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AN INTERVIEW WITH SAM TAYLOR-WOOD
Andrew Suggs '05

Harvard Photography Journal: What motivates your decision to use either
film or photography when you start a project?

Sam Taylor-Wood:
When I have an idea it presents itself as one or either; it’s
never “this could be a film or should it be a photograph?” When I have the idea,
it’s either a photograph or it’s film, and it’s dictated by the idea almost
instantaneously.

HPJ: Something that strikes me about your film work is that it seems so
closely related to photography. What I mean is that you’re always working from
a fixed viewpoint, and things are happening within that never-changing frame.
It’s often like a Tableau Vivant, distant from cinema in some ways. What do you
think the differences are between working with moving images and still images,
and why does it makes sense for you to do things one way or the other?

STW:
As I said, the idea predicts what’s going to happen. You’re right in that
some of the films do feel like ‘moving photography,’ and then some of the
photographs – like the series Five Revolutionary Seconds – people say are
really filmic. The crossover is in both: the photography feels sometimes very
filmic, and the films sometimes feel based very much around photography -
and then painting as well. So they kind of all blend in together.

HPJ: How do you think about narrative in your work, especially in this relation
to film and the cinema?

STW: I guess the Five Revolutionary Seconds series is the most what seems
like narrative-based work, although I feel that when you look at them you’re
constructing your own narrative, rather than one that’s being dictated to you.
So it’s always left very open-ended. You come away with a narrative the way
you want to construct it; they’re like dysfunctional narratives. They’re ones that
you try to piece together, but they can’t really work. And then there’s a
soundtrack to them, and that complicates them in a way. Whatever story
you’ve built up you hear very differently through the audio. You hear the
beginning of the photo session and then you go through this whole process
of just hearing people read through these quite mundane conversations. [. . .]
Film influences my work a lot. I spend a lot of time with film, and I spend
a lot of time watching movies: everything from trashy rubbish to Casavetes to
Derek Jarman and people like that. But I mostly enjoy the experience of the
cinema: the darkness, the kind of entering into the magical mystery tour of
someone’s mind. So that has influenced me, but I that influences my work
along with a million other things. Film is the most obvious thing because it is
a moving image.

HPJ: In Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank (1993) and other works, you address
identity, representations of identities, especially representations in art history . . .

STW: Well, I never really studied [art history] so much at school, but I spent
a lot of time in that “post-school” or “pre-established artist” era just wandering
a lot into the public galleries and museums and spending a lot of time with art
history, with paintings, and – not studying them – but absorbing everything. I
remember thinking that things that were relevant in the sixteenth century are
relevant today, how they has crossed through time effortlessly and still are as
much a part of our life as they were then. So I think that’s one of the things I’ve
been working with: how things represented then have the same impact or the
same meaning now. And they’re quite fundamental things: who we are and how
we work through our identity, how we perceive ourselves in the world. Art history
has that inasmuch as it’s an established language, I suppose. From that point,
I can then add my dimension. And from that point, I can then investigate who I
am in amongst all of it.

It's true that there is an equalizing of female sexuality in my work,
and it’s something that’s quite important to me but something that I don’t set
out to do. It seems to be a very natural process for me to immediately balance
everything. Most of my work is male nudes or men in certain positions rather
than women, and it’s trying to readdress that balance. And then I throw myself
in as the balance to it, with the self-portraits.

HPJ: And the use of celebrities in your work, do you think about that in a similar
way to the art historical references?

STW: I think so, because a lot of our art history is based on cultural figures
at the time, iconic figures of the time. We look upon celebrity as a relatively
new thing, but if you go through it historically it’s always there, in a different
form, perhaps: royals and whathaveyou. And now, it’s much more. . . almost
democratic. And I try to incorporate it as much in my work as everything else
that I feel that is so predominately part of our culture. [Issues of celebrity]
come in every so often, but it’s the thing that people tend to focus upon in my
work. It’s funny how people immediately pick up on that aspect of it in the
same way that they’ll pick up on headlines and whatever’s on the cover of
"People" magazine. There’s a similar kind of process going on. It makes me
love when people say, “Oh yeah, she’s the one who just uses celebrities in her
work.” And I think, “Well, look a little further.” The way I’ve used it in my work
is in very particular situations. When I made, for instance, the Pieta (2001) with
Robert Downy Jr., it was the time when he was in the press as a someone who
had destroyed himself and was throwing away his last chance, and there he
was on the brink of the end. We were collaborating on another piece then,
a music video. I had just come through what I had been through with my
illness, and it seemed like a natural progress to make that work. It seemed
right for that time and right for what I was making the piece for. And I don’t
intend to be the “artist who worked with Robert Downy Jr.” But, I don’t let it
bother me because if I do, I feel it takes away a big element of my work which
is something that people love to hate, and it needs to be addressed. I now
almost go out of my way to try to make it quite important. I’m doing at the
moment a series of portraits of actors crying, and I’m using really big, powerful
actors. And I know where the critics are gonna come at me with this, but I feel
like what I’m trying to do with them is to take these people who represent power,
who represent masculinity, or represent this whole big dominating media of our
life and break it down and make them vulnerable. So I photographed Paul
Newman crying and Ed Harris crying. I’m taking them away from that billboard
and making them become more vulnerable, more real. If anything I’m
addressing [celebrity] in a harder way than I was before; trying to explode it, a little bit, instead of run away from it because I get attacked for it.

HPJ: Something that really struck me about the new films Ascension and
Strings is a departure from the everyday, the domestic, in your earlier films -
even if your photographs represented dream worlds, fantasies.

STW:
I haven’t really sat down and thought much about it, but hearing you say
it I realize [the differences] more. I realized when I was making them that they’re
entering the darker recesses of the mind rather than the reality of the situation.
I’ve represented something in a much darker, more unsettling way than it was
before. Before, a lot of the emotional stuff was very much up front. Now, I’m sort
of tackling something more visceral, or even phobic. Unsettling is probably the
best way of saying it. Ascension for me is just the most bizarre image. It says
so much without having to be obvious in its statement. You try to explain it, that
there’s a man dancing on a dead body with a pigeon on his head, and it sounds
like this stupid idea. But as you watch, it becomes something else, and the tap
dance becomes a sort of heartbeat, this kind of erratic heartbeat, and the bird is
struggling to stay there. It’s so much of how we feel in our day to day lives trying to struggle to keep a position somewhere. With the guy doing this mad dance on
top, it’s almost his youth; he’s dancing in his youth. And each one is trying to free the other: the bird’s trying to free the man, and the man’s trying to free the man
underneath him, and yet they’re all kind of in it together.

 

 

:: Related Images ::


Five Revolutionary Seconds IX
Sam Taylor-Wood


Sleep
Sam Taylor-Wood


Ascension
Sam Taylor-Wood


Soliloquy 7
Sam Taylor-Wood


Soliloquoy 9
Sam Taylor-Wood