Sam Taylor-Wood, 32, is a princess charming of the English art scene. Ubiquitous on the social circuit and in fashion magazines, omnipresent in museums and art galleries, in her work she’s what a stylist is to a fashion shoot: one who brings together the right hair, clothes, and attitude, smoothly coordinating people, places, money, and machinery.
Taylor-Wood likes to render moments when our inner lives leak out in public. She sometimes electrifies the space between our love and fear of social life. In her double debut at Marks, however, she falters. She confesses to “living a totally aspirational life,” but here aspiration gets the best of her. She has become what she beheld: a belle of the new haut monde. But instead of probing this sect, she’s dazzled by it.
The photographic segment of the exhibition detracts from the video part and makes me think she doesn’t know quite what she’s doing. Each Soliloquy (as the photos are pretentiously called) repeats a formula. An oversized portrait, inspired by a painting, is set atop a predella, in this case a 360-degree panorama. A naked woman poses as Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, gazing into a foggy mirror; below we see a disconnected office orgy. A naked man echoing Mantegna’s dead Christ hovers over an empty lawn. The one of Sue Tilley, Lucian Freud’s famously hefty model, positioned above several dwarfs, reduces Taylor-Wood to cheeky name-dropping.
Her strength is the florid, luxurious way she portrays a very particular (and, to me, practically unknowable) strata of English social life: the somewhat privileged, vaguely wicked, sybaritic existence of the London bohemian. She’s an illustrator of the small but rather extraordinary qualities of being an upwardly mobile English person. But the photographs are contrived. Just because the bottom of the pictures might represent the character’s id doesn’t mean these things are any better than highbrow perfume ads.
If you’re familiar with this milieu, however, or prone to party anxiety, her ambitious video, Third Party, may set the hairs on the back of your neck on end. It has no metaphysic, no deeper meaning, so to describe it is to know it. Seven variously sized projected images encircle the darkened gallery, and limn a small crowd of people talking, clinking glasses, being together. Standing in the middle of the room places you at the center of a party that’s winding down. Filmed in a continuous 10-minute take, Third Party uses six cameras that are stationary, and a seventh that follows the action.
The largest image is of ’60s icon and party goddess Marianne Faithfull, who majestically surveys the scene from a leather club chair. Another is a still life of an ashtray, wineglasses, and beer cans—the unofficial logo of current artistic life in Britain. In another we see a lissome girl dancing alone. At the opening, people kept saying, “Oh, that’s Pauline, who works at Sadie’s. She’s Gary’s muse,” and I found myself feeling out of it the way I sometimes do at art parties in London, thinking, “Gary’s muse?”
Many say Third Party is Faithfull’s story: mythic symbol of excess, now triumphant. I think the primary narrative unfolds across the room, between three characters. The first is one of those semistylish, slightly puffy, sort of smarmy, well-bred English charmers. The sort you might approach and pour your ideas out to, after which he might deign to say, “Do you think so?”
He strikes up a flirtation with a not-quite-young woman wearing a low-cut black dress in the adjoining image. After a moment he reaches into her frame to light her cigarette. It’s seductive and erotic. You look around the room, thinking, “Did anyone see what I just saw?” Faithfull has, but so has an intense-looking bearded guy on a nearby couch, who stares at the would-be couple. When I first walked in, I unconsciously thought he seemed creepy and out of place. Then he does something that endears him to us. He looks at his watch, but as he does, he fingers a wedding band. “Oh-oh,” I thought, and turned around and, sure enough, the female flirt is wearing the same ring.
Taylor-Wood says she thinks the audience will, like her, identify with the all-knowing, all-seeing, been-there-done-that Faithfull. Would that we were all so secure. Those who have felt inept in public, however, might also identify with the isolated bearded guy. He doesn’t fit in here and he knows it. After a few torturous minutes, he gets up, crosses the room, and stands too near the dancing muse, who ignores him. Faux pas mount, slights accrue. He returns to his roost on the couch. Now he’s seething.
Snippets of dialogue drift tantalizingly in and out of audibility. Suddenly I caught the duo uttering the word sex several times. I shot a look over to the bearded guy who has to do something before he disintegrates from anger and humiliation. He puts on his coat, then sits back down, another blunder that says, “I want to leave but I can’t.” He gets up, walks over to the couple, and brusquely says something to the woman. After an I-don’t-give-a-shit glance, she responds with the words of someone who’s content to someone who’s not: “Five minutes.” Shattered, chagrined, powerless, he slinks back to his solitary perch. The rake looks over to the bearded bloke, who is now glaring, muttering to himself. The woman picks up the flirtation. Faithfull contemplates. The muse dances on, and that’s where it ends, only to begin anew.
Taylor-Wood captures it all; everything is high production and visual seduction. Lacking is a certain depth, discomfiture, critical distance, or imagination. She wants to deal with deeper social structures, but she’s enraptured by appearances. As with Flaubert’s characters, extreme states of being lurk just beneath the surface of her situations. She needs to reach for them.