Pent Up is one of Sam Taylor-Wood's most important large scale works:
'In her complex and multi-layered video installation 'Pent-Up' (1996), Taylor-Wood further invokes a state of psychic distress, in which the division or chasm between reality and the 'real' becomes all consuming and inescapable. The installation consists of five large projected images, which sit side by side with their edges abutting on one long wall. On each 'screen' we encounter the private universe of a seemingly isolated individual: a middle-aged woman walking on the street (Ellen van Schuylenburch), an aging man sitting on a chair in a darkened room (John McVicar), a young, undressed man in his stylish, minimalist flat (Dexter Fletcher), a young woman drinking alone in a bar (Amanda Ooms), and a young, long-haired man pacing in a garden (Oliver Milburn). Throughout the duration of the ten-minute video, each character rants and raves aloud as if revisiting a previous painful conversation or rehearsing an impending showdown with an estranged lover or friend. Aggressive exclamations are coupled with pathetic utterances; belligerent accusations are followed by timid apologies; forthright confessions overlap with evasive disavowals. Filmed in a single unedited take - reminiscent of Warhol's dead-pan screen-tests - each character exists in a humid, claustrophobic environment from which there appears to be no psychic or physical escape. They may be prisoners of their own distorted minds. The overall impression is one of intense, aching loneliness, if not true mental illness.'
Source: James Hyman Fine Art
Pent-up @ Chisenhale Gallery, 11 September - 27 October 1996
An opera without music
The best of the young artists on show in London is a remarkable video-maker with a serious message, says Richard Dorment
Pent-up, the new video installation by the remarkable young British woman Sam Taylor-Wood, consists of five separate videos projected simultaneously on to the long wall of a darkened gallery. Each video is devoted to a single character and no two characters share the same space. The work revolves around the middle section, in which the camera follows a young man (the actor Dexter Fletcher) dressed only in boxer shorts as he wanders restlessly around his flat.
While conducting a running argument with himself (and, we soon learn, with the voices of the other characters), he draws a bath, confronts his own face in a mirror, tries on clothes, and lolls on the bed - a study in boredom and frustration. While this is happening, on the screen to the far left the camera tracks an older woman as she walks through the streets of London, angrily muttering to herself. Tense and unhappy, she may be on the edge of breakdown. Next on the left comes an old man, sunk in depression, only occasionally rousing himself to reply to something one of the other characters has said. To the right, a young woman in a pub is becoming drunker and more aggressive by the minute. And at the far right a boy, clearly psychotic, paces around an outside courtyard gesticulating and shouting. Hysteria, depression, alcoholism, psychosis: except for the young man, each character represents a different kind of mental or emotional condition. Though I am not sure that their exact identities matter, each viewer will instinctively construct a story linking these people together. I took them to be, respectively, the young man's mother, father, girlfriend and younger brother.
The soundtrack consists of a cacophony of staccato words and phrases spoken by each "family member" to the others. Though we can only pick out fragments of what is being said, each character's voice is meant to be read as reverberating inside the head of the young man. Irritated and distressed by the unending inner dialogue with his family, his must be the pent-up anger referred to in the title.
Or is it? The longer we listen, the more we understand that all five characters are emotionally dependent on the others. As performed by these actors, words and short phrases are lobbed like tennis balls from one section of the video to another, only to be swatted back again. But all attempts at communication fail. Each character is imprisoned in his own ego, angrily blaming the others for failing to meet his needs. Pent-Up explores the same emotional territory as the classic Jack Nicholson film about disjointed family relations, Five Easy Pieces. How we respond to it depends on which character we focus on. To some viewers the work will be about the predicament of the young man. Trying to live his own life unencumbered by guilt, his selfishness in the face of his dysfunctional family is perfectly natural. From the perspective of any of the other characters, however, his behaviour looks like indifference. In attempting to separate his own identity from theirs, he evades his responsibilities to those who need him most.
On a second visit, I half expected the sequence of videos to have changed, so that, for example, the older woman would take the central position, thus altering the emotional balance of the piece. But Taylor-Wood is not that complex. So what is she doing here? Unlike theatre, film or literature, which normally demand a story line, the medium of video has the capacity to show the words and actions of all five characters concurrently. Pent-Up is in fact an opera without music. Or, rather, it is a quintet for five voices in which the singers disclose more than one line of thought simultaneously. Each character turns to the audience to express his or her feelings in words that directly contradict those of the others.
What is more, Taylor-Wood uses the voices of her characters as though they were musical instruments. As in a fugue, the low voice of the old man is interwoven with staccato bursts from the psychotic boy, whose words, in turn, are taken up by the girlfriend and echoed by the mother.
I found Pent-Up austere and unrelenting. The viewer is never allowed to sympathise with any of the characters, and there is no real development because, at the end, as the young man finally submerges himself in his bath, nothing has been resolved. And yet, in contrast to so much British art of the 1990s, it feels dense, serious, almost old-fashioned in its humanism.