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High Profile

Self Exposure

Malcolm Doney

Sam Taylor-Wood is celebrated for the exquisite but frequently disturbing images she creates. Third Wayspoke to her at the White Cube gallery in London while her latest exhibition, 'Yes I No', was being installed downstairs.

Sam Taylor-Wood

How do you feel on the eve of a big opening?
Definitely not excited. I have probably invited a good couple of hundred people that I know and then there's another however many hundred on top of that and they'll all want to come and say hello. And then I worry about the people who have flown in and I'm not going to get to talk to them. I feel quite a huge sense of responsibility, so I find it actually quite overwhelming.

Do you feel exposed, perhaps?
I feel incredibly exposed, and quite raw actually - I feel like I'm going out without my skin on. You know, when you make your work you're exposing your mind, your soul, your body, and everyone can see what you think and feel - and then they decide whether they like it or not. And most of the time they're really opinionated.
The thing I like most is just making work. It's great to see it up but it's funny, I feel as if I've already left it behind me and I'm looking forward to the next thing.

Is there any sense of a new direction in your latest work, or is there a sense of continuity?
I often feel, when I'm making work, that it's a radical departure and how is this going to sit with the rest of my work, but then it always does, 'cause I guess it's me. But I do sense a shift in direction this time. I mean, this show is much darker than anything I've done before. It's got a more staring-into-the-abyss feeling about it.

Any idea why?
Oh, plenty, but nothing I want to talk about too openly.

Sam Taylor-WoodYour family background was quite disruptive, wasn't it?
Yeah, generally fairly chaotic.

What prompted you to go to art school?
I really went because I was trying to escape my difficult family life. I just wanted to get away, and art was the only thing I felt I was vaguely good at and might have a chance of getting into college to study. It wasn't a driving passion. I was trying to figure out what else I could do, and where my life might go, but I definitely didn't want to be an artist.
The passion really didn't come until I'd left college. Along the way, I think I slowly discovered that what was constantly turning over in my head was something I could actually work with and use, rather than battle against it the whole time. There was also, I think, a kind of realisation that actually art was my home in a sense: the place where I could be who I am without feeling too uncomfortable.

You have said that it took a while before you saw yourself as an artist. Why was that?
I think it was really [a question of] self-confidence. I began a relationship with Jake Chapman after leaving home, when I was 17, and we were together until I was 25; and he was incredibly intelligent and talented as a draughtsman and painter. I think I felt defeatist when I was with him and I kind of let him wear the mantle of artist - I never felt I would in any way touch what he could achieve. And then when we broke up I think that gave me the confidence to pursue my own path.

What is it about being an artist that is so important, that is something to aspire to?
Well, I think it's unique in the sense that you put your ideas out into the world and they are untainted by any - you know, you don't have to run them past anyone for approval, and you're not promoting a product.

You opted for photography and film quite early on…
Well, actually I studied sculpture at college and really it wasn't until I'd finished my degree that I picked up a camera and decided that that was my medium, that was where my voice lay. And then I had to teach myself how to use it, and figure out what I was going to do.

Some of your early stuff, like the 1993 photographs Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank and Slut, were quite in-your-face. Was that a conscious thing?
I think that was my early angry phase - get it out of my system while I had the energy. Fuck… was a sort of punk reworking of [Botticelli's] Venus, really. It was about sort of trying to form an identity, to find out who I am and where I can place myself. Which is usually why I've made self-portraits: to try to figure out where I am in the world and to use that to sort of self-reflect.

So, where were you in 1993?
I was working at a nightclub, which was a really nasty, aggressive place; and I was working all hours and was quite out of my mind with tiredness. It was a fight-for-survival sort of environment, so I had to be overprotective and aggressive - which isn't really my nature.

Sam Taylor-WoodWould it be fair to say that you also began to develop a sort of narrative form quite early on?
Yeah, in a way… I think that a lot of the panoramic photographs [such as the 'Five Revolutionary Seconds' series of 1995-2000] felt like dysfunctional narratives - you felt like you were reading something and making sense of it, but actually there was not much sense to be made. I think they gave the illusion of narrative.

Does it bother you that some people have talked of them as allegories?
Well, I don't mind - I felt they were as open-ended as they could be, so that people could make up their own minds. People make their own interpretations of anything anyway and I think the more open-ended I could leave them, the better.

They seem to feature often rather unhappy people in rather opulent surroundings. What was going on there?

Well, I think with a lot of them I was trying to create an environment where all these people were in the same room but none of them were really interacting, or very few of them. There was a sense of isolation and almost of loneliness in a crowded room where you have everything, I suppose. That sense of being sort of at a loss in that environment and standing alone.

That failure to interact or to communicate seems to be a feature of your work. Is it something you find to be part of the human condition?
I don't know whether it's part of our condition, but it's certainly something I keep coming back to, and not consciously either. I think it's something I struggle with in one sense. I think there's an element of frustration. But in my new piece Sigh there's also an ease with it, there's an ease in not having a voice. It's not a completely uncomfortable place to be. It's just a place to be.

Sigh is the film where the musicians are not playing any instruments?
Exactly. We spent a year working on that piece with the BBC [Concert] Orchestra, and then filmed it over a week. They all had to learn how to play a new piece of music on an invisible instrument. They couldn't quite figure out why the hell they were doing it, or what it was going to be for, but when it came to filming I think it worked. It's all in the preparation.

You've mentioned the melancholic element in your new show. I remember you saying about Brontosaurus, your 1995 video of a naked man dancing to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, that it was an attempt at happiness that went wrong and you concluded that happiness was not in your repertoire.
Yeah, I've tried a couple of times. The landscapes in the new show were a joyous celebration of nature at one point - and now they're about otherworldliness and despair and all sorts of other things. So… You can't hide the forces that govern you sometimes.

It's interesting that that is something that provokes you or motivates you and yet in many ways you come across as a cheerful and positive person.
Yeah, no, this is the thing. I am generally sort of happy-go-lucky - every problem, you know, can be overcome and… I do live like that. But I think my inner turbulence is what goes into my work - which probably allows me to live as a happy, positive person. I think that ability to almost compartmentalise my feelings and put that [negative] part of myself into my work probably stops it from becoming part of my outlook on life. In one way, maybe. Yep… Looks are deceptive.

Sam Taylor-Wood

You've had a bit of a rough ride. Your father abandoned you when you were nine, and your mother did the same when you were 15; and then you had two bouts of cancer, at the ages of 29 and 33. Did you ever despair?
Yeah, I did - I think I'd be superhuman if there weren't times I despaired - but I never lost the belief that I was going to be OK. I really did have a kind of inner core of strength that told me that I just had to get through this phase of life. I think the toughening-up in childhood gave me a resilience that helped me fight through the cancer, but I think I also had a belief that there was no way I could succumb to it because I had a child and I just thought, 'It's not an option.' There were a lot of external factors - the cancer was caught relatively early and I responded well to treatment and so on - but internally I just had to remain positive.

Did you have any other, perhaps spiritual, resources?
Oh, definitely. I mean, my mum is a very spiritual person and I grew up in a spiritual (albeit confused) house - I mean, one minute she was heavily into Christianity, the next week we'd be Buddhists - we belonged to a Hare Krishna cult at one point. So, we covered quite a few religions in my childhood.

I remember a marvellous description you once gave of the altar your mum had at home.
Yeah, it had praying hands from the cover of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a green marble Buddha with rosary beads round it, a poster of a blue baby Krishna and a crucifix.
I was always surrounded by psychics and devotees of this, that or the other, so I always had people with very strong beliefs around me - though it was quite a broad spectrum of gods they were following. Everyone at school would say 'I'm a Catholic' or 'I'm a Christian' or whatever, and they'd say: 'What are you?' I asked my mum and she went: 'Hindu.' So, then I was even more confused.
It left me with a sense of feeling spiritual but not attached necessarily to any one particular religious construct, you know? I do a lot of yoga and meditation now and chant in Sanskrit, and sort of feel it within myself rather than looking for it elsewhere. I'll still go and sit quietly in a church and be peaceful, so I've still got that broad spectrum in one sense. I think that my upbringing really did give me a sense of belief in something, whatever it might be.

You did have a brush with conventional Christianity at one stage, didn't you?
Oh yeah, no, I went to church a lot, when I was a teenager probably. I made a decision that this was what I was going to be, you know? And then I was confirmed and everything - and I had both my children christened. So, yeah, it was all there.

You use a lot of religious references in your work. Does that come from the art-historical trail or is it part of your own spiritual journey?
I think it's a combination of both. You know, our art history is pretty much based on religion and theatre, and I grew up looking at those paintings and was seduced by a lot of the imagery and the stories. It's a powerful set of rules, almost, for making images.

You've used some very specifically religious images. I'm thinking of Bound Ram [2001], for example, which seems to refer to Francisco de Zurbaràn's Bound Lamb [c1635-40].
Yes. I was in Morocco shortly after recovering from the chemotherapy, and I saw this ram about to be slaughtered and I looked at it and thought, 'I know how you feel.' Which I guess is what I do: it's that moment of recognition of something that you're feeling and thinking in the same moment.
When I took that photograph, I didn't think: 'This is a Zurbaràn sort of picture.' I don't think I used it for a couple of years, but then I looked back on it and thought: Well, it reflects that moment - and it's very much like that painting, which has the same sense of vulnerability, I guess. I had that library of art history sort of ticking away in my mind.

Sam Taylor-WoodSome people would say that using an image like that, which carries an enormous amount of freight, is a cheap way to get a bit of resonance without -
I don't think so. I think it's basically a - 'language' is really the right word - which artists have used for centuries. You know, you're referring to (in that instance) Christianity, to pain, to mortality, to vulnerability. It's a way of contextualising the world as we see it today, whilst reintroducing imagery that is as relevant today as it was then, I think.

Is that because there is an enduring truth in these old tales that we tell each other again and again?
It's not necessarily a truth so much as - What that painting showed was a moment of frailty, vulnerability and inevitability, and I think those three things are sort of about what it is to be thinking, feeling people.
In the same way, something like the [2001] film Still Life, [which shows a bowl of fruit in accelerated decay,] which looks quite classical and art-historical, is as much about our mortality today as [a still life] probably was a couple of hundred years ago, just with different technology and a different way of projecting that story.

Is it for the same reason that you so often use celebrities in your work: because they come with a ready-made set of meanings?
Yeah. And it's a fascination with power and vulnerability as well. We're looking at recognisable icons and images of our time and we all love to look at [these] people and see what they're up to, but it's because we want to see them as real people. Look, they do that as well!

What was the thinking behind your 2001 Pietà , where you held the actor Robert Downey Jnr in your lap?
That was absolutely spontaneous. I had filmed him for an Elton John video I had been asked to do, and at the end of it we had some film left. I'd been to St Peter's and seen [Michelangelo's] Pietà there and it was fresh in my mind, and for some reason I said, 'Let's do that!' There was nothing preplanned about it. So, that's what we did and it had such a poignancy, I could tell in the moment of making it that it was going to be something special. Because his bravado [as an actor] just had to sort of slip away and he became this heavy man in my arms, really, and as vulnerable as vulnerable could be.
In the same way, the film of [David] Beckham sleeping was about, you know, probably the most powerful male icon of that time just being sort of vulnerable, and trying to humanise [him] in a way.

Sam Taylor-WoodYou put yourself in your work in a very particular way and make yourself vulnerable, especially with the self-portraits. Was that a deliberate decision?
I've always done self-portraits, and for the past few years it's been a lot about physical challenge. You know, the 'Suspended' series [of photographs] was incredibly arduous and painful, but gave the impression of total ease and painlessness and freedom. I think that's sort of what we were talking about earlier: projecting a positive, happy-go-lucky outlook but internally challenged. I think everything I'd done before was a lot more about emotional challenge and I was now adding that physical dimension as well, contorting the body a bit more.

There is one self-portrait that seems especially important to you, Self Portrait as a Tree [2000]. Is that a stand-out piece for you?
Yes, it is. I was probably about three months into a six- month course of chemotherapy and I was staying with my in-laws in Yorkshire and my mother-in-law said, 'Come and look at the sky! It's incredible.' And it was, just sort of dark, dark, dark, and then in the field behind was this tree that was just golden, lit by this shard of light coming through the darkness.
I took the photograph thinking, 'Wow! That's quite special,' but I didn't look at it for another six months, and then I was going back over the photographs I'd taken and I saw that one and I just thought, 'That's sort of me at that time, really.' I was feeling like the world was caving in upon me and everything was bleak and there was this moment of light. It was about holding on to hope in the darkest possible times.

You said once that you had no idea where you might find redemption but you hoped you would. What does it look like to you?
I don't know. It's a gap in a hedge, a break in the clouds, a beam of light. It's those moments of clarity and space when you can just sort of breathe in peace.

Have you ever found it?
Yeah. No. Sometimes.

And where have you found it?
I don't know. I'm not about the great big things. It's little moments - running in the park in the morning and looking across the expanse of grass and the sky is great and the clouds are beautifully lit and no one can call me and I'm slightly on my own with nature, I guess. In that moment, you know, I take a big breath and it's all calm. Or it's the obvious, it's when you're with your children and you just go: 'Oh! Everything's fine.'