Research point #2 – Notes on the use of text in art

This article on the Tate website gives an introduction to the use of text and language in art during the twentieth and the early twenty first centuries. I’m taking some notes with a brief record of points to consider for future investigation. The bold characters in the text are mine.

For every point made in the article I jot down my notes after the arrow —>


Main concepts

‘The use of letters and words in artworks is traditionally associated with authorship – the artist’s signature or inscription, often towards bottom of a painting or drawing’. —> question of authorship in contemporary work, what’s the role of individual artistic expression today, is technical skill still important?

‘Works form the early twentieth century where appropriated words, letters and symbols were increasingly incorporated, such as Francis Picabia’s The Fig-Leaf 1922 and Kurt Schwitters’s Mz.299 1922, reflected the emerging avant-garde movements of the time.’  —> use of texts in collage and mixed media artworks in Cubism, Futurism etc.

‘This period also saw an increasing presence of the printed word in the urban landscape and the developing sophistication of marketing and advertising.’ —> connections between use of text in fine art and advancement of popular culture and mass-media, Pop art development

‘Picabia, Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp were all associated with the dada movement and rejected traditional art materials, processes and subjects through the appropriation of found objects, known as ready-mades. …  By the time Duchamp had created Fountain he had already defined ‘the artist’ as someone able to rethink the world and remake meaning through language.’ —>  role of the artist in ready mades (Notes and sources on Marcel DuchampExercise 1 – Fountain by Marcel Duchamp)

‘ … it was Sol LeWitt who first coined the term ‘conceptual art’ in the article Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, 1967. LeWitt, along with the text-based artists Joseph Kosuth, Art & Language, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, represented a fundamental strand in the conceptual art movement. Text and language became a crucial vehicle for artists challenging the notion that an artwork should consist of a physical object.’ —> relationship between conceptual art and use of text and language.

‘Conceptual art represented a shift towards ideas and systems that invited the viewer to engage with an intellectual concept, art became increasingly ephemeral and transient – famously described by Duchamp as the “dematerialisation of the art object”.’ —> connection between conceptual art and installation art.



Artists mentioned on Tate website in connection to text and language in art


Early twentieth century:

Marcel Duchamp Notes and sources on Marcel Duchamp

Francis Picabia

Kurt Schwitters


Conceptual art movement:

Sol Levitt

Joseph Kosuth

Art & Language

Hamish Fulton

Richard Long

Lawrence Weiner

Edward Ruscha

Bruce Nauman

Martin Creed

Mario Merz

Jenny Holzer

Joseph Beuys

Richard Long

Ian Hamilton Finlay

Cy Twombly

John smith

Raymond Pettibon

John Baldessari

Dan Graham

Mel Bochner






Research point – Some notes on installation art

Notes taken on reading the article But is it installation art? by Claire Bishop, published on 1 January 2005 on Tate Etc. issue 3: Spring 2005, accessible at:

The article deals with how the concept of installation art was born and how it developed through the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties and the Nineties till today.

Today  installation art has come to denote almost any arrangement of objects in a closed or open space and being so general seems to have almost lost any meaning.

But in the Sixties the word installation was more specific and described the way in which an exhibition was arranged, whereas the photographic documentation of this arrangement was called an installation shot. So the term had a neutral quality, especially in connection to Minimalism, which drew attention to the space where the exhibition was staged and to the direct engagement between the objects and this space.

Since then, the distinction between installation art and an installation of works of art has become blurred. Both point to a desire to heighten the viewer’s awareness of how objects are positioned (installed) in a space, and of our response to that arrangement. But there are important differences. In installation art the environment in which the objects are installed is also part of the work: the whole situation in its totality claims to be the work of art —> totalising approach. Whereas in an installation of works of art the objects exist as separate entities.

The totalising approach of installation art creates for the viewer an immersive experience. In Kabakov‘s words:

‘The main actor in the total installation, the main centre toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer.’

In the Seventies, the involvement (‘activation‘) of the viewer is seen as an alternative to the passive (‘pacifying‘) effects of mass-media television, mainstream films and magazines.  Interactivity could function as an artistic parallel for political activism.

In the Eighties, by contrast, installation art was more visual and lavish, often characterised by giganticism and excessive use of materials.

The way in which installation art insists upon the viewer’s presence in a space has necessarily led to a number of problems about how it is remembered. You have to make big imaginative leaps if you haven’t actually experienced the work first hand.

In the Nineties, we see its glorification as the institutionally approved artform par excellence, best seen in the spectacular pieces that fill museums such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. Some critics have argued that this trajectory signals the final capitulation of installation art to the culture industry.

But installation art is rarely acquired by museums, which prefer to buy painting, sculpture, photography and even video as forms of safer investments. Instead, installation art is used to create high-impact gestures within huge exhibition spaces: wall-size video/film projections, oversize photographs and overwhelming sculptures. Rather than ‘inducing awareness and provoking thought’, wrote Meyer, this type of art is ‘marshalled to overwhelm and pacify’.

Another increasingly visible aspect of installation art is the artist-curated exhibition (Mike Kelley, John Bock).

Conclusion of the author, Claire Bishop: installation art means many things, the term describes ‘a mode and type of production rather than a movement or strong ideological framework’ (Gillick). It is still characterised by a desire to activate the viewer – as opposed to the passivity of mass-media consumption – and to induce a critical vigilance towards the environments in which we find ourselves. The best installation art is marked by a sense of antagonism towards its environment, a friction with its context that resists organisational pressure and instead exerts its own terms of engagement.

Installation artists mentioned in the Tate article, for further study:


Gabriel Orozco – Allan Kaprow – Claes Oldenburg – Ilya Kabakov – Vito Acconci – Hélio Oiticica – Bruce Nauman – Olafur Eliasson –  Ann Hamilton – Cildo Meireles – Martin Creed – Anish Kapoor – Matthew Barney – Liam Gillick –  Thomas Hirschhorn – Paul McCarthy –  Dominique Gonzales-Foerster – Rirkrit Tiravanija – Christine Hill – Carsten Höller – Jorge Pardo – Michael Lin –  Gregor Schneider – John Block – Mike Kelley – John Bock –

Exercise 3 Gallery visit to MACRO, Rome

For my gallery visit exercise I chose

MACRO – Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Via Nizza 138, Rome

which is currently hosting the exhibition Dall’oggi al domani. 24 ore nell’arte contemporanea (English: From Today to Tomorrow. 24 hours in contemporary art) running from 30 April to 2 October 2016.

The exhibition is named after a work on show by Alighiero Boetti, Dall’oggi al domani (From Today to Tomorrow), 1988, and collects 70 pieces by Italian and international artists around the theme of time.

It is for me a very good opportunity to explore the work of one very influential Italian contemporary artist, Alighiero Boetti, with several pieces on show at Macro. And I am concentrating particularly on the tapestry that gave its name to the exhibition.


Alighiero Boetti (Turin 1940 – Rome 1994)

Dall’oggi al domani (English: From Today to Tomorrow), 1988

Embroidery on canvas, cm 16,5 x 18



Fig. 1

Alighiero Boetti has been a prominent Italian conceptual artist.  In the Sixties he was a member of the art movement Arte Povera which means literally ‘poor art’, an art made with an heterogeneous range of unconventional processes and non traditional ‘everyday’ materials (1). Traditional embroidery was certainly one of his favourite media and he used it for many conceptual pieces, after discovering it during his travels in Afghanistan.

The work at MACRO is to be understood within this context. As he often did, he only conceived the original idea but this tapestry was physically executed by Afghan women embroiderers. As he said: ‘ … that this work is done by me, by you, by Picasso or by Ingres, it does not matter.’ (2). Also the choice of colours and other design decisions were often left to the makers and so many of his works were intentionally created like collaborative art pieces, sometimes of huge dimensions as his Maps which involved hundreds of workers in the making.

The grid of letters on show is one of many other similar works he commissioned, and all of them include short sentences in Italian or word plays he carefully selected. Here is a choice of these tapestries taken from  Archivio Alighiero Boetti.


Fig. 2

Dall’oggi al domani has been probably chosen for the exhibition running at MACRO because its title is connected to time. The letters forming the words are scattered through the grid in what seems a random order creating an anagram, suggesting perhaps the impermanence of time or the casual flow of events. The grid arrangement seems to imply a secret order in things, the colour combination is pleasing and decorative and it makes me think of traditional costumes and of an ancient civilization where time perhaps does not matter. The theme of place and culture is relevant too, obliquely addressed through the patient manual work of Afghan women. So I believe that this piece says something both on time and place.

I think that when looking at a conceptual art work like Dall’oggi al domani it is important to gather some information, otherwise it might seem beautifully shallow and seemingly easy, like a work of good craft.  Context seems paramount here.

On the Tate website I have listened to an interesting video of artist Francesco Clemente who speaks about his friend Boetti and gives some hints that can be helpful to gain a better understanding of his work.



Fig. 3 Still frame


Another important artist now on show at MACRO is Roman Opalka, born in France from Polish parents, who throughout his life was involved with recording the progression of time and his own aging.

Roman Opalka (Abbeville-Saint-Lucien 1931 – Rome 2011)

On his website Opalka himself describes very clearly his rigorous and mathematical method of work (3), which is conceptual in its essence:

The fundamental basis of my work, to which I have dedicated my life, manifests itself in a process of recording a progression that both documents time and also defines it. It began on a single date in 1965, the one on which I undertook my first “Detail”.

Each “Detail” is a part of a greater idea conceived on that date. My work records the progression to infinity, through the first and the last number painted on the canvas.

I inscribe the progression of numbers beginning with one, proceeding to infinity, on canvases of the same size, 77.17 x 53.15 in (196 x 135 cm), in white by hand with a paintbrush. Since 1972 I have been making each canvas’ background about 1% whiter each time. Thus the moment will arrive when I will paint white on white. Since 2008, I have painted in white on a white background, which I call “blanc mérité” (white well earned).

After each work session in my studio, I take a photograph of my face in front of the “Detail” that I have been working on. Each “Detail” is accompanied by a tape recording of my voice saying the numbers out loud as I write them.


MACRO exhibits a good collection of his works, both the canvases and the portraits. In the museum I took a quick photo of the seven self portraits on show.



Fig. 4

Series of seven Détails (English: Details), various dates 1968 onwards

Unique photographic prints, different sizes.


These seven photographic self portraits are only a very small sample of the thousands the artist took in around 40 years of work, from 1968 till his death in 2011, one each at the end of each day of painting, every one of them in black and white.

As I read this information at the exhibition I almost felt sick. I stared at this inscrutable face, who remained as expressionless as humanly possible, whereas his features inevitably aged and changed through the years, his hair progressively thinning and whitening from portrait to portrait. Nothing personal emerges, no emotion is shown, only the passing of time on this face, but it could have been anybody’s face.

Together these images look to me as an immense mind-boggling conceptual ‘memento mori’ mercilessly reiterated for a whole life, a sort of terrible self effacement, as if life had been lived by the artist only to be observed in its passing. I thought about Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life and A Little Death: in those films there was a violent, frightening decay we could see in motion, in these photos everything from the background to the shirt remains unchanged and in all this stillness the only movement is that of time.

Place here seems absent, as if irrelevant, as if only time mattered and all the rest, places, people, their lives were beside the point.

List of illustrations

Figure 1 Boetti, Alighiero,  Dall’oggi al domani (English: From today to tomorrow) ( 1988) [embroidery on canvas] cm 16,5 x 18 Location MACRO Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Roma Image at: (Accessed 26/09/16)

Figure 2 At: (Accessed 26/09/16)

Figure 3

At: (Accessed 26/09/16)

Figure 4 Taken at the MACRO, 3/09/16



(1) (Accessed 26/09/16)

(2) Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, “In quell’artista c’è uno sciamano”, from an interview with Boetti published in Il Messaggero, Rome, 23 March 1977, quoted by Alberto Boatto and Guido Natti (curated by) Alighiero & Boetti (exhibition catalogue), 1984, Ravenna, Edizioni Essegi.

(3) At: (Accessed 27/09/16)

Exercise 2 Developing research skills – Katie Paterson




Katie Paterson (1981) is a multimedia Scottish artist whose works  are mainly concerned with cosmological, geological and ecological themes. For many of her installations, which are conceptual in nature, she does extensive research in cooperation with an extended network of scientists.

On her website I looked at the impressive number of pieces that she has produced in less than 10 years of activity and I have been astounded by her rich inspiration and the poetic strength of her work: everything she does seems simple and powerful at the same time, her ideas forceful and realized with an apparently effortless economy of means.

Vatnajökull (the sound of) was Katie Paterson’s MA graduation piece at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 2007.  A white neon sign bearing the number 7757001122 hung in the gallery on a black background and whoever called it, from whichever phone wherever in the world, was put through to the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland and could listen live to the sounds made by the water melting into the Jökulsárlón lagoon.

The artist describes this piece as ‘A live phone-line to Vatnajökull glacier’ and today we can still listen to a short registration of those sounds on her website. So technically her work lives on as a sound installation with the visual aid of photos of the glacier and an image of that phone number, but I think that at the time it was something different and more intense: who called that number could listen live to the real crackles and noises made by the ice melting, so could acoustically experience what was happening in that remote glacier at that very moment and through those trickles have vivid visual images of the dying glacier.

It also seems to me that that installation needed an active intervention of the public to be fully alive, so in a sense it was a cooperative work and that neon sign was a very real call to awareness, a very physical connection with an urgent problem: who called that number could have a direct experience of what is happening to our world, could not ignore it anymore. Glaciers ARE melting and I’m listening to them.

As mentioned in Creative Arts handbook, this work is truly site-specific: a microphone is placed in that very glacier, that far off place has a very real life of its own and who listens to its sounds has a sort of double place experience, of being in a place and being at the same time in that remote place in Iceland.  (Accessed 23/09/16)


Research point: introductory notes on some artists named in Dean § Millar’s book ‘Place’

This post is a bit frustrating because obviously there would be so much more to explore on each of the following artists. So just some brief notes to put away for future use.


Vitaly Komer (1943) and Alex Melamid  (1945)

A team of two Russian dissident artists, founders of the movement called Sots Art – a version of Soviet pop combined with Conceptual art. Settled in the USA since 1978, they signed their works together until 2004.

In Place they are named for their project The People’s Choice (1993) which investigates aesthetic tastes in a dozen countries around the world coming to the conclusion that the most wanted painting in many of them is a landscape in blue, with mountains, a tree and some people in the foreground. I remember that these popular ‘tastes’ were wittingly mentioned in Grayson Perry’s Ted

An example of work by them with text in it might be the Stalin Monument (2006): in the red light district of The Hague in the Netherlands a bust of Stalin was placed in a phone booth with a paraphernalia of objects arranged around him: a lamp, a red velvet cloth, a fish. It comes natural to think of prostitutes behind a glass wall. On top of the booth the words: Alarm Brand-Politie (eng.: fire police). It was later relocated to the museum area. The first impression is one of estrangement: what does Stalin have to do with this seedy place, why is he there? (Accessed 20/09/16)

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006)

He was a Scottish poet, writer and artist. Little Sparta is a 2 ha Arcadian garden at Dunsyre near Edinburgh which was created since 1966 by the artist and his wife Sue. The garden stays at the core of this artist multi-faceted work and includes poems and aphorisms inscribed on stones, sculptures, objects, garden rooms and installations, reflecting his involvement with poetry, philosophy, history and landscaping. It’s a place for meditation and memory.

Originally a poet, in 1963 he published his first collection of concrete poems – in which words are arranged according to a pattern or shape – and began inscribing them on stone. These poetic objects are then set in the natural environment. All his work has to do with language and place, language becomes physically place on stones and in the landscape, it seems even that these poems need a place to exist.  (Accessed 20/09/16) (Accessed 20/09/16) (Accessed 20/09/16)


Douglas Heubler (1924-1997)

This American conceptual artist used to work in different media, painting, sculpture and especially photography through which he investigated social environments, places and the passage of time in a number of series significantly named Duration and Location. If Location Piece#2 is mainly involved with people’s arbitrary perception of places, in another ambitious series of his, Variable Piece #70 (1971) he started ‘to photographically document the existence of everyone alive’, collecting tens of thousands of people and including sometimes texts, declarations, lists to characterize them. Obviously this was an ongoing project that for its very nature could never be completed. There is a sense of disturbing detachment and perhaps of alienation in this type of desperate artistic enterprise. (Accessed 20/09/16) (Accessed 20/09/16) (Accessed 20/09/16)



Robert Smithson (1938-1973)

A somewhat similar sense of detachment is to be found in the work by the American artist Robert Smithson, A tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967). He too worked in several media, landscape art, sculpture, photography. I feel particularly drawn to his rich series of drawings and collages which very often include texts, like Saint John in the Desert (1961) or A Heap of Language, a pencil drawing of 1966, where words are visually arranged in a heap – perhaps an example of concrete poetry? Definitely another artist I would like to have time to study. (Accessed 21/09/16) (Accessed 21/09/16)


Marine Hugonnier (1969)

With a background in anthropology and philosophy, this French artist now living in London investigates social conditions and perceptions through landscape using photographs, films, like Ariana mentioned in the essay, and sculptures. She is also interested in the relation between written text and images as shown in a collage series started in 2004, Art for Modern Architecture, in which she replaces original newspaper images with abstract blocks of colour based on Ellsworth Kelly’s geometric shapes. In these works on paper the attention seems to be shifted from place to time, and my feeling is that these attractive images, because of their abstract timeless shapes, have the power to make actuality in the newspaper timeless too. (Accessed 21/09/16) (Accessed 21/09/16) (Accessed 21/09/16)


Guy Moreton (1971)

Guy Moreton is a British artist and photographer with a strong interest in cultural history and representation of landscape in relation to philosophy and literature. His photo Wittgenstein’s Cottage (2002-4) included in Dean and Millar’s book Place is part of a collaborative project exhibiting works by him, Alec Finlay and Jeremy Millar and centred around Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical thought on language.

In this project they presented their cooperative works both in text and photography about the site and the remains of the philosopher’s house overlooking Lake Eidsvatnet, a place that for Wittgenstein represented a ‘house for thought’. So even if Moreton’s photo does not directly include text, it is connected to it and is in an interrelated engagement with that place on different levels. (Accessed 21/09/16) (Accessed 21/09/16)



Exercise 1 Exploring ‘place’


I read the text twice and I am now reading it for the third time.

The first time I skimmed through the text trying to understand where it was going, where its ‘place’ was, and to get a general feeling of its language. I found that this introductory chapter is very dense and touches upon many themes, all of them related and each of them redirecting in turn towards new directions.

In my second reading I aimed to extract from it the parts and concepts that most interest me for the time being and that I feel I might want to explore in more depth in the near future.

During my third close reading that I shall commence now I will jot down my temporary notes and understandings as I go again through the text.  I underline that it’s still a temporary reading because the themes are so rich and complex that I may well reconsider them in different ways in some time.


Main questions raised

What is place in relation to space, what’s the meaning of other related words like site, location, territory, land, dwelling, home etc and in which connection they stay to place.

How did the concept of place historically and philosophically evolve.

How place is related to humans and their experiences.

Is there a relationship between place and time and how it is shown.

In which ways artists make use of place in their works and what are their attitudes towards it.

Connections between place and identity.


Notes on reading

First of all I see that the Introduction in this book is called very appropriately entrance: as we read we are entering a place, getting past a threshold. I also see that the chapters are interestingly called rooms, like the rooms of a house that as readers we are going to explore.

So the first pages are my entrance into this book. In what follows, quotations from the text are in italics.

Page 11:  ‘Place can be difficult to locate. One might think that one can spot it somewhere … and yet as one approaches it seems to disappear’

—-> ironically place cannot be placed, what at a first look denotes something physical, place, is difficult to grasp and is ever changing, never set. It keeps shifting, I see a place where others do not see it. What was once an emotional place is no more and is now empty, waiting for new meanings.

Page 12: ‘One might say that ‘place’ is to landscape as ‘identity’ is to portraiture … It is certainly a word that is used to describe our relationship to the world around us’

—-> Very interesting suggestion I think: place has to do with personal identity, landscape has more to do with ways of representing what we see.

Page 13: ‘A landscape is the land transformed, whether through the physical act of inhabitation or enclosure, clearance or cultivation, or through human perception’

—-> landscape depends on man for its existence, it does not exist if is not looked upon or considered by man, as against nature which can be thought as existing in the absence of man.

Page 14: ‘When space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place’ (remark by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1976)

—-> It takes time before a space becomes a place, so time and place are related, within a place there is time, and this connects the exploration of place to that of time. And in place the quality of time is human, charged with memories and emotions, it’s a time felt, not necessarily lived (Henri Bergson’s notion of time, not Einstein’s)

Page 14-15: it is considered how the contemporary meaning of place was born and how it has changed from the past. For Aristotle place was necessary because all that exists and happens does so in a place (there is nothing outside of place). So place had for him part of the meanings of what we now understand by ‘space’. Being place ‘all that there is’, later thinkers identified place with God, and as a matter of fact the Hebrew name for God, Makon, means place. Philo of Alexandria wrote: ‘God Himself is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.’  By the XV century the word space had gradually replaced place whenever it was meant as a limitless extension, and ‘not only was space seen as the more useful concept with which to explore the infinite, but the very things to which place seemed best suited – a sense of belonging, for example – were now considered intellectually irrelevant. The particular had been eclipsed by the universal; space had triumphed over place.’

—-> obviously space was a more useful concept in mathematics and for the development of modern physics, but if it is true that place was in a certain sense demoted to a lower rank and came to identify something hard to pin down and for ever shifting it also meant that place took on new, richer undertones and could now be used by artists as a tool to explore intimate areas of human experience that have much to do with individual identity.

Page 15: ‘There are many places within place, many regions, each with their own identities, dialects and dialectics’

—-> being difficult to circumscribe and denote, the word place has become very vast and can embed and accommodate an infinite variety of human situations: they all can find their ‘place’in it.

Page 16-17: ‘We retain a strong sense of place, even if we find it hard to define with any satisfaction’ 

‘nature is a dull affair , soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessy’  according to the words of XIX century philosopher of science Whitehead.

—-> it seems to me that here, again, as in the debate of Einstein and Bergson in 1922 on the nature of time, we see at work two visions of things that cannot be reconciled but that can coexist without no harm and that are both useful in their own right to investigate different areas of experience. Even if they are antagonistic in many respects, they can offer interesting intellectual food for thought to one another.


Philosophers, writers and thinkers mentioned in the text

In the first part of this text many thinkers are mentioned in connection with place and space. I make a list here as a reminder for my own use:

Saint Augustine (Christian theologian and philosopher, 354 – 430 AD)

Samuel Smiles (English social reformer, 1815 – 1904)

Yi-Fu Tuan (Chinese geographer, 1930)

Henri Bergson (French philosopher, 1859 – 1941)

Thomas Hardy (British writer, 1840 – 1928)

James Joyce (Irish writer, 1882 – 1941)

Archytas of Tarentum (Greek philosopher,  428 – 347 BC)

Aristotle (Greek philosopher,  384 – 322 BC)

Philo of Alexandria (Hellenistic philosopher, 25 BC – 50 AD)

Johannes Philoponus (Christian philosopher, 490 – 570)

Thomas Aquinas (Italian philosopher and theologian, 1225-1274)

Blaise Pascal (French philosopher, 1623 – 1662)

John Locke (English philosopher and physician,  1632 – 1704)

Isaac Newton (English physicist and mathematician, 1642 – 1726/7)

René Descartes (French philosopher,  1596 – 1650)

Gottfried Leibniz (German mathematician and philosopher, 1646 – 1716)

A.N. Whitehead (English mathematician and philosopher, 1861 – 1947)


From page 17 onward the authors start to examine works by artists who express these concepts in different ways, and I am going to concentrate on them in my next post.


Bibliography – Extract from Dean, T., and Millar, J. (2005) Place. London: Thames and Hudson

Exercise 2 – Interpreting video art: Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘Still Life’


Fig. 1


My initial response

Looking at this video was like looking at a still life painting that instead of staying ‘still’ develops in the fourth dimension. The implications are similar: beauty in living things is fragile and short lived and, because of this, poignantly precious and touching. And even if I see it changing before me, it is still a classically composed ‘natura morta’, with the contemporary touch of a Bic pen, which, ironically, is much less appealing but not decaying at all.

I also felt that the product of decay is certainly saddening, but nonetheless beautiful and tender. This bowl of fruit looks exquisite throughout, not only when it’s fresh but also when it is being whittled away to a heap of undistinguished grey froth.


Media and form

I think that the medium of film as it is used here is an expansion of the possibilities of painting and that it has been chosen because it helps to convey and make visible the decay of all living things which was already implicit in European painting still lifes, like for example in the Still Life with a Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio, where all the elements are depicted in a state of early deterioration.

I do not know if Caravaggio would have used this medium had it been available. Certainly time lapse film gives Taylor-Wood the possibility to show the working of time and to choose how much to dilate or compress it according to a very contemporary vision of it.




Fig. 2

Exactly like in the paintings of the old masters, in Sam Taylor-Wood’s film the composition is very pleasing and perfectly balanced and the colours, the background and all the other elements are well considered. Nothing from proportions to the subtle changes of lights seems left to chance from the beginning to the end of the film and every single frame could be seen as a beautiful painting on its own.


I had a look at the other works by the artist and an obvious connection seems to be another film from the same period, A little Death (2002).


Fig. 3

Again the hare is a traditional subject of classical still lifes as in this painting by Pierre Chardin, Still Life  with a Hare (circa 1730), and in fact even the position of the animal is very similar.


Fig. 4

But in this case, in the passage from painting to film, everything changes dramatically: no beauty or delicate decay anymore like in the former film, here death produces all its terrible effects on this dead body and it is almost unbearable in its brutality. No gentle reminder anymore, only a sickening devastation that begins from the entrails and quickly extends to every part in a frenzy of insects that live on death. Only the peach on the left is still untouched at the end but even it will soon decay as we already know.

So in this case the choice of medium does matter a lot: no painting could ever transmit all this horror. If in Still Life the passing of time was  gentle and compassionate, in A Little Death it is horrible and leaves no illusion or hope.


Short interpretation of Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘Still Life’


In Still Life (2001) the artist takes a traditional theme of European art, a basket of fruit, and makes it contemporary by changing the medium from oil painting to film. The subject is the same, the elements of the composition are arranged according to classical standards, and at first sight all in it looks beautiful and pleasing to the eye as in the paintings of the old masters. At the onset only the inclusion of a modern unpretentious plastic pen suggests that things might be different.

But very soon after the film starts playing, time too starts having its deadly effects on all that beauty. The fragility and transiency of everything living, which was only implicit in the fixity of painting, becomes explicit in the film and cannot be ignored anymore: decay is shown in its harsh reality, fruits are not any longer only symbols which remind us gently of our own mortality and become decaying things soon to be only an undistinguished greyish mass. Ironically only the modest plastic pen survives.

If it’s any consolation at all, in the process of deterioration beauty is not lost and fruits wither and shrink with grace and elegance, death has still delicacy. But also this illusion is cruelly lost in the film of 2002, A Little Death, where a dead hare, also traditionally represented in still lifes,  is substituted for the basket of fruits and exposed to the same treatment. The brutality of decomposition is now sickening and unbearable and after this film the artist did not treat the subject again. She had already made her point clear enough.


List of illustrations

Figure 1 Sam Taylor-Wood, Still Life, 2001 [35mm film/DVD, duration: 3’18’] At: (Accessed 12/09/16)

Figure  2 Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, Basket of Fruit (Italian: Canestra di frutta) (ca. 1596) [oil painting] Location Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan At: (Accessed 12/09/16)

Figure 3 Sam Taylor-Wood, A Little Death, 2002 [35mm film/DVD, duration: 4’] At: (Accessed 13/09/16)

Figure 4 Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Still Life with a Hare (French: Nature morte au lièvre) (ca. 1730) [oil painting] Location Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia At:,_French_-_Still_Life_with_a_Hare_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (Accessed 13/09/16)