He's 12 feet tall, wears tight white shorts and has muscles that make your eyes bulge. And starting today, he'll be holding up the ceiling in the Hirshhorn's Directions Gallery.

Well, sort of. Actually this remarkable specimen, looking like an unoiled weightlifter, is the lone player in an illusionistic, two-screen laserdisc projection by British artist Sam Taylor-Wood. Titled "Noli Me Tangere" ("Don't Touch Me"), it is based on a film made in the artist's London studio in which the man was filmed from front and back carrying out his herculean task. Projected here onto both sides of a wall as high as the room, the film is meant to create the impression that he's holding up the ceiling.

As an illusion, it's convincing and well crafted. Muscles swell, but the man's body, miraculously, hardly moves. His face strains with exertion and, finally, he lets out one big grunt. But apart from heavy breathing, that's all we hear.

It is only after 4 1/2 minutes of this, when his tolerance ends and he abandons his feat, that we suddenly realize there's more than one illusion operating here. He's not a weightlifter at all. And he's not holding up the building. (Don't read the note at the end of this story if you want to preserve the surprise, which is crucial since there's only one punch line in the show.)

It's unfortunate that the Hirshhorn didn't offer some context here in the form of other works. For Taylor-Wood is an interesting young artist whose photo and film installations have been attracting wide international attention, along with works by her contemporaries Damian Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. In recent years, she has exhibited in all the right avant-garde venues, including the Walker Art Center's 1995 "Brilliant! New Art From London" and the 1997 Venice Biennale, where she received the Illy Cafe Prize for most promising young artist.

Last year, the first extensive catalogue of her work was published in connection with a solo exhibit at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. Her next gallery show, with a seven-screen installation, will be at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan early next year.

For those who want to learn more, Taylor-Wood will give a free slide-lecture on her work at noon today in the Hirshhorn auditorium. A free illustrated brochure is also available in the third-floor Directions gallery.

Taylor-Wood, 32, studied sculpture at Goldsmiths College in London but soon switched to photography and film. "I realized that the sculpture I was producing had little to do with what I was thinking," she said at the Hirshhorn earlier this week. "But my work is still sculptural: You still have to walk around it to take it in."

It was a stint in the wardrobe department at London's Covent Garden that helped her crystallize what have since become her principal themes: human discomfort and isolation, and the notion that things aren't always what they seem. A bout with colon cancer two years ago undoubtedly had something to do with "Noli Me Tangere," a punning biblical reference that can also be read as a meditation on human endurance.

Most of her recent room-size installations combine panoramic photographs and film loops with sound, which taken together force the viewer to invent a connective narrative. "They often depict public situations where people normally interact, but where they're lost in their own thoughts," says the artist. For example: "Atlantic," shown at the Tate in London in 1997, was a three-screen projection of a film shot in a crowded restaurant. The central screen gave an overall view of the dining room, while the two side screens zoomed in on the tearful face of a woman and fidgeting hands of a man who are in the midst of ending their relationship at one of the tables. The poignancy of this voyeuristic work is heightened by seeing such an intimate act awash in the ordinariness of clinking glasses and background noise.

"Atlantic," like "Noli Me Tangere," was a setup: "You have to call in all of your friends to do these," says Taylor-Wood, who is married to a London art dealer and has a 2-year-old daughter. For the Hirshhorn piece, an acrobat was enlisted from a local circus. First exhibited in Milan last year, the piece is on loan from Washington political consultant and art collector Anthony T. Podesta. It will remain on view through Oct. 17.

ANSWER:

He's actually an acrobat doing a 4 1/2-minute handstand, projected upside down.

'DIRECTIONS'

"Directions: Sam Taylor-Wood" will be at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through Oct. 17. The Hirshhorn, at Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW, is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Sept. 2. Admission is free. The nearest Metro stop is L'Enfant Plaza, Maryland Avenue exit.

CAPTION: This Atlas eventually shrugs in Sam Taylor-Wood's "Noli Me Tangere" at the Hirshhorn.

CAPTION: The installation "Noli Me Tangere" (translation: "Don't Touch Me") is a two-screen laserdisc projection based on a filmed muscle man.