learned how to respond and what emotions to feel in the limited range of situations in which they might find themselves (in the unlikely event of encountering circumstances for which they were unprepared, men could be outraged and women were allowed to faint). In the late 20th century we live in a visual culture that tells us how to look rather than how to feel, and the predominant influence on behaviour - the film - is dominated by one-dimensional examples of America's inability to deal with moral complexity. But perhaps we can't avoid being someone else when it seems there's no such thing as an authentic response left; when every situation and conceivably extreme emotional state has become so heavily mediated that you begin to wonder whether you really feel the way you think you do.