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Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer '05

I have of late but wherefore I know not lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so (heavily) with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble is reason! How infinite in faculty, in form and moving! How express and admirable in action! How like an angle in apprehension! How like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And, yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me…
, Act 2, Scene 2

In the words of the artist herself, Sam Taylor-Wood’s Soliloquy series “seek[s] to create something surreal, a possible narration.” Each piece in this series is firmly anchored in this narrative project through a thick matrix of suggested history, implied personal fantasy, coded allegory, and ambiguous memory. The series is defined by these story-telling and cinematic impulses petrified and embedded in its formal structure: each image set is composed of a single, large-format rectangular color photograph skirted by a thin, 360-degree panoramic predella below. The modular and hierarchical composition of each Soliloquy is born out of the tradition of religious painting from the later Middle Ages and Rennaisance, and specifically altarpiece panels by Old Masters such as Fra Angelico and Simone Martini. This compositional formula owes its form to the Christian mode of fetishizing the lives of saints and their religious epiphanies, legends, and myths. Taylor-Wood has seized upon this commemorative trope of ritual, memorial, prayer, and mourning historically reserved for pious persons to depict her contemporaries, her world and the cast of characters she has created to populate the stage of her fantasies. In operating through a deeply religious framework, she has laced the present with a beguiling skin of Baroque theatricality, heroism, gravity, spectacle, and auratic sublimity. In her meditation on these fabricated characters and surreal fantasy scenarios, she has soliloquized her subjects into narrative and mythic grandeur, endowing each idiosyncratic figure isolate in the upper register dominating each Soliloquy with a pyschological depth and capacity for dreaming and imagination worthy of sincere reverence.

As the title Soliloquy suggests, the series is an extended rumination on the entrapment of individuals within themselves the exhausting and endless monologue that is the human condition. We view a brief glimpse of a privately coded vision presented as part of the undercurrent or optical unconscious of a singular individual, and we are acutely aware of the insurmountable gap in understanding that separates us as fully embodied viewers from the intimate fantasy we voyeuristically observe. We are repeatedly reminded of the fundamentally subjective nature of human perception, imagination, and consciousness as we attempt to inject signification and narrative content into the enigmatic panoramas underlining each subject’s portrait. What at first seems an intensely private space of someone else’s imagined fantasy a distant and unreal ‘elsewhere’ subsequently evolves through our viewing of it and our efforts at comprehension and identification into a muddled amalgam of the image objectively exhibited to us by the artist and the artificial narrative and tale we as viewers have constructed and projected onto the work, thus subjecting it to our subjectivity. This world is waiting for us to give it meaning.

Most of this series is an investigation into the represented individual’s private mental space which we must interpret as it is splayed out in a lively predella replete with various persons and multiple striking figures suggesting the vague contours of some dreamscape or fantastical event. Yet, there is a select group of Soliloquies that stand out in their conspicuous absence of other bodies and their stark fixation on solitude and mortality. Two particularly distilled and harrowing images are Soliloquy VII and Soliloquy IX.

In Soliloquy VII, Taylor-Wood has reenacted the famously dramatic perspectival foreshortening of Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ. We peer from the foot of a bed at eye level with the soles of a naked man’s feet, up through parted legs and cresting ribcage to tilted head. Invoking Mantegna’s iconic image of Christ’s sacred and holy death that is paradigmatic of the bridging between physical and spiritual existence, Soliloquy VII collapses the multifarious aspects of selfhood into one monumental ascension. The image presented here is lined with a predella displaying a verdant park with a foreground of grass backed by a curtain of trees and the occasional park bench, bringing to mind the site of the crime scene from Antonioni’s Blow Up. The panoramic landscape is evacuated of any prominent human presence (one can just make out some indistinct signs of life sprawled beneath a tree, out of reach). This is a picture of absence, emptiness, and silence. Maybe it is the mental space of the dead or comatose man lying unconscious above. Maybe it is the destination towards which the dead man hovers an updated Garden of Eden, life after death. Maybe he lies at the center of this panoramic circle of grass and trees, surrounded by space and himself. This is a portrayal of the ultimate loneliness of mortality: the recurring recognition that we, each of us, begin dying the day we are born and, more tragically, we must travel towards death alone, in absolute solitude. This heap of flesh lifeless atop this lifeless pastoral is a memento mori par excellence. The customary skull and decaying fruit and flowers are implicit and understood.

Soliloquy IX presents us with a similarly bleak vision of mortality, though perhaps more tragic because instead of paying our respects to an already dead corpse, we seem to have tripped up the final moments of a dying man and we must watch as he suffers the coming of death interminably. A man with a sorrowful expression sits alone in a sauna where the thick accumulation of stifling, hot, opaque steam dissolves most of his body into a white haze. Visibility is fading fast. The frame approaches a blank equilibrium, but is forever suspended in its final moments for us to pour over. The steam that bleaches out the solitary figure’s presence reappears in the ominous mist and lofty clouds throughout the underlining predella. The landscape below teeters precariously on a central triangular fulcrum of a road shooting into the distance. The left half shows the swelling mound of a cemetery hill with rows of tombstones receding into space and silhouetted trees, mostly stripped of their leaves, forming a veil over the sky. The right half is an open expanse of rolling hills in shadow and distant mountains that catch the pale dusk light. This graveyard is surely where our man is headed. The predella leaps forward in time to picture the eternity after death: the view we have from our grave. This is what we are left with, and again, it is slim pickings.

Yet, the bleak and tense purgatory in which Taylor-Wood relegates the viewer never loses its aesthetic richness. In the face of mortality and the solitude of life’s soliloquy of thought, fantasy, imagination, and, ultimately, death, we find sanctuary in the ritualization of aesthetic vision, the worship and creation of what is beautiful and poignant in life while it lasts.



:: Related Images ::

Soliloquy 7
Sam Taylor-Wood

Soliloquoy 9
Sam Taylor-Wood