Taryn Simon: Paperwork and the Will of Capital @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 unmatted color photographs with text in recessed mahogany frames, hung on the walls of the three rooms and on both sides of a partition. All of the photographs are archival inkjet prints on archival herbarium paper, made in 2015. Each is sized 85 x 73 1/4 x 2 3/4 inches and is available in an edition of 3+2AP.

The show also includes 12 sculptures, stationed in the middle of the floor in the main gallery, also made in 2015. Each of the sculptures is unique and identical in size (44 15/16 x 22 x 30 inches) except for one (50 5/16 x 22 x 17 inches.) The sculptures consist of paired black concrete bases, on top of which sit archival inkjet photographs and texts on herbarium paper, as well as dried plant specimens. A steel brace holds them inside a Plexiglas column.

A companion monograph of this body of work has been published in 2016 by Hatje Cantz (here). It includes essays by Kate Fowle and Nicholas Kulish, botanical notes by Daniel Atha, and a short story by Hanan al-Shaykh. €78 hardcover.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Taryn Simon’s photographs usually can’t be understood without knowing their backstory. Her first major project, The Innocents (2003), portrayed men and women wrongly convicted of crimes and then exonerated through DNA evidence. But these cellular strands of chemicals were nowhere to be seen in her restful images of men freely sitting in a bar or on a bed. Why they had been arrested and what indignities they had suffered while in prison (or after) were issues impossible to discern.

Simon’s belief—that photographs seldom tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth—can enlarge a previously neglected subject. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) illustrated how much of what photographers show us about anything depends on access. Her catalog of secret or obscure places maintained by organizations as varied as the U.S. Mint and Lucasfilms suggested that what is seen by the public is merely the antechamber to a vast palace of rooms, all of them containing secrets. In her marvelous Contraband (2010), she photographed for a week the hundreds of illegal items seized by the U.S. Customs and the Postal Service at JFK Airport in New York. Her clinical images of these objects, everything from bottles of steroids and fake Louis Vuitton bags to a deer penis and tongue, prompted imaginings about the offstage smugglers and their providers, a chain of fictional inferences extending around the world.

In recent years, though, her projects often arrive with so much extra baggage that it’s become a chore to unpack them. As her backstories have become more elaborate and convoluted, the photographs have seemed like addendums, if not irrelevant. The few semi-arresting portraits among the hundreds she made for A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII (2008-2011) were constricted by their presentation in long columns and by framed paragraphs of densely printed text, the research basis for her systematic tracing of bloodlines. With a subject too immense and unwieldy for her camera to apprehend, she ended up trivializing the pain of her far-flung victims by making them hostages of her ambitious plan.

This regrettable trend continues in the vacuous Paperwork and the Will of Capital. Each of these wall-sized photographs of flowers arrangements is accompanied by blocks of text that explain how a similar bouquet formed the table centerpiece at 36 different economic and political agreements.

The labor and research that went into this project is impressive. (We have come to expect no less from the indefatigable Simon.) From photographs and archival notes, she recreated the arrangements used at these meetings, importing more than 4000 (!?) specimens to her studio. She then photographed the results against bi-colored back-grounds that recall the bright Pop palette favored by Neil Winokur and Elad Lassry.

As justification for going to all this trouble, Simon is quoted as saying: “These flowers sat between powerful men as they signed agreements designed to influence the fate of the world.”

To which, one might reasonably answer: “Yeah? So? What does a floral arrangement have to do with the historical forces and tricky negotiations—the tradeoffs and/or bribes—that led to a 2013 agreement between China and Pakistan over satellite navigation? Or to a 2012 framework to develop a Park Hyatt in St. Kitts with the United Arab Emirates?”

I’m sure that plastic bottles of water—locally sourced or bought from the distributor for Perrier or Poland Spring—were also on the table at these gatherings. World leaders and bank presidents sat in upholstered chairs, perhaps manufactured by Knoll or Eames. Some agreements were probably signed with Montblanc pens.

Wouldn’t photographing any of these objects be equally illuminating—which is to say, not at all—about the “powerful men” who signed these accords?

Were the flowers symbolic of the countries involved in these agreements, or had Simon been able to photograph the expensive bouquets after they had been unceremoniously pitched in the trash, something less stuffy might have resulted. But they aren’t and she wasn’t.

Instead, flowers at a meet-and-greet are enlisted to draw a tenuous link between the botanical trade and the history of international capitalism. We are informed that Simon bought her 4000 specimens from the flower auctions at Aalsmeer in the Netherlands, a country whose ships sailed with plants to and from the New World, Africa, and Asia, and whose companies financed worldwide explorations. (Simon chose to photograph only “impossible bouquets,” a term used by 17th century Dutch painters when they depicted clusters of plants and flowers that wouldn’t naturally bloom at the same time–a mind-teasing impossibility obviated by modern technology and agriculture.)

This deconstruction of images or artifacts to expose their veiled ideological meanings is a strategy beloved by many contemporary artists, including Victor Burgin, Fred Wilson, Sherrie Levine, and Louise Lawler. (Angola to Vietnam by Christopher Williams, a photographic correspondence between the glass flowers in the Botanical Museum at Harvard and an Amnesty International list of countries engaged in political violence, may have served as an unfortunate model for Simon.)

Perhaps if her photographs of the flowers were not so waxen, or if viewers didn’t have to strain to connect text and image, Simon’s barbs would have more of a sting. Her choice of materials isn’t helpful. By framing the prints in mahogany, she wanted to “emulate the style of boardroom furniture,” according to the press release. Any artist in the Gagosian stable who claims that her work mocks global capitalism and “powerful men” risks being mocked herself. Nor is it a good idea to warn about environmental despoliation and then use mahogany. By some estimates 80-90% of the wood that enters the U.S. has been harvested illegally in Peru. Some shipments may very well be stopped at JFK as contraband.

According to the Gagosian press release, Paperwork and the Will of Capital “addresses the instability of executive decision-making and the precarious nature of survival, as well as the reliability and endurance of records…and of language itself.”

I’m sorry but these photographs of flowers do none of these things.

Simon’s bank shots don’t always ricochet so wide of the pocket. The indexical comparisons that guided Birds of the West Indies I and II (2013-14) were farfetched but laced with wit. A dual inventory of the guns, cars, and women (birds) in the James Bond movies and of the ornithological specimens flying in the background within 24 scenes, it exposed some of the sexual and hi-tech formulas that have kept this hoary commercial enterprise alive during and after the Cold War. Her artistic technique of lifting images from the films was also apt: the “original” James Bond was an ornithologist in the Caribbean whose name was appropriated by Ian Fleming for his cruel tuxedoed hero.

Simon’s admirable instinct is to complicate everything by peering behind the complacent front of events and photographs. But she has developed a tendency to overthink. It may be healthy for artists to slow down viewers so they can’t gobble images in a hurry, as we are wont to do in the age of Instagram and Snapchat. It doesn’t follow, however, that the dietary solution is to load us with so much fibrous material that we no longer have an appetite to digest it.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The framed photographs are priced at $85000 each, while the sculptures of pressed flower pages are $185000 each. Simon’s work has only recently begun to enter the secondary markets, so no definitive pricing history has yet emerged. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Taryn Simon, Gagosian Gallery, Hatje Cantz

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Simon’s latest big spend/faux cogency effort. Fair review.

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

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