Exercise 2: Interpreting Video Art

This exercise asks us to watch the video of Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life here: http://samtaylorjohnson.com/moving-image/art/still-life-2001 [accessed 13/03/17]

The main aim of the exercise is to write down our understanding of the piece in 250 words and explain what we think Taylor-Wood wants us to think about or experience from watching this?

There are a few questions we are told to think about:

  • Your initial response after first viewing

It took me a while to realise what the piece was about. Not a lot happens in the first 44 seconds of the 3 min 44 sec video and I fast forwarded a bit, not realising what was going on. Once I realised, I watched it properly and by the time the fruit on the video had completed decayed, I thought it was a bit disgusting.

  • The media and form of the piece

In the Longplayer case study, there is a description of what form means:

The word ‘form’ describes how a piece is put together and can cover a myriad techniques. In visual art you’d traditionally look at colour, composition, perspective, medium, size, title and subject matter – just to begin with! These are all relevant to time-based and performance work too, but you also need to consider other aspects – for example, quality of the media, subject matter, length of piece, use of colour, lighting, positioning of camera, positioning of spectators, performers or objects, use of sound track.

The title of the 2001 piece is Still Life. When you first watch this time-lapse video, it looks like a traditional still life – everything about it looks like a painting at first. The only unusual aspect is the Biro in the foreground. It is filmed on 35mm film, as opposed to digital, which gives it even more of a ‘painting’ type feel, as does the lack of soundtrack. The colours of the table and walls, as well as the basket-like bowl the fruit sits in makes everything look very old fashioned. It seems like there is a lot of natural light as you can see the change in the background as the light changes. The camera is static, adding to the ‘painting’ feel, and none of the props are moved during the video. The style is rather like 17th century Italian artist Caravaggio.

  • Contextual information – what do you think has influenced this piece? Have a
    quick look at some of Taylor-Wood’s other work. Does this piece fit with those? Are there other artists working in a similar way?

Sam Taylor-Wood had colon cancer in 1997 and then breast cancer in 2000. She had a mastectomy, and breast reconstruction. ‘Still Life’ is from 2001 and the description on her website says the following:

The classical still life is updated in this exquisite, simple meditation on mortality and beauty. The addition of a supermarket peach and a Bic pen prompts questions about modern attempts at immortality.
She is asked in this interview whether having cancer had affected her work, and she doesn’t mention ‘Still Life’ or it’s follow-up ‘A Little Death‘ (2002). It is hard to imagine that these two works were not influenced by her experiences. Having cancer must make you think at least a little about your own mortality, and the mastectomy brings up questions about beauty.There is an obvious link between ‘Still Life’ and ‘A Little Death’, and Sam herself says that ‘A Little Death’ takes the idea of ‘Still Life’ one step further. She also says that…

“… after those two works I sort of left the topic alone. I felt like I had achieved what I set out to convey.”

That being said, I don’t see any of her other works obviously fitting in with these, but there are works such as ‘The Last Century‘ which also explore the theme of ‘time’. This video features five people sitting in an old fashioned pub, as motionless as they can be, as they are filmed for 7 minutes. The title suggests that this is a nod to the previous century. Film has been transformed back into a static photograph.

  • How does this piece comment on ‘time’?

There are many elements of time in this work. The obvious one being that the film was taken over a long period of time, and the final piece sped up.

The work begins with a display of fruit that could be considered beautiful, but with the ravages of time, it is reduced to a decayed mass of mould. This could be seen as a metaphor for what happens to the human body.

The interesting thing about this work is the Bic biro, which sits alongside the deteriorating bowl of fruit and doesn’t change at all. Could this be a comment on the way we are filling ourselves full of ‘plastic’ in order to try and slow the ageing process?

Perhaps it signifies how little we leave behind of ourselves when we are gone, and how organic life is really very short. When we are living our lives, time passes slowly, but when looking back at the past, it seems to have flown by all to quickly.

Another thing that stuck out to me is that the first quarter of the video is almost static and, being impatient, the first time I watched it I didn’t want to wait so fast-forwarded to the start of the mould. I wanted already sped-up time to go even faster.

This led to me realising that the fruit is perfect for the first quarter, but once it begins to decay, it continues without pause and it happens very fast. It could be said that this mirrors real life. We are children for the first quarter of our lives, before we become adults and our bodies slowly but surely break down over the remainder of our years. We eventually die and our bodies decompose just like this fruit did.

A final thought is that all natural things follow this cycle of life and death, while the man made elements, which the modern world is now full of, will outlive us all. I think Taylor-Wood’s piece was more about human mortality than an environmental statement, but, whether she meant it to be or not, the presence of the plastic biro in this sped-up video of fruit decomposing is definitely a reflection on the state of the planet. There is so much plastic on the planet now, and while organic matter eventually biodegrades and becomes part of the earth, plastic will just sit there forever. This video shows one tiny chunk of time, but it is a cycle that will repeat itself indefinitely for a thousand years or more.

With all that said, my summary of ‘Still Life’ (2002) is as follows:

Taylor-Woods’ moving image piece ‘Still Life’ is a thought provoking work on life, death, and mortality. The bowl of fruit is, to begin with, a nod to still life paintings of the past. The video is a moving version of the popular 17th century memonto mori pictures, designed to remind the viewer of their mortality (memento mori being Latin for ‘remember you must die’). Closely related are vanitas paintings, which feature items that remind the viewer of the emptiness of earthly pleasures and goods. Is the cheap plastic pen the updated version of these items? A reminder that the material things we desire are meaningless in the grand scheme of things?

As well as this, the presence of the plastic pen symbolises how short and insignificant our lives really are, considering that many objects that have been made by man will outlive us all.

It is hard to imagine that Taylor-Woods’ own experiences with serious illness didn’t have some influence on this work. At the beginning of the clip the fruit is perfectly ripe and surrounded by light. By the end of the sped-up video, all that is left is a decaying mass of what was once organic matter, and even the light surrounding the bowl has turned to darkness.

She describes the work herself as being about mortality and beauty, and the cycle of the fruit mimics the cycle of our own lives. We are born into a world of light and possibility, then, when we become adults, our bodies start breaking down until the darkness eventually overcomes us and we become a similar decomposed mass.

Finally, the piece overall could been seen as a comment about time itself. How, looking back on our lives, it feels like everything was sped-up, just like the video has been.

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