N.B. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s website has stopped working at some point during my research. This is a real shame as her work was thoroughly and well presented here. I have kept the links to her site on this post in the hope that this is a temporary issue that will be resolved. I have provided alternative links where I can.
Sam Taylor-Johnson (née Sam Taylor-Wood) is an artist who works across photography, video, film and sculpture. Her work often uses cinematic approaches such as theatrical staging, dramatic lighting, movement and gesture and shows the influence of art history.
Alternative link here.
The Last Supper is a subject that is common throughout art history, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ (c. 1490s) being perhaps the most famous example. In ‘Wrecked’, Taylor-Johnson updates the scene to modern times in a strange mix of the familiar and unusual. The scene appears to show a party with a group of friends sitting at a large table variously engaged in conversation. The table is strewn with fruit which seems somewhat out of place, and in the centre, a topless woman stands with arms outstretched in a Christ like pose – she is totally out of place and seemingly ignored by the other sitters around the table. The religious connotations are obvious and it is unclear whether Taylor-Johnson is commenting on modern decadence, the title ‘Wrecked’ seems significant in this regard and could potentially refer to either the central woman or the other party goers. Is she being ignored because they are blind or do not want to hear the message she has to deliver or are they ignoring some sort of attention seeking meltdown?
The ‘Soliloquy’ series draws inspiration from renaissance paintings and alter pieces with large staged tableau photographs presented above smaller images of interiors captured using a camera with a 360-degree angle of view. The large images are often meditative in nature showing figures reclining or dreaming while the smaller images beneath show strongly erotically charged scenes – an subversion of the conventions of the alter pieces she is inspired by which traditionally convey heavenly in there larger pictures and earthly in the smaller pictures below. While there is a general referencing of artworks running throughout the series, ‘Soliloquy I’ references ‘The Death of Chatterton’ (1856) by Henry Wallis, ‘Soliloquy III’ reproduces ‘The Rokeby Venus’ (1647-51) by Diego Velazquez.
Quoted on the Tate website, Taylor-Johnson says this about the Soliloquy series:
“My iconic inspiration comes from old-master painting […] in whose work the panels form triptychs or unified wholes, constructed as a large architectural space, where figures are placed as a separation between heaven and earth. Above, in the empyrean, [the surface of the imaginary sphere on which celestial bodies appear to be projected] are the Divinities and Saints, below their terrestrial events. In the Soliloquy series, I wanted to depict the same separation, the different formal sense between above and below, between the sublime and the physical, immaterial and material, and I sought to bring them into line in a whole that would produce a sort of focus on the territory that lies between the conscious and unconscious. Above is the individual who thinks and reflects and below, his oneric and anguished reflection.”
Alternative link here.
‘Still Life’ is a four minute video installation which shows a bowl of fruit photographed in time lapse over a period of nine weeks as it transforms from a picture of freshness to one of decay. The work takes inspiration from traditional European still-life painting where fruit is often a subject, but, by documenting the process of decay Taylor-Johnson makes a comment on the transient nature of beauty which is at once seductive and desolating, a “momento mori that begins with heady sensuality and ends in rotting negation.” (Cork, 2001)
Watching the piece it initially appears as if nothing is happening, until suddenly and dramatically, the fruit begins to rot and become covered in a cloud of mildew. The contrast between being able to see anything happening to the violent process of decay is a surprising shock. The simplicity of the work in both terms of concept and execution are its success, as is the clear link the viewer makes with the work and their own mortality. As Nochlin (2002) observes: “Such is human life, for which the ill-fated fruit is but an analogue”
‘A Little Death’ (2002) provides a counterpart to ‘Still Life’. In this later film a hare is filmed decaying in the same way as the bowl of fruit. The result is something much more macabre and disturbing – it is one thing being able to imagine death by watching the decay of an inanimate object, it is something else to see a once living creature go through the same process. Rather than being an abstract concept, death here becomes something that is upsetting and visceral. In an interview, Taylor-Johnson describes it as a “a slasher version of Still Life. It’s more violent and when you’re watching the still life of fruit it’s very graceful in its disintegration whereas with A Little Death it’s more violent. I wasn’t prepared for the horror of it.” (Shani, 2006)
Alternative link here.
‘Sleep’ is a photograph inspired by Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ (1521) and continues Taylor-Johnson’s engagement with mortality and the body. The piece plays with notions of the relationship between death and sleep with the added implications of resurrection that referencing Holbein’s image of Christ make. Although the figure in the piece initially appears to be dead, close inspection reveals a slight double image of the chest, captured due to the model breathing and the long exposure time necessary to make the image – the “shadow of life” present in an the representation of death. (Shani, 2006)
Alternative link here.
This series is inspired by shunga, erotic Japanese woodcuts from the nineteenth century which depict frank sexuality. Twenty-five images showing a couple engaging in sex are presented in small light boxes. Eroticism and sex are recurring subjects for Taylor-Johnson and although these images are undoubtably explicit they resist the language of pornography and voyeurism. The couple are not performing for the camera but engaged in a deep level of intimacy and the images record this with sensitive rather than sensational way.
Bright, A. (2005) Soliloquy I, Sam Taylor Johnson. Tate Website. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/taylor-johnson-soliloquy-i-p78317 [accessed 6th May 2019]
Bright, S. (2005) Art Photography Now. London: Thames and Hudson.
Burnett, C. (2008) Feeling Gravity’s Pull. Available at: http://samtaylorjohnson.com/media/yes-i-no-craig-burnett-essay-2008.pdf [accessed 14th April 2019]
Celant, G. (1998) Germano Celant/Sam Taylor Wood: Soliloquy. Essay/interview. October 1998. Available at: http://samtaylorjohnson.com/media/prada-fondazione-germano-celant-interview-1998.pdf [accessed 14th April 2019]
Cork, R. (2001) Message from remission. The Times, 28th November 2001. Available at: http://samtaylorjohnson.com/media/the-times-28-november-2001.pdf [accessed 14th April 2019]
Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson
Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.
Herschdorfer, N. (2015) The Thames & Hudson dictionary of photography. London: Thames & Hudson.
Nochlin, L. (2002) Sam Taylor-Wood: The Passion. Contemporary, November 2002. Available at: http://samtaylorjohnson.com/media/contemporary-november-2002.pdf [accessed 14th April 2002]
Shani, A. (2006) Sam Taylor-Wood in conversation with Annushka Shani. Available at: http://samtaylorjohnson.com/media/still-lives-annushka-shani-interview-2006.pdf [acessed 14th April 2019]
Visser, H. (2003) A Provocation of Meanings. Available at: http://samtaylorjohnson.com/media/passion-cycle-hripisme-visser-essay-2003.pdf [acessed 14th April 2019]
Ward, O. (2006) Time Gentlemen Please. Available at: http://samtaylorjohnson.com/media/still-lives-catalogue-ossian-ward-essay-2006.pdf [accessed 14th April 2019]