Nick Hackworth

Sam Taylor-Wood, Hayward Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Courtsey of the Hayward, Sam Taylor-Wood has joined the tiny group of contemporary British artists honoured with a retrospective at a major public gallery.

A Goldsmith’s graduate who works with photography and video, she has — like so many of the YBAs’ group into which she is lumped — seen her star rise swiftly. She began exhibiting in earnest only in the mid-Nineties. Less than a decade later, she finds herself stamped with the seal of state approval.

Unfortunately, the Hayward Gallery has done her a disservice. Spread through these cavernous rooms, Taylor-Wood’s celebrity-infested videos and photographs look light at best, non-existent at worst.

Her body of work is neither broad nor deep enough to sustain this level of exposure. The decision to grant her the show is all the more absurd as much of the recent work on display here was seen last year in a high-profile exhibition at White Cube 2. Perhaps it’s time the art establishment took a leaf out of Manchester United’s book and introduced a rotation system, giving their stars a well-earned rest now and again.

Honestly but foolishly, the curators decline to save the worst till last.

In the first room we encounter Third Party, a seven-screen video installation from 1999. It is a typical Taylor-Wood piece, featuring celebrities and dealing with superficiality and alienation in contemporary society.

A dysfunctional drinks party is in progress. On one screen a man spouts small-talk; on another, a girl dances alone; on another, Marianne Faithfull impassively surveys the scene; on another, Ray Winstone sulks.

The work dramatises the atomisation of contemporary existence and the charade of social life, but it is the obviousness of the gesture that numbs the mind.

Other video work deals with the alienation from religion. Pietà is based on Michelangelo’s Vatican sculpture; it finds Taylor-Wood herself cradling Robert Downey Jnr, who plays the dying Christ. Once again the work itself is stubbornly unmoving. There is something tellingly appropriate about Taylor-Wood’s use of celebrities as proxies for everything from Christ to drinks-party guests.

She is at her best when sticking to still images and focusing on aesthetics. The Five Revolutionary Seconds series, long, thin photographs taken with a 360-degree camera; Wasted, her contemporary reworking of the Last Supper; Self-Portrait as a Tree, commemorating her survival through cancer — all these works are powerful and attractive images.

They were created with feeling for composition and colour. If one is looking to find a point for this retrospective, it may as well be the opportunity to see these particular pieces once again.

Until 21 June. Phone: 020 7921 0600