Artists have explored the beauty of decay for hundreds of years. Images of dying flowers and falling-down buildings are potent reminders that life is fleeting and that nothing we build will last forever. But of all the painters and poets that have pointed out this bittersweet fact, few get down to the nitty-gritty of decay quite like Sam Taylor-Johnson.
In her 2001 video piece Still Life, Taylor-Johnson (Formerly Sam Taylor-Wood, and yes, the same one who directed 50 Shades of Grey), presents a classic Renaissance tableau of a bowl of fruit on a table, sets up a camera and lets nature take its course. As the bacteria build up, the fruit begin to shrink and collapse upon themselves.
Unlike a traditional painter, who would typically suggest decay by showing fruit or flowers just past their prime, but still beautiful, Taylor-Johnson keeps the camera rolling until the all that’s left is a rotting black pile topped with angelic white mold, buzzed about by fruit flies.
One of the things that’s fascinating about watching the process is how the fruit keeps moving, at first shrinking and then seeming to regrow as the bacteria multiply furiously. It’s a truly visceral display of the circle of life. If you like this piece, and you have a really strong stomach, watch Taylor-Johnson’s video A Little Death of a dead rabbit (another classic art image) being devoured by insects.
If you’re in the DC area, you can see Still Life as part of the Super Natural exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts until September 13.