Nothing special

There may be lots of interesting things about Sam Taylor-Wood, but her art isn't one of them. Tom Lubbock visits the retrospective of her work at the Hayward Gallery and finds her glossy still photographs and short films signally devoid of interest
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Oh, it's a curious problem for a critic when an artist seems to have really nothing going for them. I mean, of course, an artist who is also quite famous – otherwise there'd be no call to pay attention at all. Now fame goes strange ways, and one should not exactly be surprised when it sometimes goes to nothing much. But still there's a practical critical problem. How do you say what's wrong?

Normally when art seems bad you know, all the same, what its appeal is. You can see very well why some people – mistakenly – would find it attractive, clever, amusing, daring, moving, powerful, neat, or in some way striking. And you simply have to explain that, in fact, it isn't really attractive, clever etc – or that it is, but only in a worthless or clichéd way. Yes, that's how a negative response normally goes.

But some art isn't like that. It just makes no impact, applies no grip. Its appeal is unaccountable. You can't say what's bad about it because you can't see what's supposed to be good about. It's not that its hook fails to catch in some way. There seems to be no hook. It is art, nul points.

Sam Taylor-Wood is a famous artist at the moment. There's a retrospective of her work from the last decade occupying the entire Hayward Gallery. She's in her mid-thirties and I've read that she's the youngest artist ever to have a whole Hayward exhibition. But to me, what's impressive in this work is the great lack of interest it offers the viewer. It would be exaggerating to say that it is absolutely without reverberation. I can just about imagine what people might get out of it. What I can't imagine is how that could ever be enough.

Taylor-Wood makes still photos and short films, which are always very consciously staged and acted. Her main subject is people, contemporary individuals. There's usually some suggestion, never quite fulfilled, of a story. There's usually a feeling of crisis or of people being in an extreme state. There are often references to old art (somebody's pose recalls The Death of Chatterton, say) and there's a general echoing of traditional genres, like portrait, nude or conversation piece. A sense of the camera's presence, whether prying or being played up to, is usually part of the scene. The films use slow motion, and simultaneous multi-screen projections, and incongruous soundtracks. The photos are very glossy.

Well, that certainly sounds like the basis of a body of work, and – as a study of contemporary passions – promising perhaps. But trying to get down to even a little more detail, I already start to feel inarticulate, reduced to blank descriptions. In one film projection piece, Hysteria, we see in slow motion the face of a woman being incredibly and uncontrollably upset, and it just goes on and on, belting out wave on wave of misery. Another film piece, called Pent Up, has five projections in a row showing five people in various states of distress. One walks down the street. One sits in a room. One goes wild on a patio. Occasionally they say things, and momentarily seem to be in communication with each other between the separate screens.

But having described them, I need to tell you the thrust of these pieces. But they don't have thrusts. They don't have ideas about making their subjects more vivid. The people in them don't come over. And the acting doesn't seem quite right – but I couldn't say if that was deliberate or not.

The most striking element in Taylor-Wood's work is its sense of chic. This is mainly in the still photos, for example the series called Five Revolutionary Seconds. These are very wide panoramic pictures of people in rooms, where the image is exposed through a 360 degree revolve, catching a momentary scene of incongruous attitudes and actions, full of narrative hints that don't coalesce. But the mood couldn't be clearer. These scenes all suggest rich bohemia. The people look like models. The furnishing, old or new, is desirable. The message is: hey, our wild lives. And the only thing missing from each of these images is the name or image of a product, and slogan which says something like LIFE IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT. In short, these are free-form adverts, lifestyle statements, a bit of glamour and a bit of an edge, which might come straight from i-D magazine.

But there's something else that makes Taylor-Wood's work like advertising, even when it isn't being conspicuously chic. It is the way its vision is characterless. Adverts have good reason to be characterless. It is important not to distract the viewer from the product or dream that's on offer with the presence of something more interesting. Whatever the idea behind the ad, the view of things must be general, frictionless, with no detail or resonance to detain attention. This is never clearer than when ads try to invoke the weird and the quirky.

It's like that with Taylor-Wood. The ideas may or may not be promising, but they are never amazing, never surprising. The subjects are the sort of instantly recognisable general situations and types that an ad could easily deploy – someone being depressed, someone being very upset, someone being jealous; businessman, boho-lady. There's never anything "in particular" in these pieces. (When they do bizarre, it's an off-the-peg bizarreness.) There's nothing you can point to and say: well, what about that? There's no sense of a mind behind them, imagining or noticing. I don't especially admire the art of Gillian Wearing, with its play of roles and identities and confessions, but it seems a relevant contrast. It's video work with a similar subject-matter. And you need only think of it to realise a level of invention and gripping particularity that utterly eludes Taylor-Wood.

Of course, it's inherently difficult to say precisely what's missing here. There are so many ways in which bland things might not be bland. Probably the vacancy shows most specifically in the art-history references. Here the work proposes a relation to something definite, some old piece of art – and signally does nothing with it. The old work doesn't inform the new, the new doesn't enlighten the old.

The video-projection Pieta shows the artist holding a man across her lap, both looking gracefully vulnerable, both trying to hold a still position for a couple of minutes. The pose of Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's is roughly imitated. But all the reference declares is: classic image of suffering. That's how all the references go. A photo of a man jumping out of a tree looks like an image of Jesus resurrecting. And? And nothing. The reference is supposed to be enough.

So frankly, I'm baffled. Perhaps some people enjoy the lifestyle statements. Perhaps some people like the old Master name-dropping. Perhaps some people don't ask for more. But someone so easy to please hardly needs to visit art galleries.

Sam Taylor-Wood, Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London SE1 (020-7960 5226) to 21 June. £7, conc £5

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