Public View: Adventures in contemporary art No 9: A date with an artist

Is it an artificial scene contrived by the artist? A group of vain friends? The aftermath of a suicide?
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The Independent Culture
I sit down on the only free seat in the gallery. It faces a photograph - about eight metres long and one metre tall - stretching almost the entire length of the wall. The picture - taken by Sam Taylor-Wood - shows the whole interior of a loft-style apartment. She uses a camera which revolves through 360 degrees in the five seconds its shutter remains open.

My eye pans from left to right, picking out the figures that punctuate the wide space ... The blur of a white-dressed woman dancing on light-coloured floorboards ... A man smoking, his jacket draped over the shoulders of his otherwise bare torso ... A large woman in a low-cut dress, seated, staring straight at the camera ... A group of three figures clustered around a piano, one of them lying on the floor in high-heeled leather boots, semi-naked, draped with a feather boa ... A seated man, staring at the ceiling, bored out of his skull ... The dancer is responding to the piano, presumably. Otherwise, there's no obvious link between the figures. Each seems isolated in his or her own space.

I get up and approach the image. The spacious apartment contains a desultory collection of books, family snapshots featuring a man and his male friends, a large number of thick white candles on tall curved candlesticks, a single Picasso poster, white orchids, and green pot plants. The bulky woman with the level stare dominates. But what does she dominate? An artificial scene contrived by the artist? A group of sophisticated, vain friends? The aftermath of a suicide? Just another Sunday afternoon's ennui?

Small speakers are mounted above either end of the photograph, so I can hear the tinkling of the piano and clipped exchanges between artist and the cast. The soundtrack makes me realise I've seen this picture before. Or rather, I've seen a short TV programme about its making: Date With an Artist. Sam Taylor-Wood's patron was not the regal-looking woman in the middle of the shot, but the man in the background leaning on the piano, neatly dressed in shirt and tie, with a jacket folded over his arm ...

At home, I play the BBC video I've borrowed. The flat in the photo belongs to the man leaning on the piano who is chief steward on a major airline. The cast - except for the patron himself and his piano-playing friend - has been assembled by the artist. I play the video until I feel I know the photograph:

"Pleased to meet you," says the artist.

Patron: "It's important to me that I'm portrayed as who I really am. And what I'm really about." The woman in white dances.

"Have you got your uniform here?" asks the artist.

Patron: "I'm odd about wearing my uniform here, because this isn't my uniform environment." In the kitchen area stands a man, naked from the waist up, insouciantly smoking.

Artist: "Go and put your uniform on."

Patron: "One of the things I didn't want to do was wear my uniform in the shot, because it isn't really who I am in here." The man, seated cross- legged in the foreground, dressed in a stylish grey suit and a white shirt, looks toward the ceiling and - exasperated, perhaps - scratches his neck.

Artist: "I know you're quite reluctant to wear it. And you probably want to be more relaxed in your home environment ... but - Tough!"

Patron (to film crew): "She's going to see how it looks and then decide if she wants me to change into something else. Something more ... Well, I think ... more me." In front of the piano a Tonka truck points towards the figure wearing kinky black boots and fluffy red-and-black feathers, while at the other side of the room the dancer screams, "STOP IGNORING ME!"

Artist (as the shutter closes): "Perfect!"

Patron (on seeing the printed photograph): "I still don't like myself in my uniform ..." The queenly figure with her courtiers around her stares imperiously at the camera: "Well, I like myself in my uniform, but not in here ..." The piano player tinkles on, inscrutably. "I suppose I'll harp on about that one for ever, won't I?"

Sam Taylor-Wood, Turner Prize 1998, Tate, SWI (0171 887 8008), to 10 January.

'Personal Delivery', Duncan McLaren's book about contemporary art, is out now from Quartet (pounds 12).