Tuesday 10 September 2013

Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon at the George Economou Collection, Marousi, Athens.

Taryn Simon is at the vanguard of a relatively new kind of photography that evades easy categorisation and often blurs the boundaries between reportage, conceptualism and portraiture. She makes work that straddles the worlds of documentary photography and fine art.

Until she undertook A Living Man Declared Dead , her work was 'about issues of power, mainly American power, at a historical moment when governance and power structures are destabilising and changing due to unpredictable forces like the global economy, environmental changes and asymmetrical warfare'. She rejects the label 'political artist' and its connotations, however. 'The work eludes that kind of categorisation intentionally, though, of course, it may activate something political in the viewer or resonate with them in a political way. But I don't have an agenda'.

Her photographs can look deceptively ordinary until one realises what one is looking at. She is a conceptual photographer whose documentary-style work is process-driven and layered. She often combines her pictures with adjacent panels of text, thereby interrupting the linear progression of visual stimulus and demanding a closer inspection of what is actually going on.

Her practice explores the space between the purported reality of the visual image as evidenced by the photograph and the actual truth that the image represents and calls to mind the great photographer Dorothea Lange who said in 1941: 'While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see'.

A  Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters:

This work was produced over a four-year period during which Simon travelled around the world researching and recording bloodlines and their related stories. The subjects she documents 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.

The work is divided into eighteen chapters. Each chapter is comprised of three segments: an annotation, a large portrait series depicting bloodline members and a second series containing photographic evidence. The work explores issues of individual identity, the myriad ways through which it can be lost or effaced, while revealing the influence of politics, culture, religion and power.

'A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, is an extraordinary work: intellectually sophisticated, meticulously plotted, beautifully produced, poignant and excruciating in its details, and overwhelming in its cumulative effect. It is relentless in its pursuit of what we might call the presenting power of art', writes Glenn Harcourt.

Chapter X is primarily about Cabrera Antero and it is his bloodline that is explored in this chapter. He was a member of the Igorot, a community of Filipino farmers and miners, put on display at the 1904 St Louis World Fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, to showcase the United States' recent acquisition of the Philippines.

Representatives of the Igorot, some not aware of their destination, travelled to St. Louis, where they constructed simulated villages for the fair's audience. The Philippine exhibit was the largest and most popular of the fair, occupying 47 acres of land with 92 buildings and over 1,100 native Filipinos. The Igorot attracted the most interest from visitors for their custom of killing and eating dogs, and for their tattoos, which recorded the results of head-hunting expeditions. Igorot descendants claim that dogs were eaten primarily on ceremonial occasions, yet the Igorot in the Philippine exhibit were compelled by fair organisers to eat approximately 20 dogs per week. Harcourt's comment on this: 'extracted from its ritual context and re-presented in a way that seems roughly equivalent to feeding time in the lion house'.

Commemorating the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the size of the United States, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition showcased examples of American power, progress and colonial conquest.

Contraband  (2009):

Pharmaceuticals  (from Contraband)


Pharmaceuticals, (from Contraband)

Contraband is an archive of global desires and perceived threats, presenting 1,075 images of items that were detained or seized from passengers and mail entering the United States from abroad. It's an amazing documentation of goods seized over a four-day period at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The pictures reflect the diverse influx of products and people seeking entry - the American ideal of openness and laissez-faire and the related mythology of the immigrant seeking a better life in America are subverted.

American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar:

A record of what lies hidden and out of view within the borders of the United States. Simon managed to get herself admitted to dozens of places where outsiders with cameras aren't usually allowed, including a nuclear-waste storage facility. 'If somebody closes the door', she says, 'I have to find another way to get in'.

The book, published in 2007, delves deep into a secret America in images that are often both detached and ominous: a cryopreservation unit where bodies are frozen just after death; a bio-containment laboratory where deadly animal diseases are studied; a death row outdoor recreational cage;  a nuclear-waste storage facility; a reconstructed crime scene at a forensic research center, complete with a rotting corpse.

According to Simon, the text and image format for 'An American Index...' was inspired by the logs and journals of early explorers of the New World, who hand-drew pictures and labelled them with a cold recording of date. Her body of work attempts to forge a new valuation of the American landscape.

'In a historical period in which many people are making such great efforts to conceal the truth from the mass of people, an artist like Taryn Simon is an invaluable counter-force. Democracy needs visibility, accountability, light...', writes Salman Rushdie in the introduction to the book.

Alhurra TV, Broadcast Studio Springfield, Virginia, 2007

Alhurra is a U.A. Government-sponsored, Arabic language television network devoted primarily to news and information. Established in February 2004, the network broadcasts 24-hour, commercial-free satellite programming to an audience of 21 million weekly viewers in 22 Arab countries. In April 2004, a second Iraq-focused channel, Alhurra Iraq, was launched.

Section 501 of the U.S. Information and Education Exchange Act, passed by Congress in 1948, authorizes the U.S. government to disseminate information abroad about the U.S. and its policies. Section 501 also prohibits dissemination of that same information.

It is therefore illegal to broadcast Alhurra domestically. Alhurra is Arabic for 'the free one'.

Smith and Wesson, 44 Magnum Revolver Frame, Smith and Wesson, Headquarters, Springfield Massachusetts.

The frame of the revolver is portrayed as a still life, red hot from the forge, calling attention to the 200 million privately owned firearms in the US.

Death Row Outdoor Recreational Facility, 'The Cage'  (not in the exhibition)

At Mansfield Correctional Institution, death row inmates are permitted one hour of outdoor recreation per day in individual or group containment areas known as cages or bullpens. Inside segregated cages there is only a chin-up bar and inmates are not permitted to bring any items with them. In non-segregated cages there is a stationary basketball net and they are permitted to bring with them items including a basketball, radio, deck of cards and cigarettes.

All death row inmates at Mansfield are classified as having 'mental health issues'. In Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the execution of persons with mental 'retardation' to be unconstitutional. Defining mental' retardation' is a controversial issue currently being addressed as part of the proposed Death Penalty Reform Act of 2006.   38 of the 50 U.S. States provide for the death penalty in law.




  1. Thanks, Eirene, for this. There are some works of art, in whatever category or cross-categorical description that need a serious study, shutting out all else. I hope that I shall be able to find time to pursue your links sometime because it all looks fascinatingly thought-provoking. Somehow your difficulties both of journey and of entrance to the exhibition seem peculiarly apposite. It's good that you had the 90 minute return journey as a kind of air lock out of the experience.

    1. Spot on about the return journey, Olga - it was time to think and marvel. I want to find out more about Simon: there is some of her work at Tate Modern apparently and next time I am there I will explore.