Famed visual artist and filmmaker, Sam Taylor-Johnson, shares her creative process

Johnson’s mural was on public display in Hong Kong.
Johnson’s mural was on public display in Hong Kong.
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To celebrate the breadth and diversity of Mandarin Oriental’s celebrity fans, the Group commissioned the famous visual artist and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson to create a bespoke artwork for public display in Hong Kong.

From fine art photography to blockbuster films, Taylor-Johnson has left an indelible mark on pop culture as we know it today. Here the artist and director discusses her creative process.

You were working on an exciting project for Mandarin Oriental – can you tell us about it?

Mandarin Oriental approached me about creating artwork for a billboard to be displayed in Hong Kong, which involved working with the existing archive of celebrity fan photographs. It became quite organic very quickly as I was already working on a new series of work involving a lot of collage and montage and found imagery, as well as pictures that I’d taken. I spent a few weeks cutting out each image and just slowly arranging them until I felt there was a natural rhythm to the piece.

Was it your idea to make a collage?

Yes, because it was an extension of what I was already doing. It didn’t feel like I was going to make something completely alien to my normal process, because often when you do that you don’t feel as excited by what you’ve done. It was good to do and I’m really happy with the result.

What is your starting point for a project like this?

When Mandarin Oriental spoke to me about what they wanted, the idea came to me very quickly. Often, if I can’t visualise what people want then I tend not to do it. So I came up with the idea of a big, long collage of everyone who is a Mandarin fan.

Do you need to be in a certain creative headspace to create something like this or can you, for instance, go to your studio and be certain that inspiration will come?

It does take a certain headspace and, luckily, I’ve been in my studio a lot recently. I set up a big table where I could focus on the project and spend time on it. It took a while, and then suddenly it started to flow and come together. It takes time to live with the images a bit and look at them and have a sense of it all. It’s quite a process and you have to trust that instinct later down the line; before that, you have to have done as much preparation and know your material as well as possible.

What was the biggest challenge making the piece?

The biggest challenge immediately was that I was working with somebody else’s material. I was looking at photographs taken by somebody else, and on the one hand you don’t want to tamper with that too much, but then at the same time you do need to tamper with it in order to go through with it. So, being respectful to the photographer and the person in the picture, and being able to be creatively free on top of that, were the biggest challenges.

What did you enjoy most about creating the collage?

I enjoyed it all. It became quite a meditative process, sitting and cutting out images, and just sort of moving and shifting them. You rely on instinct about which one is going to work where best, and the composition. I’m used to quite high, intense pressure making movies and TV, which is what I’m working on at the moment, so it’s nice to step out of that realm and just quietly go and work on something that felt very calm.

Do you still get a buzz from seeing your work in an exhibition or, in this case, on a billboard in Hong Kong?

It’s exciting, but for me it’s more the process that I enjoy and the time to be able to do it. The timing of this was perfect. I’m just about to go off and do a big Netflix series with Naomi Watts in a couple of weeks and as soon as that kicks off I won’t be able to do anything else.

Do you have a favourite Mandarin Oriental hotel?

I’ve visited Mandarin Oriental, New York a few times. I first stayed when I was doing press for Nowhere Boy and then Fifty Shades. It’s gruelling working on press junkets for these kinds of movies, so to be able to get home to the hotel, sink into a luxurious bed, and enjoy the calm was wonderful. The views from Mandarin Oriental, New York are spectacular. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in the corner rooms a couple of times, where you get 180-degree views of the city and feel elevated from all the madness. 

An extended version of this interview can be found here. This article was originally produced for Destination MO by Condé Nast on behalf of Mandarin Oriental and not by the Quartz editorial staff.