Angela Brown is a writer and editor from Yonkers, New York. She is currently a PhD student in modern art history at Princeton University.
The image alone is not the work. Its true form—a combination of text and image—is only understood when seen at scale installed on the museum wall. I do feel compelled to speak when it is presented outside that context, in print or online, because it’s got its legs chopped off.Taryn Simon
Museums collect. They gather the objects of the world and put them into categories. In the Renaissance Wunderkammer, shelves were packed with curiosities from near and far; in the early-modern French salon, the walls overflowed with paintings organized according to subject-based hierarchies. Today, knowledge is created and spread within an uninterrupted flow of images and text. In this digital, globalizing present, Taryn Simon’s work enters the museum and proposes new strategies of research and visualization, creating indices of the information to which we have—or can gain—access.
Like the museum, Simon catalogues objects and information under specific organizing principles: symmetry, crispness of detail, and refined, minimal installation. Through this highly careful mode of tracing, depicting, and presenting, she both mirrors the systems she sets out to examine and surpasses them in her rigorous application of their logic. Her presentation of images and texts reflects the control and authority that are the very subject of Simon’s work. In this way her indices deal with the obscuring of information, bringing the viewer to question the stability of the very facts they present.
In 2016, Simon had gallery exhibitions in New York, Rome, and Brussels; her first performance work, An Occupation of Loss, co-commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Artangel, premiered in New York in September; and she had major museum exhibitions in Moscow, Prague, Tel Aviv, Dresden, and Copenhagen.
Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow
Renovated in 2015 by the architectural firm OMA, the Garage puts the open floor plan and exposed concrete of a Soviet-era restaurant to a twenty-first-century purpose. Its design offers glimpses of the building’s original mosaic and mural work, allowing contemporary art to live alongside views into the past. The two series of Simon’s in the exhibition, Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015) and Black Square (2006– ), entered into this dialogue between past and present. In Paperwork and the Will of Capital, Simon re-creates the floral centerpieces that witnessed thirty-six signings of official documents, all involved with aspects of governance and economics. Photographs of Simon’s reconstructions are accompanied by specimens of dried flowers, revealing how time transforms the artifacts of history. (For a more detailed description of this series see Kate Fowle’s essay on it in Gagosian Quarterly, February–April 2016.)
Black Square, a homage to Kasimir Malevich’s game-changing Suprematist masterpiece of 1915, is an ongoing project in which Simon formats objects, documents, and individuals within black squares of the same measurements as Malevich’s painting. Black Square XVII is an 80-by-80-by-80-cm cube containing a mass of vitrified nuclear waste derived from pharmaceutical and chemical plants in the greater Moscow region. This toxic cube is technically in the Garage’s permanent collection, but it must remain in Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM) until the year 3015, when it will finally be safe for human observation and will be placed in a custom-made niche currently cut into the Garage’s wall.
For Simon, Black Square XVII was “an exercise in being a step removed, as a condition of experience.” The work had to be made by proxy since Simon, as an American, was not allowed to enter the ROSATOM facility. She met with workers, wrote instructions (that then had to be translated into Russian), and handed off a letter to the future that was placed in a two-ply cylindrical steel capsule within the cube. The project gave rise to a film—a documentary about the atomic industry and the process of constructing an object indirectly within it. Half of the film was shot in the facility and the other half in a customized film studio at the Garage during the exhibition.
The Black Square series continues to capture disembodied objects with lasting implications. The black backgrounds are not neutral; the allusion to Malevich imbues each object with a political charge. On June 24, 2016, at 2:30 A.M. GMT, Simon went to Alexandra Palace in North London to photograph Black Square XX, a clear plastic box containing the final ballot count for the Borough of Haringey—pink and yellow slips of paper affirming that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union.
Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague
Simon’s work appeared at the Galerie Rudolfinum in neoclassical rooms with a complex past. In this ornate architectural context, projects including An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), Contraband (2010), Image Atlas (2012), Cutaways (2012), The Picture Collection (2013), and Birds of the West Indies (2013–14) felt like rare artifacts on display, blurring the line between art and science. The decor of the Rudolfinum, however, contains its own poignant historical details. Inaugurated in 1885, the building became the chamber of the Czechoslovak parliament after World War I; it was under Nazi occupation during World War II and was occupied by Soviet forces in 1968. Within this charged context, Simon’s works depicted inaccessible objects, sites, and spaces of American mythology; archived 1,075 images of items seized from airline passengers and postal mail; and pointed to the invisible hands behind seemingly neutral image-gathering systems at the New York Public Library and on Google. Her projects offer alternate readings of the world, highlighting habits of interference and judgment while also revealing the fictional dimensions of what we call facts.
Tel Aviv Museum of Contemporary Art
Paperwork and the Will of Capital gained additional layers of political complexity at the Tel Aviv Museum of Contemporary Art. Here it hung in the museum’s Herta and Paul Amir Building, a hyperboloid structure, faced in bright white Israeli stone, that was built in 2011 and has become a major international landmark at the center of the city. The building is not unlike Simon’s bouquets: serene, hermetic forms placed within contexts of complicated political tumult. This tumult is one of the reasons why the series was chosen for this exhibition.
Paperwork and the Will of Capital began in Simon’s mind with a nineteenth-century book of botanical specimens; an image of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Neville Chamberlain at the 1938 conference that saw the signing of the Munich Pact; and the Flemish Enlightenment idea of the “impossible bouquet,” the bouquet that was unrealizable in actuality, since its flowers blossomed at different times of the year, but that could be realized in painting. Piecing these seemingly disparate lines of inquiry together, Simon found that each revealed something about the others. Now, together, the botanical, the diplomatic, and the impossible enter Israel and reflect the current chapter in a long debate about Palestinian statehood. Whose land is it? Where are the borders? Who are the people? These questions are often answered through treaties, contracts, and attempts at consensus, but Paperwork and the Will of Capital addresses the instability of executive decision-making and the precarious nature of survival. Despite their innocuous appearances, the photographed bouquets and pressed flowers subtly suggest the impotence of diplomatic negotiations. Sometimes, major decisions made by religious and political leaders remain merely words on pages, waiting for signatures and resolution. Like the centerpieces, the paperwork becomes a prop, and humanitarian issues await concrete resolution.
Louisiana Museum, Copenhagen
In founding the Louisiana, in 1958, Knud W. Jensen wanted to create a museum in which Danes could see Danish art alongside a less familiar international collection. He followed what is known in the Louisiana as the “sauna principle,” which divided exhibitions into “hot” and “cold”: hot exhibitions included works that were well-known in the community—the favorites of Danish modernism, for example—while cold exhibitions introduced less accessible contemporary artists. In this way the museum hoped to attract guests with what they knew and liked, then challenge them by setting the familiar alongside the new or surprising.
The photographs in An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, the work Simon showed in the museum’s “Louisiana One Work” series, gracefully emulate the sauna principle. Their strong focus and formal compositions make them as engaging as a modernist Dutch painting, seducing viewers into contemplating them on a purely visual level. Yet this clean aesthetic is shaken by the content of the photographs: an inbred white tiger in a cage; a test explosion of an MK-84 IM warhead; a woman about to undergo hymenoplasty. Simon compiles an inventory of the covert, often troubling elements that underlie America’s foundation, mythology, and daily functioning.
This show marked Simon’s first solo exhibition in an encyclopedic museum. In the Albertinum’s grand Renaissance Revival building, a selection from the artist’s oeuvre spanning 2007 to 2015 entered a historical arc, a collection ranging from the Romantic era to the present. To expose Simon’s archival work in Dresden was symbolic on several levels. First, Dresden is a museum city. The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Collections), of which the Albertinum is a part, comprises fourteen state-sponsored museums. It originated in the sixteenth century, in the royal collections of kings, and boasts a systematic approach to collecting. This taxonomic drive to preserve national tradition continues to the present day.
Simon’s work both imitates and challenges this disciplined cataloguing, experimenting with the political and psychological impact of images and their dissemination. The exhibition title is a quote from the 1942 annual report of the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, which explains that the majority of image requests that year were for pictures of “the enemy.” The reason, the report explains, is that a soldier “must go into battle armed with visual knowledge of the face of the enemy and the contour of his lands.”
During the Cold War, Dresden was located in the extreme east of what was then the German Democratic Republic. This region came to be known as the “valley of the ignorant” because its residents had no access to Western television and to images of the West. Simon’s photographs thus grant special access to what once was vehemently hidden. The work also centers on boundaries and access, both of critical importance at this moment in Dresden’s history. As tens of thousands of refugees, mainly from Syria, seek safety in the city, they have been met with opposition and violence. Crowds gather to protest migration, some fearing that Germany’s traditions will be eroded by the increased presence of Muslims. It is at this juncture that Simon’s work enters a cultural institution that symbolizes and in some ways harbors these national traditions.
United Nations Headquarters, New York
On the occasion of the 2016 General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, three photographs from Paperwork and the Will of Capital were installed in the treaty-signing area at the UN Headquarters. The works—Treaty on European Union (Maastricht Treaty). Maastricht, the Netherlands, February 7, 1992 (2015), Convention on Cluster Munitions. Oslo, Norway, December 3, 2008 (2015), and Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Marrakesh, Morocco, April 15, 1994 (2015)—thus returned to the kind of site and sources that had inspired them. The photographed bouquets, alongside miscellaneous diplomatic gifts, bore witness yet again, but this time they served as windows into the past rather than customary ornamentation. During the treaty signings, Simon was granted permission to document the events as a press photographer, taking on the very role of the makers of the archived photographs that had fueled her own images.
Simon’s expanding indices extract clear visual points from the blurry timelines of recent history. To display her conceptual works in international museums is to slow the pace at which we receive visual and textual information. Simon utilizes the museum’s atmosphere of leisurely contemplation in order at once to present and to obscure. Her work reveals the imperceptible space between language and the visual world—a space in which multiple truths and fantasies are constructed, and in which translation and disorientation continually occur. Clarity draws attention to the unclear. Meanings shift and engagement oscillates. And, despite growing networks of shared visual data, Simon shows the human act of looking to be inevitably solitary.
Artwork © Taryn Simon