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Sam Taylor-Wood - 'New Work'

Art exhibition at White Cube

by Ramsay Burt

November 2004 -- White Cube, London

In Sam Taylor-Wood's recent film installation, "Strings", a ballet-trained dancer, Ivan Putrov, dances in mid air, suspended by two almost invisible strings attached to a harness around his pelvis while below him four formally dressed musicians play the andante movement from Tchaikovsky's Second String Quartet. The piece presents a strong, simple visual idea that is very immediate and quickly taken in. The film lasts nine and a half minutes. What I suggest kept me watching it was the way it resonated with a wide and rich range of cultural and emotional experience.

"Strings" was filmed in a dark, claustrophobic, classical interior whose high ceiling, Corinthian columns, burgundy carpet, gilt and crystal chandeliers, and gilded stucco mirrors suggests a stately home or gentlemen's club - it is in fact the Crush Bar of the Royal Opera House in Covent Gardens where Putrov is a principal dancer. It was shot with 35mm film in a single take and there is no editing; apart from a zoom at the beginning, the camera remained fixed throughout. The four musicians, in dinner jackets and black bow ties, seemed oblivious of the dancer above them, naked but for black trunks, whose movements seemed to skim over the tops of their heads. Lit strongly from both sides, Putrov's skin was revealed in seductive relief like a saint or Christ figure in a painting by Caravaggio or El Greco while the black-suited musicians merged into the shadows below.

Compositionally the dancer mediated between earth-bound and higher planes, bringing to mind iconic imagery from the European tradition of visual art - angels, the winged god Mercury, Christ ascending or descending, Michelangelo's slaves. This was inevitable given the fact that for a couple of centuries classical ballet shared with painting and sculpture a set of rhetorical gestures and poses which were themselves derived from Greek and Roman sources.

At the start, Putrov pointed in an elegant way towards the first violinist and then slowly turned from (our) left to right to extend a benignly cupped palm over the cellist's head. A little later he ceremoniously scooped some seemingly etheric substance rising from the musicians to bathe his face. In this way, classical dance and classical music might have worked together in transcendent accord, but this was not the case. Putrov sometimes gestured towards the musicians individually or as a group. His movements, which sometimes expressed a balletic sense of line and sometimes resembled swimming under water, lacked the kinds of conventional linkages between dancing and music that audiences for ballet and contemporary dance take for granted. The musicians for their part seemed far away, lost in their music, and thus unaware of the dancer above them.

In some ways the dancer's movements exemplified a slow, steady seriousness that was in keeping with the music's sombre mood, although this was in fact an illusion. Suspended in the harness, Putrov had not been able to make slow controlled movements. Therefore, Taylor-Wood adopted a complex strategy in which the musicians played the music at double speed and the resulting film was screened at half speed with the music at the correct tempo dubbed back on. The effect smoothed out any jerks and wobbles and gave both the dancer's and musicians' movements their ponderous, underwater qualities.

Rather than dancing to the beat of the music or being sensitive to the musical phrasing in the way he performatively phrased his movements, the dancer as he appeared in the final installation seemed as free from the music's structure as he was disconnected from the real time in which the musicians had been playing beneath him. Within the virtual time space of the installation, Putrov was physically and conceptually suspended between dance and music, time and space, giving the piece an uncanny, unworldly quality.

The idea of suspension occurred in another section of Taylor-Wood's exhibition at the White Cube which consisted of five pieces from a series called "Self Portrait Suspended". In these works, Taylor-Wood, dressed only in underwear, was photographed in recumbent poses as if she were floating or levitating in front of a window in a large, empty, white-painted warehouse room (her studio, a short walk from the White Cube). To do this she was suspended by ropes but these were subsequently removed from the photographs using a computer graphics programme. Unlike Putrov who actively moved around in his harness, the poses Taylor-Wood took up seemed relaxed, except in some photographs where tell-tale signs of a certain involuntary strain betray a muscular reaction to discomfort from the now missing bonds that held her.

Even when one relaxes one's voluntary muscles, one's reflexes carry on regardless. If the artist had actually been falling, these reflexes would have been in operation preparing for her landing. This is why one striking photograph, in which she is upside down hanging invisibly from her ankles, does not resemble a diver about to plunge into a pool. The absence of muscular activity was uncanny because it meant that her body functions lacked any sign of habitual interactions with her locatedness. She thus appeared literally detached, other worldly. But the apparent precariousness of this situation stopped this other worldliness from separating her from the spectator, just as her grey singlet, tugged down by gravity in some of the photographs to uncover her stomach made her seem touchingly vulnerable.

Another room in the exhibition showed "Crying Men", twenty-eight photographs of celebrities, mostly performers, expressing that part of the emotional spectrum that tends towards grief, melancholia, sadness, many of them with tears either in their eyes or dribbling down cheeks. In some of these I merely recognized a familiar face and then moved on; in others a hard-faced man seemed to me to have been isolated by his grief. Where the images worked for me, I felt that the emotional experience had rendered Taylor-Wood's subjects vulnerably open so that, through the lens of her camera, they spoke to me and I found myself responding to their performance. The elegiac music from "Strings", installed in an adjacent space, seeped into this gallery, enhancing the mood which the photographs were generating.

One thing the subjects of  "Crying Men" have in common with the dancer in "Strings" is celebrity. They are all 'worth' seeing. The names Laurence Fishburne, Woody Harleson, Paul Newman, or Robin Williams have all been used by film producers at some time to raise money for a film project while their pictures have been used by editors of publications like Hello to sell magazines. "Crying Men" would not have had the same resonance if Taylor-Wood had photographed her friends and family, or even complete strangers. In either case a personal element would have been introduced into the work. The celebrity of the "Crying Men", in comparison, gave the work a certain normality and neutrality. Similarly Ivan Putrov is 'worth' looking at, even if like me you never go to see the Royal Ballet or hadn't heard of him before.

What made "Strings" worth seeing was the way that its relatively simple presentation of a man dancing above a string quartet could be taken in at a glance but resonated on so many different levels. To use the work's central trope, the experience of watching " Strings" was curiously touching because of the uncanny way it suspended the viewer between such rich veins of cultural, emotional, and physical experience. The subjects in all these works were suspended both physically and emotionally. Thus in "Self Portrait Suspended", Taylor-Wood was vulnerably and revealingly suspended because her body did not respond to its physical location. The "Crying Men" were suspended between detachment and vulnerable defencelessness by the invisible ropes of the performers' unknown emotional triggers. In "Strings", the dancer was literally suspended from almost imperceptible strings while another type of string resonated musically to triggers affective experience. Furthermore the dancer and musicians were suspended between the actual time of their physical performance and the virtual time of the film's faster projection. By cleverly harnessing the contemporary value of celebrity with the cultural capital of traditional high art, "Strings" created a space in which an intimacy that touched on the singular and the emotional was unexpectedly but convincingly validated.

To visit White Cube's website, click here.

Exhibition dates for 'New Work' are 10/29/04 to 12/4/04.  White Cube is located at 48 Hoxton Square , London N1 6PB and is open 10am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday.

Edited by Holly Messitt.

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