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Interview with Sam Taylor-Wood on glamour, drama, and trauma

The artist reflects on the combination of autobiographical content and common experience in her work

Glamour, drama and trauma all run through the emotionally charged, psychologically ambiguous films and photographs of Sam Taylor-Wood. Last year she swathed the entire façade of Selfridge’s department store on London’s Oxford Street in a 900-foot photographic frieze of famous and fabulous figures striking Old-Masterly poses; and this autumn her friend Elton John commissioned one of her 360º photographs as the artwork for his new album, while the video for the new single—also by Taylor-Wood—consists of actor Robert Downey, Jr mouthing the lyrics. But such high profile projects, along with her and her husband Jay Jopling’s A-list party status and Taylor-Wood’s frankness about her recent recovery from cancer, have tended, in the UK at least, to detract from a serious international reputation. Taylor-Wood won the Illy Cafe Prize for most Promising Young artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale. The next year she was a Turner Prize nominee and since then, there has been a slew of prestigious shows, at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Prada Foundation in Milan and a retrospective earlier this year at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris. Her current exhibition of new work at White Cube consists of new films, photographs and sculpture and is her first solo exhibition in London for nearly five years.

The Art Newspaper: The title of your White Cube show is “Mute”, and in your three new films you have literally turned the sound off, which is surprising, as sound has always been such a crucial part of your work.

Sam Taylor-Wood: The sound is off, but—I know this may seem a bit hippy—you feel it on a different level, because when you look at the works they’re so obviously with sound, and they are sounds that we know. The first piece that really emphasises this is the piece called “Mute”: it’s this opera singer singing an aria from Eugene Onegin and he’s really belting it out and then it’s almost like castrating him by taking away his most powerful thing which is his voice. It’s totally silent, but in the way that he moves towards you and the way that he closes his eyes and clutches his heart—you see his mouth and throat really opening—you sort of feel the sound rather than hearing it. Another piece, “Breach”, is this girl sitting in a corner and she’s suffering; she’s being threatened and shouted at by this other figure whom you don’t quite see. That’s totally silent as well, and you can tell that although she’s upset, she’s gritting her teeth in the face of it. Then there’s a two-minute film, “Pietá”, where I’m struggling to hold someone up; I’m bending under the strain, I’m struggling with this serene calmness in my arms, but you’re missing my sounds. It was absolute agony, I couldn’t move my arm for about three weeks afterwards...

TAN: So, in each case the subject is stifled and the audience is left to fill in the gaps with whatever explanation they choose.

STW: It’s empowering the viewer, but its also feeling my disempowered self because it’s literally taking away a voice, and trying to use other modes of expression.

TAN: You have made no secret of the fact that you have had cancer twice in the last four years. Is it a concern that the sense of impotence and fear in some pieces, as well as the hope and humour in others, is going to be looked at in terms of your personal experience?

STW: Although I’d like to think that what you’re looking at isn’t specific to me in an autobiographical way, you can’t always separate the work from the person. I think that when you are faced with the images it’s much more universal and it’s much more open to other interpretations as well. But there is quite a sense of pathos.

TAN: Even though the underlying theme in your previous party scenes and groups of people has always been individuals in various states of isolation, the new work does seem more solitary and inward-looking.

STW: It’s much more pensive, people are out of a crowd, and much more singular in their own states and worlds and thoughts. There’s one piece which is probably going to be the main image of the show which is this guy in mid-air—I just love that photograph so much—you don’t see that the trampoline is underneath and the photograph is in mid-air caught between space. There’s an equal amount between the top and the bottom of the frame; he could be jumping or falling.

TAN: The figure that you are holding in your arms in the “Pietá” film is Robert Downey, Jr, and well known figures often crop up in your work. Does it matter that we instantly recognise these people and project our own associations onto them?

STW: Yes I think it does matter. I use them for a purpose. People say to me that my work is celebrity-obsessed and I say, “No it isn’t.” It’s more that there’s a lot of art-historical references in my work and, if you look at art history, then who’s the most famous person in our whole lives? It’s Jesus, and the whole of art history is populated with him. It’s something that I’ve always been interested in, using specific people in specific situations. To go in one swift swoop from Jesus to Kylie [Minogue], the film when I used her [“Misfit”, 1996] was a commission by BBC 2 and I wanted to use this piece of music with a castrato voice and I thought that if I attach that to anyone then it will just seem like it’s their voice. I wanted it so that the voice didn’t match the person and because you don’t know who or what is making that sound—it’s such a bizarre sound—I thought I needed to have someone whose voice is known, who is known as a singer and then when you put that voice to them, it jars.

TAN: And the famously troubled Robert Downey, Jr as the dead Christ?

STW: With that one it was specific to a situation. I’d just made that [Elton John] video with him and it was at the end of the day and we were all on a high because it had gone so well. And he said, “What else can we do? Let’s do something else, let’s make some art.” I’d just come back from Rome and I’d seen the Pietà and it just came into my head. Obviously, he’s not stupid, he saw the references and he said, “Fantastic,” and we did it. I liked it because we’d had this very particular working relationship and so for me to do the Pietà was about one propping up the other, goading, getting and making something come out.

TAN: The Selfridge’s photograph was a giant parade of familiar faces.

STW: I couldn’t have made the Selfridges piece work quite so well if I hadn’t played on the fact that it was a department store and that everyone aspires, when they go through that door, to be someone else. And then I was trying to refer to the fact that outside great temples they have Zeus and all those fabulously famous gods and that’s how the piece works. It was just such a public piece; it was a kind of shorthand for getting to a certain point from which you could then take things a bit further. In fact, in that photograph there were five really well known people and 15 unknown people, but you just remember the famous faces; you’re drawn immediately to those ones.

TAN: You seem to have quite an ambivalent relationship with glamour. In some of your most gorgeous arrangements of beautiful people in fabulous settings, you introduce a bit of gritty reality, some full-on sex, a row, or a surprising sound track.

STW: It’s an awareness of how much we are all manipulated by glamour, and enticed by it at the same time. With the “Five revolutionary seconds”, photographs, the sound was another dimension: it was about de-mystifying the photograph by giving the sound of everything that was recorded on the day because when you listen to the sound it’s just people chatting about football or getting their legs waxed. It was taking away all your fantasies as to what you thought was going on.

TAN: You have made two sculptures for White Cube. Is this a bit of a new departure? The last sculpture of yours I remember was a sort of immaculately made, roped-off barrier in an exhibition in a Notting Hill gallery in 1991, a year after you had left college and before you had started taking photographs, or making films...

STW: Oh God, don’t even talk about that...I just felt like there was something missing in the context of this show. So there are two sculptures, and the first one is of a unicorn. There’s something about the unicorn that’s so transient and so I wanted to make it in concrete, so it was like I’d grounded something. It’s in the same concrete that the floor of the gallery is made of, and its half in, and half coming out of the floor and so it looks like it’s clambering to get out of its situation. It’s life-sized, absolutely huge, shire-horse sized and I’m placing it next to the film of the girl in distress because one of the myths of the unicorn is that it can only be captured in the presence of a distressed virgin...it’s so raunchy, I just felt like the show needed something lusty about it...

TAN: And the other sculpture?

STW: The other sculpture is an electric guitar and an amplifier in the corner just as you go out. It’s switched on so that you’ve just got this reverberating hum, and again it’s to do with animating the silence. It comes out of the feeling that anything can shatter your state of calm at any moment. It’s Jake Chapman’s old guitar which used to drive me fucking mad the whole of my eight year relationship with him: finally I can silence it...He made me buy him a brand new one, so he got a good deal out of it...

TAN: So is this dodgy bit of white noise a bit of grit to prevent the show becoming overly elegant and lyrical?

STW: Yes, definitely. And it’s also trying to keep both elements of myself in there—the two extremes of my life: myself from my raw, guitar, Peabody [housing] days to my now very different times...

Biography

Background: Born 1967, London; 1990: graduated Goldsmith’s College, London; lives and works in London

Currently showing: White Cube2

Selected solo exhibitions: 1994: “Killing time”, The Showroom, London; 1995 “Travesty of a mockery”, Jay Jopling, White Cube, London; Andreas Brandstrom, Stockholm; 1996: “Pent up”, Chisenhale Gallery, London; Sunderland City Art Gallery; 1997: “Five revolutionary seconds”, Sala Montcada de la Fundacio “la Caixa” Barcelona; Kuntstalle, Zürich; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek; 1998: Prada Foundation, Milan; 1999: Wüttembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart; 2000: Museo Naçional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; 2001: Kunstlerverein Malkasten, Düsseldorf; Centre National de la Photographie, Hotel Salomon de Rothschild, Paris.

Selected group shows: 1993: “Wonderful life”, Lisson Gallery London; 1995: “General release”, Venice Biennale; “Brilliant! New art from London”; “Masculin/feminin”, Centre Pompidou, Paris; “The British art show 4”; 1997: 2nd Johannesberg Biennale; 5th Istambul Biennale; Venice Biennale; “Sensation”, Royal Academy, London; 1998: Turner Prize, London; 1999: Carnegie International; 2001: 6th Biennale d’art contemporain de Lyon.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Glamour, drama, trauma'