Exercise 2, continued: Interpreting Video Art – Still Life, 2001, Sam Taylor-Johnson
A written interpretation:
Taylor-Johnson’s Still Life offers the viewer a twist on a classic scene. Instead of “immortalising” a platter of ripe fruit on canvas, Taylor-Johnson uses 35 mm. film to capture the gradual decay of these fruits over time. Save the inclusion of a plastic pen, the nearly four-minute film includes no sensory (visual, aural) distractions from what’s going on in that platter. This is deliberate: Taylor-Johnson draws our attention to the surprising elegance of all that is happening in this small but busily-shapeshifting ecosystem.
For me, the richest interpretation of this work is through its title. At first, it seems a simple acknowledgement of the genre that inspires it; many “still life” paintings and illustrations are similarly named, with little additional specification.
As the film evolves, however, several layers of irony and meaning reveal themselves. The first of these is obvious: film necessarily occurs in time and in motion, so the sumptuous “still life” before us necessarily plays by the same rules. Instead of being stilled, the life remaining on that platter must be lived, and—as fruits severed from the life-giving tree—decay follows close behind.
Indeed, the process and phases of death and decomposition carry life of their own, and we watch as mould flourishes, collapsing the form and distinct shapes of one fruit into another. Death allows something new to thrive, and that matter is still (or “nevertheless”) life.
Finally, the piece speaks to the societal equation of youth with beauty. Many of us, particularly women, experience a desire to “still” life, or stop time’s effect on our bodies. Like the lone supermarket peach in this piece, we can delay the inevitable but we can’t avoid the truth that’s waiting for each of us.