Why mention any of this in a review of a Sam Taylor-Wood exhibition? What have ballet dancers to do with her art? Quite a lot, actually. They appear in her photographs and film pieces. Their looks attract her. Their movements inspire her. And their rhythm, interestingly, is her rhythm. I should add quickly that I admire Taylor-Wood’s work, and that her show at Baltic, in Gateshead, is an impressive and affecting event. But to understand what is going on in it, we need to consider further the existential plight of the ballet dancer.
It’s a question of gravity. Most of us accept gravity as a fact of life. Ballet dancers have identified it as their principal enemy, and devote their existence to combating it. They starve themselves to weigh less. They totter past you on toes like compass points. They leap in ways that appear to achieve gravitational defiance. Why? Because weightlessness is a divine condition. Because it belongs so obviously in the realm of the gods, not of the mortals. Spotlit on a stage, isolated from the quotidian demands of the heartbeat, out of reach of the basic rhythms of life, the ballet dancer dreams of the divine state of weightlessness. But — and here we get to the nub of their tragedy — the only time humans ever really achieve that state is when they are dead. Thus, ballet, with its insatiable appetite for zero gravity, is the most tragic of all the arts.
All this is pertinent because Sam Taylor-Wood spends a large chunk of her half-a- retrospective at Baltic, containing work from 1997 to today, poised balletically in the air — hovering, floating, soaring.
And because I reckon the underlying subject of most of what is on show here is death.
It is some time since I visited a more melancholy display. The most direct tackling of the subject takes place in two brilliant time-lapse pieces in which first a bowl of fruit, then a dead hare, rot and disintegrate before your eyes, in a speeded-up journey through decay. The parallels with Dutch still-life paintings of the 17th century are thoroughly obvious. But the use of modern film technology is snappy and smart.
So effective are the two still-life pieces that they influence your reading of everything else you encounter. Which is where the ballet comes in. The most intriguing of the newer works show Taylor-Wood herself miraculously suspended in midair while attempting curious poses in space. Stripped to her knickers and top, she is certainly elfin enough to pass for a ballet dancer. But where ballet dancers are in the business of exercising complete control over their movements, Taylor-Wood’s mysterious aerial acrobatics seem to be about abandonment and lack of control. In fact, she appears to be asleep. The curling up and spread-eagling we’re watching are the sorts of nocturnal tosses and turns that would usually be going on under a sheet.
It’s as if some giant yet invisible hand has lifted her from her bed at night and is now toying with her in space. Examining her. Having a good look. Human destiny and Sam Taylor-Wood are having the sort of unequal relationship that King Kong had with Fay Wray.
Of course, sleep and death are blood relatives, one being the ultimate form of the other. It’s a point the display itself makes with a strange piece called Ascension, in which a tap dancer with a white dove on his head seems to be performing his act on a dead body. Most of the images in the show were influenced by old-master examples. So perhaps it was an image like that weird early drawing by Modigliani of a vertical spirit leaving a horizontal corpse that inspired Ascension. The white dove is the traditional emblem of the Holy Ghost. And a possible explanation of this weird performance is that it represents a tap-dancing spirit exiting its physical home.
What is certain is that the noisy presence of Ascension next to the levitating pictures of Taylor-Wood influences your reading of them. The second sequence of midair self-portraits includes a tottering chair on which she seems to be precariously balancing. I know it’s all been done with digital touch-ups and computer trickery, but the sense of a vertiginous slow-motion dream is beautifully unsettling. It takes a moment, also, to notice what else about the picture feels wrong: although Taylor-Wood herself is throwing a clear and lovely shadow on the wall behind, the chair isn’t. The piece is called Bram Stoker’s Chair. Of course: vampires don’t throw shadows. Thus, death, the ultimate sleep, has once again entered our mix.
The exhibition is dominated by the lachrymose and sombre moods that entered Taylor-Wood’s work after she was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago. Piece after piece appears to be about the relentless passage of time, the onset of decay, the shadow of death. However, just as many works in the show are about a parallel urge to slow time down, to pluck precious moments out of time’s cascade, to frame tiny things and appreciate them, as we might appreciate a lock of our first-born’s hair.
This gets particularly interesting when we enter the second of Taylor-Wood’s favourite domains, the realm of the celebrity. She is at least as famous for being in the papers a lot as she is for being a thoughtful and poetic Brit Artist. Well-connected, good-looking, married to the owner of London’s most fashionable modern-art gallery, White Cube, friends with Elton John and the Beckhams, she’s in the Evening Standard all the time, a celebrity chick about town who is constantly being photographed in nice dresses leaving this party or that. It’s something she could stop if she had a mind to. But she doesn’t stop it, so there must be something in it for her.
And my guess is that what she gets from it is access.
Because in Taylor-Wood, the noisy dynamics of Hello! magazine are magically combined with the quiet insights of a poem by Keats. Fame gets manacled to privacy. Outer show is grafted onto inner secrets.
I suppose the most representative of the pieces gathered for us here in the celebrity stretches of her output must be the notorious portrait she made for the National Portrait Gallery in which David Beckham, seemingly naked in bed, is observed from a few inches away as he sleeps in a Madrid hotel room. All the work consists of is an opportunity to stare at Beckham while his defences are seemingly down. It’s every groupie’s dream.
Also in this half-a-retrospective are the 30 or so portraits she did of film stars crying — from Jude Law to Paul Newman, from Benicio Del Toro to Dustin Hoffman — which are simultaneously evidence of her very impressive address book and of her determination to slip inside the intimacy zone of this notoriously unwilling social class. That’s the thing about Taylor-Wood. It doesn’t matter if you’re David Beckham or a bloke in a pub with a fag: inspected in depth by her, everyone turns out to be vulnerable and fascinating.