On "A Little Death"

March 2, 2013 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jacksonville painter Thony Aiuppy writes about "A Little Death" a digital video by Sam Taylor-Johnson that explores time and death. The video is part of MOCA Jacksonville's "Slow: Marking Time in Photography and Film" exhibit.

Sam Taylor-Johnson, A Little Death, 2002, 35mm film/DVD, duration: 4'.

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On a cool Saturday in January, I went to the opening of the new exhibition Slow: Marking Time in Photography and Film at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. I have since visited the exhibition several times to engage the various films, projections, and photographs on view by seven contemporary artists (six Europeans and one American). I could give an overview of the entire show, talk about its importance within the contemporary landscape of time-based work, etc. It would all be valid and I'd be within my right to do so, but that would be a disservice to the viewer. If nothing else, this is something that must be experienced by the individual and I am so very encouraged that this show was produced on the First Coast. Slow is arguably the best exhibition of its caliber to be on view at MOCA Jacksonville.

While I will not divulge the works in their entirety, I will, instead, discuss one that keeps me going back. Titled A Little Death, this digital video is four minutes long and runs on a loop. The time-based work was created by the British artist Sam Taylor-Johnson in 2002. The scene depicted (note that the film has been sped up) is that of a hare and a peach on a table. For the duration of the film, the hare, pinned to the wall just behind it, molts, decays, and is eaten and carried away by insects while the fruit just to the viewer's left stays exactly the same throughout. After a short break the entire process happens again. And again. And again...

One way to look at A Little Death is through the genre of a still life. Here, the viewer sees objects on a table, one corroding and the other constrained in stasis. The sub-genre of Vanitas paintings opens the field of interpretation even further, as these were paintings that concerned themselves with the temporal aspects of life. That is to say, these paintings reflected the fact that money, power, and beauty are all temporary and to strive for them in this life not only leaves the owner in want on this side of heaven, but in the afterlife as well.

This way of looking at Taylor-Johnson's work also peels away at another level of interpretation for the viewer, namely, that of (art) history. The popularity of Vanitas and Veritas still life canvases rose in the time of the Italian Baroque, but they were perfected by the Dutch masters. Taylor-Johnson places herself in a discourse with these practitioners of the traditional oil picture through her examination of the symbolic nature of the hare and the piece of fruit. Additionally, she borrows, stylistically, the single light source, the dingy atmosphere, and other painterly aspects incorporated during the time. The hare imbeds further meaning, too, due to the fact that the skins of rabbits and hares were used to create the glue for gesso, the material applied to a canvas, thus allowing oil paints to stick to the substrate.  

This work is as much about the hare as it is about the peach and A Little Death wouldn't work without it because it offers the exploration of deeper meaning within the work namely through the convention of binary opposites, in this case between the life and death. While the hare decomposes, the peach continues to cast it's aura of virility, or life. Iconographically speaking, the hare and rabbit have traditionally been seen as a symbol for life and reproduction, but in the case of this artwork, the opposite is apparent; the hare embodies the death and decay with sobering affect.

Through the method of speeding up the film, the artist puts her proverbial finger on the pulse of the American obsession for youth at all costs. This desire to run from mortality offers the artist the opportunity to delve further into the beauty known to humanity as the passage of time, offering the viewer the chance to participate in the venture known as life through the visage of two objects on a table: one, in stasis and therefore protected from the very existence it exemplifies and the other, barreling through the alpha and omega of a life lived.

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Article by Thony Aiuppy

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