The British artist Sam Taylor-Wood works in photography and film and video installations in complex, choreographed juxtapositions. She often uses momentary glimpses of the reactions and outbursts of individuals who have been isolated from the world around them and from contact with others.
In her works she references opera, avant-garde film, Method acting, documentary photography, and pop stars, combining a cinematic sensibility and technique with the distinctive qualities of the photograph. Among Taylor-Wood's early photographs is a self-portrait from 1983. Adopting a classical contrapposto stance, partly naked (with her trousers round her ankles), partly protected (by sunglasses), and with a confrontational attitude (the message on her T-shirt is Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank – also the title of the image), she embodies exposed vulnerability and ironic distance.
This in-your-face approach places her in the wave of Young British Artists (YBA) which swept into the art world in the early 1990s. In the same decade photography made its breakthrough as an artistic expression, and with the digital revolution artists had some inviting technology in their hands. They quickly went from using simple screens and projectors to experimenting with complex, multichannel projections, multimedia installations, and sculptural film objects.
Taylor-Wood was among the first to utilise the new technical possibilities in the form of two or more videos playing simultaneously, often projected onto opposing walls of the gallery. The viewer is caught in the crossfire of the psychological dramas being played out, as in Sustaining the Crisis (1997). On one screen a beautiful, half-naked woman wanders down a heavily trafficated street, while on an opposing screen a young man seems to be struggling with personal dilemmas, fluctuating between despair, lust, and general anxiety. The isolation of the two figures from each other is expressed both metaphorically and literally.
Taken as a group, Taylor-Wood's video works might be considered fleeting portraits of young, restless, urban individuals. She combines living and frozen images, often of bodies placed in middle-class interiors and without any obvious narrative. She creates an oppressive atmosphere in which underlying feelings are constantly threatening to break the surface. The figures seem both sophisticated and ordinary – beautiful, vacuous, and lonely in their desires, fears, and hysteria. Taylor-Wood combines professional and amateur actors in her videos, and it can be difficult to discern whether the characters are playing parts, playing themselves, or are just being themselves. Impassively the camera registers the excessive outbursts. In this way Taylor-Wood brings together the emotional gravitas of Method acting and elements of Andy Warhol's static films, filmed in a single take, in which personality becomes performance.
At the same time Taylor-Wood illuminates the exaggerated emotionality of the film world, the invasion of our private lives by our public lives and vice versa, and the crisis of authenticity in a period which has been said to have overseen "the end of the grand narratives". The anxiety exhibited by many of the characters in her works seems to suggest that they have suddenly understood that individuals are prisoners of the circumstances governing their lives. Her videos are not windows on the world, but rather depict inner conditions, the actual causes of the emotional dramas remaining an open question.