Thursday, February 22, 2007
Sam Taylor-Wood's vanitas
Sam Taylor-Wood, Still Life (video stills), 2001
Still Life is one of the most classical works of contemporary art I know. It inscribes itself in art history with hardly any commentary. This is not just a Still Life. It is a vanitas, a particular type of still life developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Flanders and Netherlands. Its specificity was the showing of the vanity of the worldly things through often subtle signs of elapsing time and decay. Some of the vanitas had obvious references like skulls, but others yet had simply a watch, or a slightly rotting fruit. Sam Taylor-Wood's work is another step in that direction: the image, beautiful as ever in Taylor-Wood's universe, decomposes itself. By the end, nothing is left but a grey amorphous mass.
On closer inspection, one thing distinguishes this picture from its predecessors. The ball-point pen. A cheap, contemporary object. One that doesn't seem to decay. That is not part of the universal, self-disappearing life. Is it here to stay? This nothingness, this ridiculous signature of us?
This is a poor vanitas. We are more accustomed to rich interiors with gold and crystal. But we don't need more: we got the point. And nothing more is necessary. A simple basket, some light. Time. And a cheap pen. Oh, and lest I forget: an extremely good camera, top of the line, to catch this delicate, beautiful insurgence of death.