Archives exist because there’s something that can’t necessarily be articulated. Something is said in the gaps between all the information.
Taryn Simon directs our attention to familiar systems of organization—bloodlines, criminal investigations, flower arrangements—making visible the contours of power and authority hidden within. Incorporating mediums ranging from photography and sculpture to text, sound, and performance, each of her projects is shaped by years of rigorous research and planning, including obtaining access from institutions as varied as the US Department of Homeland Security and Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
Born in New York, where she lives and works, Simon received a BA in semiotics from Brown University in 1997. In 2001 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for what would become her first major photographic and textual work: The Innocents (2002), which was exhibited at MoMA PS 1. Documenting cases of wrongful conviction in the United States, The Innocents calls into question photography’s function as a credible eyewitness and arbiter of justice.
In 2007 Simon’s series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) was presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The photographs depict objects, sites, and spaces that are integral to America’s foundation, mythology, and daily functioning, but that remain inaccessible or unknown. These subjects include radioactive capsules at a nuclear waste storage facility, a black bear in hibernation, and the art collection of the CIA. The following year Simon began A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (2011), for which she traveled the world researching and recording bloodlines and their related stories. In each of the work’s eighteen “chapters,” the external forces of territory, power, circumstance, and religion collide with the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance. The subjects documented by Simon include victims of genocide in Bosnia, test rabbits infected with a lethal disease in Australia, the first woman to hijack an aircraft, and the “living dead” in India. Her collection is at once cohesive and arbitrary, mapping the relationships among chance, blood, and other components of fate. For Contraband (2010), Simon spent a week at JFK International Airport in New York, photographing the goods that were seized as they entered the US from abroad. An archive of global desires and perceived threats, Contraband encompasses 1,075 images of items set against crisp pale gray backgrounds. A formal inverse of these works can be found in Black Square (2006–), in which Simon isolates objects, documents, and individuals within a black field with precisely the same measurements as Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 Suprematist work of the same name.
In 2012–13 Simon began work on Image Atlas (2012–) and The Picture Collection (2013–), projects that bridge physical and digital archives. The former, created with computer programmer Aaron Swartz, investigates cultural differences and similarities by indexing top image results for given search terms across local search engines throughout the world. The latter was inspired by the New York Public Library’s picture archive, whose 1.2 million printed images, organized under more than 12,000 subject headings, comprise the largest circulating picture library in the world. In 2013 Simon also produced Birds of the West Indies, a two-part series that takes its title from a taxonomy by American ornithologist James Bond. Part I is a visual inventory of the women, weapons, and vehicles appearing in the film franchise featuring the fictional British spy James Bond; this visual database of interchangeable variables used in the production of fantasy examines the economic and emotional value generated by their repetition. In Part II, Simon identifies, photographs, and classifies every bird that appears in the first twenty-four James Bond films. Simon pored over every scene to discover these moments of chance, training her eye away from the agents of seduction—glamour, luxury, power, violence, sex—to look only in the margins.
In Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015), Simon re-created centerpieces from official photographs of international political signings, underscoring how the stagecraft of power is created, performed, marketed, and maintained. The signings that inform the series involve the countries that were present at the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, which addressed the globalization of economies after World War II and led to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The concrete flower presses comprising the series’ sculptural component were included in the 2015 Venice Biennale. The following year Simon presented her first performance work, An Occupation of Loss (2016), in which professional mourners enact rituals of grief, broadcasting their lamentations from within a sculptural installation. Their sonic mourning is performed in recitations that include northern Albanian laments, which seek to excavate “uncried words”; Wayuu laments, which safeguard the soul’s passage to the Milky Way; Greek Epirotic laments, which bind the story of a life with its afterlife; and Yezidi laments, which map a topography of displacement and exile. Performed in New York in 2016 and in London in 2018, An Occupation of Loss probes the anatomy of loss and the intricate systems used to manage contingencies of fate and the uncertain universe.
Performance continues to intersect with Simon’s photographic work. Her 2018 exhibition at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, included two performance-based works, A Cold Hole (2018) and Assembled Audience (2018). In the former, Simon transports the ancient ritual of cold water immersion into the museum, inviting the public to seek the uncertain opportunity for a quick fix. Cold-water plunges’ long history of notable participants includes Apache leader Geronimo, who employed cold-water immersion to prepare boys for manhood and battle; biologist Charles Darwin; and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shock of plunging into freezing water overrides thought and elicits from participants a gasp like that experienced during sudden death, sleep arrhythmia, and birth. Assembled Audience probes the phenomenon of engineered applause. Over a one-year period, Simon recorded the claps of individuals attending events at the three largest venues in Columbus, Ohio, a city nicknamed “Test City, USA” because its demographics so closely mirror those of the nation as a whole. She layered these recordings into a dense soundscape that plays in a darkened space, gathering individuals with divergent political, corporate, and ideological allegiances into a single crowd that surrounds the viewer. The MASS MoCA exhibition also featured the first major museum installation of Simon’s bookwork, a central aspect of her carefully researched multimedia work.
The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection
July 14–September 11, 2021
976 Madison Avenue, New York
Extended through May 19, 2018
Paperwork and the Will of Capital
February 27–May 19, 2018
Merlin Street, Athens
Extended through July 8, 2016
Paperwork and the Will of Capital
April 14–July 8, 2016
Paperwork and the Will of Capital
February 18–March 26, 2016
555 West 24th Street, New York
Taryn Simon and Teju Cole
This spring, as part of the Lambert Family Lecture Series at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Taryn Simon joined Teju Cole for an online conversation about her artistic practice and creative process.
Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss
In Taryn Simon’s performance work An Occupation of Loss (2016), professional mourners enact rituals of grief, simultaneously broadcasting their lamentations from within a sculptural installation. This video by filmmaker Boris B. Bertram documents the April 2018 performance of this work with Artangel in Islington, London.
The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection
Joshua Chuang, the Robert B. Menschel Senior Curator of Photography at the New York Public Library, discusses the institution’s singular Picture Collection, the artist Taryn Simon’s rigorous engagement with it, and four instances of its little-known role in the history of art making.
Cast of Characters
James Lawrence explores how contemporary artists have grappled with the subject of the library.
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019
The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.
From Mortal Bodies to Immortal Crowds
Two immersive installations by Taryn Simon presented at MASS MoCA in 2018–19 examined the rituals of cold-water plunges and applause. Text by Angela Brown.
The Bigger Picture
Free Arts NYC
Meredith Mendelsohn discusses the impact of Free Arts NYC and its mission to foster creativity in children and teens, on the occasion of its twenty-year anniversary.
Obscuring the Index
Taryn Simon’s 2016 exhibitions spanned the globe. Angela Brown brings us highlights from six museums.
June 23–29, 2021
A storyteller and researcher driven by the mutability of fact and the documentary potential of fiction, Taryn Simon directs our attention to systems of organization—bloodlines, circulating picture collections, mourning rituals, ceremonial flower arrangements—revealing the structures of power and authority hidden within. Working in photography, sculpture, text, sound, performance, and installation, she traces lineages of objects, families, nations, and histories.
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Taryn Simon’s Cutaways (2012) is available online from June 23 through July 22 as part of Artist Spotlight: Taryn Simon. At the close of the taping of a video interview for Prime Time Russia in Moscow, Simon was asked to sit in silence and stare at the newscasters for several minutes so that the producers could gather additional footage for the editing process. Cutaways presents this footage as an autonomous work.
Taryn Simon, Cutaways, 2012 © Taryn Simon
Felix Art Fair 2021
July 29–August 1, 2021
Hollywood Roosevelt, Los Angeles
Gagosian is pleased to participate, for the first time, in the Felix Art Fair at the Hollywood Roosevelt, with a presentation of contemporary paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works on paper.
Duane Hanson, High School Student, 1990–92, 1 of 2 unique versions © 2021 Estate of Duane Hanson/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Opening this Week
The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection
September 23, 2021–January 9, 2022
New York Public Library
A project nine years in the making, The Color of a Flea’s Eye foregrounds the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, whose storied images have been available, for more than a century, for the public to sift through in search of visual references of every conceivable kind. Intrigued by the Picture Collection since childhood, in 2012 Taryn Simon embarked on a study of its underlying patterns, codes, and orders. Her photography of its contents reveals it to be an inadvertent recorder of changing social mores, disclosing latent fault lines of power, race, and gender.
Installation view, Taryn Simon: The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection, New York Public Library, 2020. Artwork © Taryn Simon. Photo: Rob McKeever
Reflection, Resilience, and Resistance in the Art of Our Time
Through March 20, 2022
Brooklyn Museum, New York
The Slipstream draws examples from Brooklyn Museum’s contemporary art collection to contemplate the profound disruption that occurred in 2020. Borrowing its title from an aeronautical term that refers to the pull of the current that is left in the wake of a large and powerful object, the exhibition examines the placement and displacement of power that runs through American history and continues today. The show features more than sixty works by multiple generations of artists from the 1960s to the present day, including Titus Kaphar and Taryn Simon.
Taryn Simon, Press XL, from the series Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015, Brooklyn Museum, New York © Taryn Simon
Taryn Simon in
Send Me an Image: From Postcards to Social Media
May 29–September 2, 2021
C/O Berlin Foundation
This exhibition considers photography’s transformation from an illustrative medium to one of society’s most significant means of communicating today. The photographs and projects on view illuminate phenomena such as censorship, surveillance, and algorithmic regulation, which affect human activities in our data-driven era. Work by Taryn Simon is included.
Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz, Image Atlas (2012), installation view, C/O Berlin Foundation © Taryn Simon. Photo: David von Becker
Taryn Simon in
Future Food: Essen für die Welt von morgen
May 31–August 28, 2021
Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden, Germany
This exhibition, whose title translates to Future Food: What Will We Eat Tomorrow?, investigates the political, ethical, and cultural significance of eating. This interdisciplinary show features works of contemporary art that address one of the most urgent questions of our time: “How will we—and can we—feed ourselves in the future?” Work by Taryn Simon is included.
Taryn Simon, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Contraband Room, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Queens, New York, 2007, from the series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, 2007 © Taryn Simon