Works exhibited: Ascension, Strings.
Tapdancing combines grace and agility with the conspicuous expenditure of effort and an incessant, percussive reminder of our habitual abrasion with the material world. Its playfulness with gravity, the insane excess of its attempts at lift off, coupled with the constant necessity of its hammering return to earth, make it an ideal focus for Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Ascension.
This brief but perfectly paced meditation on the relations of body and spirit is characteristically wry in its witty literal mindedness, but also magically uplifting in its celebrating of ascension, not as a unique event but as an inflection of common human experience. The rhythm of the film makes it a flicker book version of a medieval tableau, with the spirit rising vertically, like sculpted ectoplasm, above the horizontal immobility of the body of the deceased.
The noisy showmanship of the released spirit suggests a powerful inclination towards the flesh that has just been sloughed off, as well as an attachment to the profane milieux of popular culture. With the eventual departure of the symbolic dove, the dancer exits, stage right, completing a rite of passage that has dwelled almost entirely on the extent to which the spirit is at home in the body, rather than at war with it. The reluctance with which the spirit takes wing is balanced by the dancer’s compulsion to satisfy an audience, after he has taken the precaution of dressing for his own funeral.
It may be that Ascension’s tongue-in-cheek celebration of the self’s relationship with the body is in part owing to the artist’s recovery from serious illness. And yet, in the same year (2003), Taylor-Wood was to offer a much more circumspect account of the same issues in her film Strings. The title refers both to the stringed instruments that provide the soundtrack, and to the wires suspending another dancer, this time unable to tread the boards.
Although he is exposed in the position of a trapeze artist, this performer is actually Ivan Putrov, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. His relationship to the members of the string quartet playing beneath him is curiously asynchronous. While they progress steadily through a slow movement by Tchaikovsky, Putrov completes a series of gestures that belong to an even slower tempo. It is as if Taylor-Wood is taking the basic constituents of film – soundtrack and image sequence – and prising them apart to show how their relationship is no more than conventional.
Despite the dancer’s ability to exercise freedom of movement in the medium of air, his gyrations are in fact confined to a very restricted area within the visual space available. This only serves to confirm his isolation from the musicians, and underlines the poignancy of the greatly protracted gestures with which he reaches out to them. The scenarios of mutual indifference that form one of the most haunting aspects of Taylor-Wood’s photographic work are echoed in the deepening self communion of the dancer, treading air like water.
The ritual mood of these two films, enhanced by their setting in Jesus College Chapel, hinges on their treatment of the composition and decomposition of the self; they form a natural diptych of affirmation and doubt, of humour and pathos, in their renewal of the traditional subject matter of sacral art.