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.
Lita Albuquerque’s installation Beekeeper (2006), now on view in Santa Fe, is a piece that is much more compelling than the artist’s own description of it would lead you to believe.
According to Albuquerque, “Beekeeper (created in collaboration with Chandler McWilliams and Jon Beasley) is a pair of video projections controlled by generative computer software. The individual pixels that make up the image of the beekeeper separate and move out into space, dissolving the solid form into its constituent parts, spread until the entire wall is covered in a sea of slowly moving pixels, then reverse direction, heading for their original position. The software allows each pixel to choose its own unique path every time, creating a work in a constant state of becoming.” (source)
The artist has said that her goal with this work was “to present the visual similarity between a beekeeper and an astronaut,” which she approached by “[creating] a narrative around which the beekeeper’s aim is to help maintain biological life on the planet and the astronaut became the starkeeper maintaining life in the cosmos.”
On that level, this piece doesn’t work for me. In fact, it makes very little sense. The main visual similarity between apiarists and astronauts is the fact that both wear protective suits. Beekeepers, at least until very recently, were more interested in producing honey than in “maintaining biological life on the planet”, and astronauts are “starkeepers”, protecting the stars and planets from intergalactic threats, only in the movies.
As art that explores how we see and comprehend the world, however, Beekeeper is sublime. Just thinking about how the pixels gather and disperse could keep your mind working for hours. And as a statement about what we human beings are – collections of particles in constant flux – Beekeeper approaches the profound.
You can see Beekeeper in the exhibition Inventory of Light at Peters Projects in Santa Fe until April 25th, and you can find more work by Lita Albuquerque on her website.