By Denny, Ned
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4588
Future historians wanting an insight into the lives of privileged, late-20th-century urbanites will do well to take a look at Sam Taylor-Wood's series Five Revolutionary Seconds. These panoramic, richly detailed, 360-degree photographs - taken over a number of years, mostly in the homes of friends and colleagues - lay bare the inner sanctums of the Wal1paper*-reading classes. Here are Clerkenwell penthouses and Hoxton loft conversions, faux-oriental Notting Hill villas and arty Kensington drawing rooms, interiors whose opulence is further increased by their presentation in a kind of ultra-CinemaScope. They're the antithesis of Richard Billingham's snapshots of his family in their Midlands council flat -- whereas Billingham's lot muck along in cramped, high-kitsch squalor ("middle-class porn", one critic called it), the inhabitants of these World of Interiors centrefolds seem isolated, awkward, distracted, self-involved. Their surroundings, so elegant, so highly cultured and so beautifully arranged, are little more than designer crypts.
As a chronicler of a certain type of postmodern, urban, middle-class disaffection, Taylor-Wood has sometimes been condemned for her refusal to criticise or take a stance. In her own comments, she has done little to defend herself, in the manner typical of the passive fatalism of her Young British Artistpeers ("why offer hope when in many instances there isn't any hope? I'm showing things how they are"). And yet, there are times in this exhibition when there doesn't seem much distance between Taylor-Wood (who tends to be treated by the critics as something of a lightweight) and Bill Viola (who is treated with the utmost reverence). Both use technology--mostly film for Taylor-Wood, mostly video for Viola--to make works that show people at moments of great pressure or emotional intensity. Both like to operate on a heroic scale, and both have attempted modern versions of specifically Christian themes. Both also sometimes veer into drama workshop territory, and both have an occasional tendency towards slickness or prettiness.
Where they differ is in the general emotional tenor of their work. With Viola, there is always a sense of transcendence, deliverance or transformation (I am thinking specifically of his show last summer at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London). Taylor-Wood, on the other hand, doesn't get our hopes up. Viola's diving figures appear to be surging from one world to the next, whilst Taylor-Wood's characters, sometimes in their own way no less heroic, seem locked in an exitless limbo. …