Spirit in the Sky; Sam Taylor-Wood's Latest Films Have a Religious, Contemplative and Classical Feel

By Renton, Andrew | The Evening Standard (London, England), July 8, 2003 | Go to article overview

Spirit in the Sky; Sam Taylor-Wood's Latest Films Have a Religious, Contemplative and Classical Feel


Renton, Andrew, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: ANDREW RENTON

SECOND only to Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood is the most recognisable of the BritArt generation. She smiles out from newspapers and magazines, pictured with celebrity friends at glitzy gallery dos alongside her dealer husband, White Cube's Jay Jopling. Her high profile, as much as her films and photographs that feature celebrities such as Marianne Faithfull, Kate Moss, Ray Winstone and Kylie, has skewed her reputation as a serious artist.

Yet she may be the youngest ever to enjoy a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery (last year, aged 35) and is more respected abroad than many of her British contemporaries. Tonight, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, she premieres two short films that might, finally, bring her the recognition she deserves as one of our greatest imagists, and perhaps our sincerest romantic.

I first met Sam when she was graduating from Goldsmiths in 1991.

Finishing a couple of years earlier and exploding on to London's art scene with their Frieze exhibition, Damien Hirst and Gary Hume had already drawn attention to the college's extraordinary output, but Taylor-Wood was perhaps the first to confirm that a movement (of sorts), rather than a handful of talented individuals, was emerging.

Her then partner, Jake Chapman, came out of the Royal College in the same year, along with Gavin Turk; all are now part of the powerful White Cube stable. Even today, Taylor-Wood cannot get over the scale of success that she and her peers enjoyed. "What was that thing that happened?"

she exclaims.

We talk after her two-hour morning yoga session - "I can't live without it" - and I cannot help thinking of this discipline as a consequence of her battle with breast cancer over the past few years. She seems well, but confesses to being "constantly tired. I take on too much, and try to accomplish everything". As well as running her studio fulltime, she devotes herself to her six-year-old daughter, Angelica.

IN her self-portraits, the allusions to her illness are poignant.

In the bleak Self Portrait as a Tree her sense of isolation is obvious, and in Single Breasted, while alluding to the jacket she is wearing in the image, the wilful pun is evident. "I use the self-portraits as a way of checking in with myself," she admits. "Having come through cancer, those two photographs were a response to people asking, 'What will you do now?'" The two new films, Strings (nine minutes 28 seconds) and Ascension (four minutes 15 seconds), are more obliquely referential, suggesting an ethereal state, contemplative, tentative and restrained - a far cry from the domestic angst of earlier videos such as the five-screen, five-character Pent-Up or Travesty of a Mockery, which scrutinises a kitchen-sink row.

"The new pieces are always going to be autobiographical in some way.

There is an element of our mortality in them - I'm much more aware of that than I was."

In Strings, a string quartet plays plaintive Tchaikovsky while Ivan Putrov, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, is suspended above them by wires. He dances gracefully, in slow motion, responding to the players beneath him, at times seeming even to conduct them in their playing.

But consistent with all of Taylor-Wood's films is a palpable distance between protagonists, even at the moment of complex interaction. "The dancer is trapped in a netherworld and can't break through," she says. …

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