Sam Taylor-Johnson OBE

Killing Time


Not on display

Sam Taylor-Johnson OBE born 1967
Video, 4 projections, colour and sound (mono)
Purchased 2002


Killing Time is a four-screen video installation, commissioned in 1994 by The Showroom, London. It was produced in an edition of three; Tate owns the second in the edition. The work is usually displayed in a room with one projection on each of the four walls so that the images surround the viewer. When it was first installed at The Showroom, because of the unusual dimensions of the space, two projections were installed in each of the gallery’s two rooms.

Each video is a long, unbroken shot of a young man or woman, seated alone in a minimally furnished modern domestic interior. The installation is accompanied by a soundtrack of Richard Strauss’s one-act opera Elektra, 1909, based on the ancient Greek tragedy of the same name by Euripides (c.480-406 BC). The figures, dressed casually in t-shirts and jeans or trousers, lip-synch along with the recording, each taking a different character’s part. The eponymous heroine of Strauss’s opera is a young woman driven by an obsessive desire to avenge the death of her father, murdered by her mother Clytemnestra and her mother’s lover, Aegisth. The opera consists of a series of emotionally fraught encounters between Elektra and the other principle characters leading to a bloody denouement in which her brother Orestes kills Clytemnestra and Aegisth. Her wish fulfilled, Elektra begins a frenzied dance before collapsing and dying, overcome with her own ecstatic rage.

As its plot suggests, Elektra expresses grand passions, its characters at the mercy of intense emotional and psychological states: it is operatic in the commonplace sense of the word. By contrast, the men and women in Taylor-Wood’s videos are bored, sitting around in unremarkable rooms, occasionally smoking, stretching, looking at their watches or staring at the ceiling while waiting for their next cue. They make no attempt to replicate the passion of the singers on the soundtrack.

After completing a BA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London in 1990, Taylor-Wood worked for a year in the wardrobe department at the Royal Opera House, and she has talked about how that experience affected her practice (Ferguson, pp.47-48). Operatic music was piped throughout the backstage areas of the House constantly, giving the most banal tasks a dramatic soundtrack. Killing Time replicates the sense of disjunction Taylor-Wood felt listening to the music of composers such as Richard Wagner (1813-83) as she went about her various tasks. She has used classical music in other video works, including Brontosaurus, 1995 (Tate T07545) which also plays on the contrast between music, Samuel Barber’s solemn Adagio for Strings, 1936, and image, the awkward yet graceful slow motion footage of a naked man dancing to techno music.

Killing Time sets up a similar disjunction between the banality of the everyday and the searing passion of music. The juxtaposition of visual and aural elements suggests that the music is a kind of soundtrack of the unconscious; that beneath the calm, ordinary surface, primal desires are raging. Taylor-Wood describes this dichotomy as ‘the collision of high and low culture; my friends lolling about at home shot on cheap video matched with this operatic music, something that is so elite and fantastic, set so high up in our cultural stratosphere’ (quoted in Carolin, ‘Interview with Sam Taylor-Wood,’ in Sam Taylor-Wood, n.p.). The double meaning extends to the title: Killing Time refers both to Taylor-Wood’s characters passing time and to the murderous acts of the opera whose libretto they mouth.

Further reading:
Waldemar Januszczak and Will Self, Sam Taylor-Wood, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Zurich and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 1998, reproduced pp.15-17 (stills).
Clare Carolin, Michael Bracewell and Jeremy Millar, Sam Taylor-Wood, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2002, reproduced pp.18-23 in colour (stills).
Bruce Ferguson, ‘Sam Taylor-Wood,’ Bomb, no.65 (Fall 1998), pp.42-50.

Rachel Taylor
September 2003

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