TOO CLEVER by half, more modish than modern and as ephemeral as a summer breeze, Sam Taylor-Wood's new film installation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden suffers from a serious case of the Emperor's New Clothes.
Called "Noli Me Tangere" (Latin for "touch me not," which is what Jesus said to Mary Magdalene in a post-resurrection appearance), the 32-year-old Englishwoman's first solo American museum exhibition consists only of two front-to-back projections of a white-trunked circus acrobat who appears to be holding up the central rib of the darkened Directions Gallery's coffered ceiling. For 4 minutes and 24 seconds, the jug-eared colossus squints, strains, grunts and twitches his flaring delts while never wavering from a heroic, Atlas-like stance. At one point, the stoic Goliath lets loose an anguished "Ay!" (thankfully not followed by the more Bart Simpsonian "carumba").
Unlike Tony Oursler's demented video rag dolls, who nattered and chattered in the same space this time last year, Taylor-Wood's 12-foot filmic apparition has a beginning, a middle and an end. As straightforward as her monotonous narrative first appears, if you don't stay through the closing black-out, you'll miss the joke, the twist, or as she prefers to call it, the "revelation" that comes as the piece winds down.
It's something that needs to be seen to be "gotten," but once you get it, exactly what are you left with -- other than a smirk at the artist's ability to psych you out?
Like fellow Goldsmith's College grads Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas, Londoner Taylor-Wood is part of the bold and beautiful New Wave of smart-assed young Brits who have taken the art world by storm in recent years with their collective post-post-modern nose-thumbing.
To understand "Noli Me Tangere," it is instructive to consider some of Taylor-Wood's early work not included in the Hirshhorn show. In a 1993 photograph called "[Expletive], Suck, Spank, Wank," the artist herself -- imitating the pose of Botticelli's "Venus" -- appears wearing panties, sunglasses and a T-shirt emblazoned with the naughty phrase that gives the work its title. Trousers at her ankles, and tripod visible in the foreground a la Jeff Wall's 1979 "Picture for Women," Taylor-Wood stands next to a table on which is seen a second pair of sunglasses and a cabbage.
"Just something for art historians in the future to be baffled by," she says, with a shrug.
Known for a style that is both intimate and alienating, Taylor-Wood's oeuvre is not known for its sense of humor, even when she sets out to be funny.
Take the video "Brontosaurus" -- shot in 1995 as a naked friend of the artist danced to frenzied techno music in front of a stuffed stegosaurus (ergo the stupid misnomer). Originally considered hysterically funny by the artist and the model, when slowed down and set to Samuel Barber's mournful "Adagio for Strings" (picture the closing scene of "The Elephant Man"), its intimations of mortality and extinction become incredibly sad, even if your impulse to chuckle at the sight of this skinny guy flailing in slo-mo might be hard to suppress.
What happens in front of "Noli Me Tangere" is something else entirely.
Walking into the gallery, whose entrance has been blocked with a light-eliminating baffle, is like walking into a movie theater. Until your eyes adjust to the light, you may not be even aware that anyone else is in the room -- other than the giant in white shorts. It feels safe, womb-like; you may even be tempted to drop to the floor and sit a spell. (On opening night, two spectators made out, oblivious to the many eyes upon them.)
If you're wondering about the odd title of this piece, it's another art-historical riff -- this one on Renaissance paintings of the crucified Christ, risen from the dead but not yet ascended into heaven. The phrase refers to the fragility, even friability, of a man caught between mortality and immortality, but here it has another, more prosaic, meaning. Of course, you can't touch the model's body because it doesn't physically exist. It's a film, duh! But furthermore, if you get too close to the screen, your shadow will literally "break" his flesh, in the same way that it would if you walked in front of the projectionist's booth at the multiplex.
After a couple of minutes, don't be surprised if, yes, boredom sets in, as it inevitably will with similar, although longer, fixed-camera snore-fests like Andy Warhol's taboo-breaking "Sleep" and "Empire," made in the 1960s. Fortunately, the pay-off here (meager though it is) arrives within only 4 1/2 minutes (depending on your attention span and on when you enter the room). When it does, if you're like most people, you'll snort with recognition at the fast one that Taylor-Wood has pulled on you, but the reaction will likely be closer to ha-ha than ah-ha.
Sam Taylor-Wood can't help it if she's young, with gamine good looks, art world connections (in dealer and husband Jay Jopling) and fashionista friends (Miuccia Prada and the late Gianni Versace). She wants to be taken seriously, dammit -- and she usually is.
Pardon me for saying so, but if "Noli Me Tangere" is so gosh-darned profound, then why is everybody snickering?
DIRECTIONS -- SAM TAYLOR-WOOD -- Through Oct. 17 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza). 202/357-2700. Open 10 to 5 daily; Thursdays through Labor Day until 8. Free admission. Web site: www.si.edu/hirshhorn.
CAPTION: Sam Taylor-Wood's film installation "Noli Me Tangere," currently at the Hirshhorn, has a "surprise" ending.