BY Michael Bracewell in Reviews | 06 SEP 94
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Issue 18

Sam Taylor-Wood

BY Michael Bracewell in Reviews | 06 SEP 94

The two white-walled galleries of The Showroom are darkened by a double curtain hanging across the entrance; in the front gallery two videos are projected on the wall. One - large format - of a woman, the other, smaller, of a man. In the rear gallery are two similar projections. From powerful speakers, a luxuriously dramatic opera plays at high volume.

These days, when opera pops up in television adverts and as an accompaniment to internationally broadcast sports events, when the raw, emotive power of Turandot, Tosca or any number of 19th century melodramas can be experienced way beyond the cultural arena of the opera house, one can hear the satisfying crunch of two worlds colliding. Until Italia 90, when opera really went mass-market and mass-media, there was still a sense that nothing was over until the fat lady had sung, but would it really be worth the wait? Now, the media of opera is versatile: consumers are opera friendly; the Queen Mother of all the arts has found the common touch. And this shift in the status of opera has been echoed by a shift of status in the medium of TV and video. 'People TV' - that's what they call the elevation of home video and quasi-documentary (Signs of the Times, for instance) to broadcast quality material. Having watched what TV has to offer, we now watch each other on TV. Put together a work of art which calls into play our dialogue with High Art and Low Art, reality and artifice, and you have an engagement with some familiar themes.

At least, that's what ought to happen with Sam Taylor-Wood's Killing Time (1994), but the artist knows her intentions too well merely to mediate the art of mediation. The four projected people, who are neither characters nor ciphers, are lip-synching the libretti of the four roles. When they are not speaking their lines they are simply sitting - sitting and waiting, a bit bored, just as you might be if you went to the opera and were thinking wistfully of how you should have stayed at home and watched television instead. But the drama which is being acted out within the gallery walls begins to get to you; not so much because of the emotive music, but because of the immediacy of the four ordinary people who are somehow locked in, impassively, to the passion they are shadowing. This is where the sense of unease - the unease of a person seeing their real-time self being picked up and somehow changed by a video monitor - begins to reach the viewer. There's a feeling that something both commonplace and urgent is screaming to get out of a kind of audio-visual purgatory. The film and sound loops can roll ad nauseam, telling the same old story, but this story, it seems, cannot be simply disposed of.

Killing Time, for all of its play on media and cultural values, tells a formal story about the daily business of being alive and being boring. You could inject a lethal dose of commentary into the methodology of this installation, but, if one accepts the floating certainty of a reading which Roland Barthes described as 'the third meaning of the sign', the work becomes articulate about the very process of articulation. Taylor-Wood appears to be exploring and illustrating the ways in which we try to make ourselves heard in the minefield of self-expression. When we tell our problems to a friend or work out our ambitions or our fantasies in our heads, we are constantly pitting the force of feeling against the constraints of language. It is the ruptures in the relationship between ourselves and our self-expression which manage - in an age held in place by mediation - to shock: a few years ago, Thirtysomething could be more shocking than News at Ten. A couple of years after that, American Psycho failed to shock because its language and territory were so familiar. Sam Taylor-Wood, with a subtle use of metaphor and distancing of voices, has done well to put some words back into our mouths.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.