Sam Taylor-Wood, now a fixture at glamorous London art-world parties, came from humble beginnings. She grew up on a Peabody estate and then a hippie commune in Crowborough, East Sussex, where the inhabitants wore orange robes and the cats ate out of the chip pan. Her biker father abandoned her mother, who disappeared shortly afterwards; Taylor-Wood glimpsed her in a house down the road, and only then realised she had moved in with another man. She was sucked into the whirlwind of the Young British Artists' movement, when she fell in love with Jake Chapman (one half of the notorious Chapman brothers art duo, then a fellow student at Goldsmiths), and later married the old Etonian owner of the White Cube gallery, Jay Jopling, from whom she recently separated after 11 years. The opening of her current exhibition, Yes I No, was attended by an inevitable array of celebrities, including Guy Ritchie and Daniel Craig.
Her art draws on a powerful sense of loss, no doubt engendered by her fraught early years and her more recent struggles with cancer (which she has said made her want to "do everything, try everything, be everywhere"). But straddled across two sites, Yes I No also illustrates a tension at the centre of Taylor-Wood's work: on the one hand, the shallow, glitzy world of fame, and on the other, the serious business of making art.
The first part, displayed in the Piazza in London's Covent Garden, consists of two series of photographs: The Escape Artist and After Dark. The first shows the artist herself, her yoga-toned body in stylish Agent Provocateur vest and knickers and manicured toenails, suspended rag-doll-like from a bunch of coloured helium balloons. It is a trick, of course; she employed the expertise of an S&M specialist known as Mr Rope Knot, whose ties leave no marks, and whose ropes were digitally removed from the final prints.
In the second series a clown, complete with the obligatory grease paint, big nose and baggy trousers, looks melancholy in a variety of abandoned industrial buildings and under dripping railway arches. Even knowing that these works are in many ways autobiographical - the artist, we understand, is an escapologist refusing to be pinned down, and a sad entertainer - one feels manipulated by them rather than moved. They might have been shot for a Benetton ad; they deliver more style than substance.
This is not the first time such a charge has been levelled at Taylor-Wood. She has played into her reputation as a talented networker and self-promoter with works such as the Crying Men series (2004), which featured celebrities weeping, and a video of a sleeping David Beckham that drew crowds of adoring women to the National Portrait Gallery. When she is not gazing at the stars, she often places her own body centre stage, with her trousers down in Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank (1993), and wearing an expensive black trouser suit and holding a dead hare (Self-Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001).
The second part of the exhibition, at the White Cube gallery in Mason's Yard, St James's, gives us a glimpse of quite a different kind of artist. Upstairs is Ghosts, a series of photographs taken around Haworth on the Yorkshire moors and inspired by Taylor-Wood's reading of Wuthering Heights. She has caught the spirit of the novel in this wild, unpeopled landscape, where a solitary sheep shelters from the buffeting wind in a hollow by a stone wall. Not only that, but she has captured something of the brutality and awe that is the essence of romanticism. In a leafless tree, bent by the wind on the top of a hill, she has found an image that speaks eloquently not only of the destructive passions of Cathy and Heathcliff, but also communicates her own intimations of mortality.
The pièce de résistance, however, is Sigh, which had visitors clapping after each performance. In a darkened room, a circle of eight video screens show a conductor conducting an orchestra with no instruments. The music surrounds the viewers, inviting them to feel part of the performance. The eye is drawn to the bowing hands of the violinists and their accurate, sensitive fingering, to the pursed lips of the flautist whose every breath and swallow can be observed. We are reminded that it is not the instruments that make music, but the people who play them. This is a poignant warning that we cannot simply be defined by our outward trappings.
"Yes I No" is at the White Cube, London SW1 and the Piazza, London WC2 until 29 November. www.whitecube.com