Sam Taylor-Wood: The crying game

Before she was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, she was the BritArt party girl. Now, at 37, she is its acceptable face: a mature artist with an A-list address book and, with her husband, Jay Jopling, a place at the new art establishment's top table. Grown men weep for her. But how will they remember her?
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The Independent Online

In the aftermath and the debris of the sensational Nineties and tabloid-taunting antics of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, The Chapmans and Sarah Lucas, Sam Taylor-Wood stands like a particularly exotic wallflower, smiling, sunny, slim, not young but youthful, surrounded by friends and well-wishers.

She could have sat for Modigliani. The long face, the slim figure, the strong, bony hands echo the left-field sensuality and elongated elegance of his models. There are hints of it in her self-portraits, particularly the eerily balletic Self Portrait Suspended, made after she had filmed and photographed members of the Royal Ballet. This is forgivable narcissism - a dream of swimming in air is hardly the stuff of outrage. Her new series of photographs entitled Crying Men attempts to capture the moment between the real and the unreal, the ersatz and the authentic; by using actors as models, the viewer debates whether their tears (and therefore their emotions) are genuine. If the models were anonymous the question wouldn't arise. It is a subtle challenge and typical of STW's increasing maturity as an artist.

Her days of self-abuse - largely drunken revelry - were brought to an abrupt end by her diagnosis of cancer of the colon in 1997. Four years (and one operation to remove around 18 inches of colon) later she had a mastectomy to remove breast cancer. She was 33. Now, at 37, she lives with the daily reminder of her own mortality. "She really changed after getting cancer," says Janet Street-Porter, a long-time friend of STW and her husband.

"She was a party animal before that. Now she does yoga and acupuncture and all those dreary old therapies. She doesn't want to endanger her body."

Maybe not, but that still didn't stop her from being suspended by ropes from the ceiling of her studio for Self Portrait Suspended by a bondage expert called Master Ropeknot, which left her black and blue for weeks. She is prepared, literally, to suffer for her art.

As an artist who works primarily in photographic and video media, STW embodies the spirit and guiding philosophy of Andy Warhol's Factory project more than most of her contemporaries. This was a time before you needed a sackful of elephant dung, or a chainsaw and a cow's carcass to put together your artwork. The intriguing thing is that while the subject matter of many of her works are profoundly sad, or at least riddled with pathos for the human condition - especially the emotional gulf that separates individuals - STW is, on the surface, at least, an extremely warm and benign presence. One gallery curator I spoke to remarked: "It seems churlish to criticise her work as superficial and celebrity-driven. She is such a nice person."

STW's work leaves fewer scorch marks than that of some contemporaries. It is gently challenging without being confrontational, mischievous without being offensive, unsettling without being disturbing. There are those who say that her work is banal and superficial, and that she herself is nothing more than a celebrity-obsessed, media-based, "BritArt Lite" surface skater. "She's staggeringly derivative," claimed one commentator, anonymous for fear of antagonising STW's husband, the powerful Jay Jopling. Marrying Jopling did no harm at all to her career. An A-list couple, they are much in demand for openings, premieres, lofty, artistic functions.

"They are seen as a power couple, which I think is a bit mean, actually," said a close personal friend. "It's much more complicated than that. Being married to Jay is not always an asset. It can be a liability. She has no time for a lot of the people he has to socialise with."

While Jopling's shadow hovers protectively over her, some feel that she is in a position of privilege that she does not deserve. "She is virtually critic-proof due to her marriage," said an art critic. "And she has almost perfect victim status because of her illness. But she is really an overprivileged, poor, little rich girl."

Certainly, she is the acceptable face of the BritArt Brat Pack. Even her most allegedly shocking images, such as her reworking of The Last Supper with Christ as a topless woman surrounded by socialites, is roguish rather than blasphemous, as was Luis Buñuel's interpretation of the same scene in another context.

Her fondness for actors also feeds into her art which, like acting, is often interpretive. Examples abound of her work that are either intriguing variations on a theme or undisguised homages to the works of others or merely derivative, depending on your point of view.

Henry Wallis's Death of Chatterton (1856) is the source material for Soliloquy 1; the romantic decadence of doomed youth in Wallis's picture supplanted with a rather more contemporary resonance of drugged and wasted stupor. Her film of fruit rotting, Still Life, was tackled more comprehensively by Peter Greenaway in his meditation on death and decay, A Zed and Two Noughts.

The video portrait for the National Portrait Gallery of David Beckham sleeping harks back to Andy Warhol's 1963 eight-hour video movie Sleep, although Warhol chose an anonymous New Yorker, not a household name.

Even the Crying Men exhibit has a precedent; at a recent exhibition of photography at the Hayward Gallery entitled About Face, the Czech photographer Jiri David had a work called No Compassion - a series of nine photographic portraits of world leaders including Blair, Bush, Berlusconi and Arafat depicted in tears. The photographs were real; the tears (the artist's own) were superimposed.

Most revealing are the pictures she makes with herself as the subject; no mere vanity projects but intriguing explorations of the variety of self. From the shocking, early images of her apparently beaten up to the most recent Self Portrait Suspended, in which she combines the iconic image of the actress Carrie-Anne Moss floating in mid-air in The Matrix with Esther Williams in an underwater ballet, STW presents herself in a manner that is beauti-fully uncomfortable. From the available evidence, her strongest suit is her composition, which augurs well for the film project on William Blake that her friend Ray Winstone (one of the Crying Men) has invited her to direct.

"Her ultimate ambition is to make feature films," says a well-wisher. "And she must have in the back of her mind the possibility that she will get cancer again. She is ruthlessly driven."

Born in 1967, STW was brought up by her mother and stepfather, first in south London and then Crowborough, East Sussex, in what was, basically, a hippie commune. "There is a hippie streak in her," says a friend, "though she is in denial about it. It is a mistake to think she is only obsessed with famous people. She tolerates people ... she invites her acupuncturist and her yoga teacher to her parties."

She began her artistic training at North East London Polytechnic, which she hated, and transferred to Goldsmiths, which she merely loathed. Odd jobs followed including a dresser at the Royal Opera House and the manager of Camden Palace nightclub. Finally, she decided to give art a go and, from her small bedsit in a Peabody Trust building, started out with her post-punk statements. Like Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, she has always stood astride the worlds of fashion and art. Her move into film directing would seem logical.

Perhaps she is the natural successor to the late Derek Jarman, who ultimately combined production design, painting, fashion and film-making into one inseparable working process. Of all artistic legacies, it's not a bad one to be associated with.

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