The Passion Cycle.
Sam Taylor-Johnson
BAWAG Foundation

Photobook Review

Written March 2021

Image from The Passion Cycle— © The Bawag Foundation, Sam Taylor-Johnson 2003-2021.

Regardless of one’s personal take on it, the word pornography is a loaded one. Conjuring mental images of surgery-enhanced bodies, displays of deep-rooted misogyny and laughable dialogue, it’s a word that is almost too easy to demonise, its reputation within the mainstream world widely covered, protested and debated by people of all political and cultural persuasions. Far and wide within the art world, writers, journalists, critics and artists themselves have spent at least the last century debating the same question surrounding the very word, usually in the wake of a controversial or subversive artist’s new exhibition, publication or movie in the hope of settling an apparent pressing moral conundrum: what is the difference between porn and art? If a retrospective look at pre-photographic art has taught us anything however, is that pornography is art— the otherness of pornography as a carnal, sordid and perverse concept is so, largely because its contemporary readings are heavily reliant on the brash literalism of photography and film (and perhaps questionable industry ethics), as opposed to observed, painted likenesses by way of oil, gouache or watercolours: works and genres, palatable and easier on romantic, contemporary eyes, despite causing their own controversies at their time of creation. Shunga, a style of Japanese wood-block art that flourished in Edo-period Japan is one such genre, largely celebrated today as a legitimate art form despite being overtly and unapologetically pornographic. The delicacy of form, colour palette and ornamentation used in the genre transcend time, social class and background, with it celebrated the world over in publications and exhibitions alike. In the case of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s (previously Wood) 2003 publication The Passion Cycle, Shunga is the starting point and chief inspiration for the subsequent images created; equally as intriguing, beguiling and aesthetically striking as their source material, attempting to turn the porn vs art debate on its empty head in a contemporary light.

As a publication, The Passion Cycle seeks to seduce readers even before any images are seen. From the bold, brilliant red cloth draping its perfect-bound cover, to the carefully balanced curated art direction choice in the duo of typefaces, one is able to feel as though they are teetering between the modern and the historic— a notion only heightened by the Victorian wallpaper printed within the end-pages; swarthy, delicate, naturalistic scenes of birds, flowers and butterflies, perhaps omens for the ultimate natural act within. The heavy, uncoated paper throughout, helps set a pensive, steady, metronomic pace to its reading, which given the shadowy tinge in many of the images (apparently lightboxes?), means that each scene can be properly digested in their entirety. Comprised of twenty five images, the publication details a sexual tryst between an assumed couple, photographed within the intimacy of a Central London private members club— a room containing all of the opulence and grace of a stately home, right down to the grandiose, colossal four-poster bed, period features and the picturesque Victorian wallpaper (referenced in the end-pages). Shot using both Large and Medium Format cameras, the images rely heavily on a single natural light source; a restriction that for the most part makes for dynamic results; sometimes harsh and shadowy, other times flattering and provokingly honest. Much like the Shunga that Johnson references, the series romantically and idealistically shows how two subjects interact physically within the throes of sexual intimacy: kissing, penetrative sex, oral sex and embraces of flesh upon flesh are all shown in a range of positions, all with a focus on the closeness, touch and tenderness between the two— the chemistry of which is hard to deny, their passionate dynamic just happening to be by way of sexuality, without being overtly erotic or gratuitous. Even to the most modest of readers, there would likely be so much praise for aesthetics, that the subject matter would be forgiven. Due also in part to the painterly, omnipotent force of the Large Format camera, there is a level of detail and scale that helps take you into the world of the lovers. Shunga by its very nature relies on the idea of voyeurism; of being a spectator to an act that may very well be illicit, forbidden or immoral. As alluded to by the accompanying text, at times one feels so close that it provokes a feeling of artistic betrayal— yet you can’t help but look some more. By way of Medium Format crops and of underexposed images, the focus is allowed to fall on the drama of the flesh and how it works; behold, grips and rests amongst that of the other. Simple embraces seem heroic and tender— the most overt sexual acts themselves to seem benign and no more stranger than handshakes. Overall, there is a stillness and an amorality to the images, fuelled by a creative, thorough objectivity by the artist— typical of someone like Johnson whose extensive work with ensemble casts, complex concepts and mastery of telling the most layered narratives in some of the most memorable ways. However, as much as The Passion Cycle succeeds, it fails too.

The more the series is worked through, the more that the feeling of compromises— large compromises both stunt and undermine the ambition of the work. For one, the entire series is confined to a single room, which, charismatic as it is, makes for a feeling of claustrophobia more than anything else. The lack of space makes for remarkably similar vantage points— at least six images are photographed from the same spot, some requiring several looks just to check that they aren’t duplicates. As well as this, there is a distance between artist and subject that seldom allows the subjects to seem anything more than simply bodies tussling on a bed. Censorship in the images is hard to ignore: of sexual organs, breasts and the likeness’ of the subjects themselves— a curious decision from Taylor-Johnson, who’s early works, specifically Sustaining the Crisis (1997), Brontosaurus (1995) and to an extent, Soliloquy (1998) relied heavily and unapologetically on the power and bodies in all their glory. Given the nature of the images, an understanding for such conscious decision making can be understood. However, the effect that this has on the reading of the images cannot be ignored. Even in light of the romantic chemistry seen in the majority of the images, the incessant need for anonymity can make interactions appear awkward and unrealistic— clumsy, semi-orchestrated poses, with grips, grapples, a well-timed turn of a head, a strategically raised arm, all reading like ambitious interpretive dance moves than realistic or dynamic, interactions between lovers. Tasteful, in a modesty-centric sense, is not generally a word associated with an artist like Johnson, who’s documented her fair share of bodies freely in her time, and yet it remains a consistent pursuit here— the over-calculation of images, making them devoid of an urgency, an energy and to an extent, an honesty associated with and expected from such a topic. Faces help humans empathise, relate to and comprehend events— at times it seems reasonable to wilfully imagine an alternative version of the series, comprised just of faces, as opposed to naked bodies, their dynamic expressions leaving a much lasting and powerful impact on audiences. When paired with an accompanying, convoluted, closing essay that although provides insight into her wider practice, does almost nothing in adding any worthwhile information to the reading of the images, it’s hard to feel anything other than deflated by the self-censoring of a figure who ironically spent the first decade of her career making work with all but compromise.

Yet, The Passion Cycle has a beauty— a visual mastery and an allure that cannot be denied. In these images, even for a brief second, we are able to be pleasantly disoriented, losing all sense of time, becoming spectators to an act that is arguably the oldest performance art, and yet the most taboo. This is their own personal space and time that we readers are encroaching upon, and if nothing else, the mystery within its finer details and intricacies, allows it to remain in their ownership.