Contraband (2010), Taryn Simon’s fourth significant body of work, is the result of five straight days and nights spent at New York’s JFK airport, documenting items confiscated by customs authorities from passengers or express post arriving in the United States. At the Centre d’Art Contemporain, 546 of the total 1,075 photographs were on display. They were presented in regimented columns and arranged alphabetically by the object depicted—from Alcohol (illegal/undeclared) to Wood Carvings (prohibited). Compared to her best-known previous project, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2004-07), which presents often moody and atmospheric images of the interiors of little-known or secret sites (including military, medical, energy, zoological) with a full paragraph of explanation, the tone of Contraband is one of studied neutrality. The items are pictured from some distance against a uniform pale background, and the captions are reduced to a category title and grounds for seizure.
For the less recognizable objects, the photos are shot from far enough away to leave the viewer wanting more information, but what can be seen speaks volumes. The images offer an overview of the illicit movement of goods in a globalized world and of the distinctions that remain between cultures despite this mobility—a frame of pinned butterflies looks familiar, a ceremonially presented deer penis less so. They are also evidence of what, according to U.S. law, does not belong, such as a foreign plant species, or indeed, like illegal weaponry, poses a danger to the country. And here is humanity in all its guises: a package of home-grown tomatoes that will not reach its intended recipient, animal parts gathered for culinary or ritual purposes, counterfeit goods to satisfy the lust for brand names, sexual stimulants with an image on the packaging of an insatiable woman embracing a tiger.
Given their spare presentation, the images in Contraband are neither as theatrical nor as immediately engaging as those of An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, but they too come from a privileged, liminal location where the U.S. defines its tolerances. Thus presented, the rules determining these limits appear to be blunt instruments. Is this invasion of privacy an equitable price to pay for security? Does a distaste arise from knowing that this takes place with our tacit accord?
Recording these confiscated items without context gives Simon’s endeavor the appearance of a scientific exercise, and once she had negotiated access to the customs post, she did indeed record every object without exception. Her findings remind one of August Sander’s 1920s and ’30s catalogue of portraits of Germans; by virtue of determined impartiality and an anthropologist’s eye, Simon too reveals that which is too familiar to be seen.
Photo: Detail of Taryn Simon’s ANIMAL CORPSES (PROHIBITED), 2010, inkjet prints in Plexiglas box, 9 1/4 by 22 3/4 by 2 1/2 inches; at the Centre d’Art Contemporain.