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: http://artforum.com/video/mode=large&id=25377&page_id=0 (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:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_Basket_of_Fruit.jpg (Accessed 12/09/16)

Figure 3 Sam Taylor-Wood, A Little Death, 2002 [35mm film/DVD, duration: 4’] At: https://artforum.com/video/id=25378&mode=large&page_id=14 (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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean-Baptiste-Sim%C3%A9on_Chardin,_French_-_Still_Life_with_a_Hare_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (Accessed 13/09/16)








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