In Sam Taylor-Wood's first monograph, Sam Taylor-Wood (Steidl, $35), published to accompany the current survey of her photographs and films at the Hayward Gallery in London, the "Fuck Suck Spank Wank" yBa is revealed as an expressionist of the first order, a direct descendent of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. "I've always worked quite instinctively," the artist tells critic Claire Carolin in an interview. "I'm interested in looking at how humans respond and react in moments of crisis. I want to examine the physical manifestations of anxiety."
In her pursuit of human passion, Taylor-Wood showcases actors moaning, crying, fighting with their spouses, singing opera and otherwise chewing the scenery in short films like Method in Madness (1995), Hysteria (1997), Breach (2001) and Mute (2001). She also embraces Surrealist dream imagery. Sustaining the Crisis (1997), for instance, is a 16 mm film installation in which one screen shows a young woman walking the empty streets -- topless, as if in an updated dream painting by Paul Delvaux. Similarly, a more important group of panoramic color photos, titled Five Revolutionary Seconds (1995-2000) -- so named because the camera rotates for a five-second exposure rather than for any political content -- show everyday interiors populated by a bizarre troupe of Fellini-esque characters.
Now something of a (British) Pop celebrity herself, as a consequence Taylor-Wood has lost some of her quotient of artistic seriousness. (Indeed, the book's embarrassingly fragmented essays suggest that she has qualities of a 19th-century dandy, as if that were a good thing.) In fact, one commercial project, her recent collaboration with Elton John, a 4˝-minute rock video of the drug-addict actor Robert Downey mouthing the words of John's I Want
Love, is a spectacle well worth watching.
One proviso. Taylor-Wood's works frequently come with soundtrack -- even her photographs have taped accompaniment, often enough -- and though packed with 120 color photographs, the book of course remains mute.
Don't expect to find sound effects in Walking the High Line (Steidl Pace/MacGill, $30) by photographer Joel Sternfeld, though a birdsong or two would be appropriate. Over the past year, using a heavy 8 x 10 view camera, Sternfeld has produced views of the abandoned freight tracks that run, elevated two stories up on a steel trestle, through Manhattan's West Side industrial district from Gansevoort Street in the Village up to 12th Avenue and 34th Street.
Sternfeld's photographic enterprise partly serves as advocacy for a group called Friends of the High Line, which hopes to preserve the "stretch of viaduct," as Adam Gopnik calls it in a rather heavy-breathing essay, as an eight-acre "taffy-pulled, 30-to-50-foot-wide" park of some kind. In this regard, Sternfeld has admittedly framed especially bucolic views, contrasting the eruption of nature on the neglected track bed to the almost equally picturesque cityscape of aging brick warehouses.
The vision is definitely anti-Blade Runner and other ad-saturated cybertech dystopias (like the imagined future of the recently released Tom Cruise starrer, Minority Report), and very welcome for that.
The past as a mold for the future is the subject of Walter Benjamin's A Childhood in Berlin around 1900, a 1933 memoir by the troubled Frankfurt School intellectual that explores the ways that childhood experience shapes adult emotional understanding. In Berliner Kindheit (Steidl/DAAD, $35), the New York artist Aura Rosenberg specifically recreates Benjamin's series of 42 vignettes in both text and 160 color photographs.
The result is a rich tapestry that weaves together a kind of retelling of Benjamin's stories with references to Rosenberg's own life in Berlin. Her journal references her family, which was forced to leave Germany in 1939 and now returns to visit each year, as well as her daughter Carmen, who was born in 1989 and grew up in Berlin and New York, and her husband John Miller, who is also an artist.
Rosenberg's search for traces of the young Benjamin of a century ago encompasses his love of carousels, Christmas and colored socks, and his fear of robbers, trolls and train stations. She mixes the hard surfaces of today's world with the whirling superstitions that appear to have haunted Benjamin throughout his life. One emblematic vision, recreated with the help of a friend of Rosenberg's daughter's, was something that Benjamin "found both terrifying and seductive: a sleepwalking woman."
Rosenberg's book is both literary and real, nostalgic and a clear-eyed record of the present -- a kind of remembrance in waiting.