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 twenty-eight “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.
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
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.
Ice and Fire: A Benefit Exhibition in Three Parts
October 15, 2020–March 13, 2021
The benefit exhibition Ice and Fire features works by more than forty artists who have enduring relationships with the Kitchen in New York. Installed within the organization’s three-story space in Chelsea, which is currently closed due to the global pandemic, the three-part exhibition is viewable online. Proceeds from sales will go toward a planned renovation on the occasion of the Kitchen’s fiftieth anniversary, ensuring that the nonprofit space will remain a platform for artistic experimentation in its historic and beloved building. Work by Cecily Brown, Roe Ethridge, Mark Grotjahn, Alex Israel, Ed Ruscha, Taryn Simon, Mary Weatherford, and Christopher Wool is included.
Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Capri 53.57), 2020 © Mark Grotjahn
Duane Hanson, Taryn Simon, Jeff Wall
Thursday, August 20, 2020, 5pm EDT
Join Gagosian for a trio of online presentations to learn about the ways Duane Hanson, Taryn Simon, and Jeff Wall approach photography as a generative practice and notions of truth and reality. Andy Avini will explain how Hanson’s figures take on new meaning in a photographic context, Louise Neri will speak about the intersection of photography in Simon’s multidisciplinary practice, and Graham Dalik will discuss how Wall changes photography’s relationship to truth through influence from other art forms. To join, register at zoom.us.
Jeff Wall, Pawnshop, 2009 © Jeff Wall
All for the Hall
August 8–December 31, 2020
Guild Hall, East Hampton, New York
Renowned American artist Robert Longo has mobilized sixty artists to donate artworks for a special benefit exhibition with all proceeds supporting Guild Hall, the historic multidisciplinary center that has for decades served the artist community of Long Island’s East End. In response to the ongoing impact of the covid-19 pandemic, All for the Hall includes painting, sculpture, photography, and new site-responsive installations. Work by Cindy Sherman and Taryn Simon is included
Taryn Simon, Brazil, from the series Birds of the West Indies, 2014 © Taryn Simon
Opening this Week
An American Index
March 2–May 30, 2021
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is presenting the entirety of Taryn Simon’s photographic series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), recently acquired for its collection. Documenting in photography and text objects, sites, and spaces that remain inaccessible or unknown to the American public, this incisive body of work offers a unique and unsettling portrait of the United States through the lenses of science, religion, medicine, entertainment, security, and politics.
Taryn Simon, Republic of Texas, Interim Government, Capitol Building, Overton, Texas, 2007, from the series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, 2007 © Taryn Simon
Taryn Simon in
Future Food. Food for Tomorrow’s World
Autumn 2021–Summer 2022
Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden, Germany
Investigating the political, ethical, and cultural significance of eating, this interdisciplinary exhibition 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 in
Spaces of No Control
October 1, 2020–February 19, 2021
Austrian Cultural Forum New York
Spaces of No Control is an international group exhibition that explores the notions of the modern city and its signifying dystopias of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This multifaceted show unites contemporary artists based in Austria and the United States to comment on current definitions of citizenship and public space. 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
August 13, 2020–February 14, 2021
City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand
Terminal is an exhibition of international art made about the airport, not for it. The exhibiting artists variously address the airport as site, form, or symbol—often by subverting its iconography and processes, or by tackling its history and politics. Work by Andreas Gursky and Taryn Simon is included.
Taryn Simon, Sausages (prohibited), 2010, from the series Contraband, 2010 © Taryn Simon