Interpreting video art
Watch: Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001) http://samtaylorjohnson.com/moving-image/art/still-life-2001
Make notes on:
- Initial response after 1st viewing
- Media and form of the piece
- Contextual info; influences, other work, etc
- How does this comment on time
In 250 words describe your understanding of this piece. What do you think Taylor-Wood wants us to think about or experience from watching this?
Initial response after 1st viewing
The opening shot of fruit in a bowl is reminiscent of old still life paintings. The fruit has been selected and chosen with care. The colours are a mix of reds and pale yellows. The small bunch of grapes reminded me of Edwaert Collier’s “Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’”.
The bowl is a gentle brown and its texture contrasts with the smoothness of the fresh fruit. The background behind the bowl is out of focus and provides no distraction from the fruit. The light shines from the left and so produces shadows which accentuate the shapes and forms of the different fruits. The fruit is resting on a pale wooden table with a blue ballpen to the right of the bowl. The pen’s colour and form jars with the fruit. Whist everything else maybe described as natural, the pen is plastic and cheap.
Filmed on 35mm, time-lapse is used to accelerate the process of rotting and decay which destroys the beauty of the forms and colour, and of course, the fruit itself. This is not to say that the mould and moss is colourless rather it is an unpleasant mix of grey and green. Furthermore the moss and mould spreads to the bowl. The warm and healthy colours are obliterated from the bowl emphasising the lifelessness of the scene. Bright colour only remains in the pen, unaffected by the atrophy around it.
Eventually ants turn up and feed off the rotting fruit. These reminded me of the ants on the back of one of the clocks in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. So life returns but only to feed off the remains of what went before.
Media and form of the piece
I think I have described most of that above.
Contextual info; influences, other work, etc
On youtube there is an interesting video entitled “Brief Applause: Artist Sam Taylor-Wood” reviewing an exhibition of her work in the USA (https://youtu.be/gzuWjwcqTcs). During an interview she says:
“Most of my work is pretty much about people, emotions and different states of being. Things that have really preoccupied artists for the last…however long…centuries.”
Still Life very much falls into her category of different states of being. Another of her videos, “A Little Death” (2002) is superficially similar to Still Life, but is centred around the decay of a hare. Propped up against a wall, on a table, the hare’s body is consumed by insects, maggots and the like. A particularly interesting feature of the film is the presence of a fruit that does not decay as the hare’s carcass is gorged upon. By using an animal, there is something more brutal about the decay as the maggots and other insects are relatively fast and thorough in their consumption.
The subject matter of her work is very varied and includes photography as well as moving image. She has also directed main stream films for cinema.
Three Additional notes
- In 1997 Taylor-Wood was diagnosed with and treated for colon cancer. In 2000 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Still Life and A Little Death were made after these diagnoses and perhaps reflect some aspects of her own experiences of dealing with such potentially life-changing conditions.
- The link to Art Forum that was given did not work so I first used Youtube to watch Still Life. Whilst watching the Brief Applause video mentioned above, I noticed that the version of Still Life I had watched on Youtube did not include the ballpen. Further evidence, if it were needed, of the importance of seeing work in its exhibited form!
- After more searching I found Sam Taylor-Wood’s website, under her more recent name Taylor-Johnson. I was then able to watch Still Life in its original form. The address is http://samtaylorjohnson.com/moving-image/art/still-life-2001. Interestingly there was no musical accompaniment either. (There had been for the Youtube version!)
2. My Understanding of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Still Life
Taylor-Johnson’s still life presents us with a scene of natural beauty. Warm glows emanate from the fruit in the bowl holding the centre of the film. The presence of a plastic blue pen on the table, next to the bowl, jars in this setting, thus reminding us of the presence and impact of man on the natural world.
The fruit begins its inevitable process of rotting. The healthy reds and oranges of the fruit are overcome by the blues, greens and greys of atrophy. The original beauty of the scene is replaced by the ugliness of decay. This spreads beyond the confines of the fruit with mould and moss covering the bowl. Ants arrive to gorge on the remains of the fruit until what is left offers even them no interest.
This rotting fruit reflects the transience in our lives. The beauty of the opening scene deteriorates, decays and then dies. It is a bleak reminder of our own ageing and mortality, not least what becomes of our flesh as we age. The presence of the plastic pen, however, implies that Taylor-Wood wishes us to consider more. The plastic outlives the fruit and reminds the viewer of the legacy of our way of life on the natural world. But plastic also suggests surgery. I wonder if Taylor-Johnson is also asking us to consider the futility of cosmetic surgery, when we try to maintain our youthful good looks, whilst faced with the inevitable prospect of decay?