Exercise 2: Interpreting video art

I found Sam Taylor-Wood's Still Life unappealing when I first started watching the time lapse video of rotting fruit. The fruit sits on a plate on a table against a dull, neutral background and gradually does what any living thing does when it dies: it decays. The camera stays in a fixed position during the shoot, meaning that the only movement to register in the frame is that of the subject itself.

Surprisingly, it does move. And this is what sets it apart from the "still life" tradition of painting that Taylor-Wood references both in the way she presents the fruit and in the title she gives the work. While still life paintings often hint symbolically and statically at decay, the artist uses time and technology to show the process at work. A plastic pen lying on the table belongs to the contemporary world and does not change during the video: its material has no life in it, or on it (as far as we can see). 

The movement in the video also suggests that even in the face of death there is "still life" present: spores and insects live on the host and change its shape while consuming it. There are ebbs and flows of mini "circles of life" taking place on and within the dead fruit. 

The key to seeing all this is the ability to play with time photographically, which allows us to remain attentive through a process for which we wouldn't usually have the patience or interest. Taylor-Wood might be saying to us, "Slow down: you're missing a lot of life." 

The same attentiveness to the passing of time and uncomfortable detail is present in a number of Taylor-Wood's other video works, such as A Little Death (2002; a time-lapse of a rotting rabbit's corpse), Pieta (2001; a real-time observation of a couple mirroring the pose of Michelangelo's sculpture), and Hysteria (1997; a video of a woman who seems to move gradually from joyous laughter to hysterics... and back again?).

The subject matter of Taylor-Wood's Still Life (and other works) does not always appeal to me but I can appreciate the way she uses time in her pieces. 

Exercise 4: Looking at context

Looking at Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece.  

Puzzlement; uncertainty; grasping at meaning

Do you have an emotional response to it? 

No, no particular emotional response. It leaves me unmoved. 

What do you think it's about? 

It's static, frozen artificially in time (won't rot like any natural dead thing would). The shark looks like it's alive and swimming, but it's not. It looks as though it is threatening, but it is not.  Is it a caricature of a shark or of life? Is it about the appearance of life in death? The persistence of memory? It's hard to say with any certainty. 

 What do you think about the title? 

The title is ambiguous: the impossibility of whose death -- the thinker's or someone being thought of? Is the title even related to the piece or is it a joke on the viewer?


Looking at Edwaert Collier's Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes,' 1696

 Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece.  

Visually rich; lots to explore; engages the mind

 Do you have an emotional response to it? 

There is some immediate comfort in the familiarity, but the piece feels old-fashioned and tired.

 What do you think it's about?

This was a fairly common type of painting, generally a lesson about the certainty of death and how that knowledge should inspire us to sober reflection and living.

 What do you think about the title?

The title is bluntly descriptive of the image, but doesn't allude to any deeper meaning. It does make me wonder what Wither's Emblemes was about, though.


Of the two works, Hirst's definitely makes me work harder. With Collier I'm on more familiar ground and have a frame of reference that helps me to interpret it, even if not completely or perfectly. With Hirst, I'm quite lost without a guide to help me understand.