A cataloguer of both the sensational and the banal, a completist with a postmodernist’s skepticism toward completion, Taryn Simon tarries with a range of contradictory discourses and desires. In her newest exhibition she turns men and women into artifacts in her ever-expanding order of things.
“A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII” (2008-11) is an expansive project documenting bloodlines and the histories they engender and illustrate. From a family whose members have had their official records altered in a disinheritance scheme, as referenced in the project’s title, to the ever-growing dynasty of a polygamist doctor in Kenya, some of whose wives were offered to him as payment for his services, each of the 18 lineages—nine of which were on view—exemplifies in its own way the immanently fraught intersection of the genealogical and the social.
Individual chapters are presented in tripartite arrangements comprising portraits of the members of each bloodline, short narrative texts and what Simon refers to as “visual footnotes”—miscellaneous images of people, places and artifacts related to the lives of those depicted. With their manila-colored backdrops and drab wooden frames, the works might easily be mistaken for documents of strictly historical value, and, indeed, the subtle fascination of the work owes much to the esthetics of the archive.
Inundated by a concerted monotony, one is drawn to those tiny, arresting details that thwart expectations of order. Take the sudden glimmer of emotion among an otherwise impassive cast of subjects. One struggles to dissociate the tearful eyes of the young girl in Chapter VII from the tragedy endured by her family: two sons lost to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Chapter XVII, which documents a group of children from a Ukrainian orphanage, a knowing grin amid a sea of blank faces provokes a double take—how else, one wonders, might this child prove an exception to the rule?
The texts and footnotes privilege incidental correspondences over totalizing narratives. Again, it is the minutiae that are most affecting. In a chapter documenting the first female airplane hijacker, Leila Khaled, one stumbles upon the factoid that President Nixon’s anti-hijacking program was instituted in 1970 on no less ironic a date than September 11. In a chapter on the descendants of Hans Frank, governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, we learn that Frank was an admirer of old-master painting.
As we are reminded by the presence, in a different show in an adjoining gallery, of the Atlas Group’s My Neck is Thinner than a Hair: Engines—a work purportedly documenting car-bomb explosions during the Lebanese Civil War—Simon is just one of a number of artists who have used the ambiguities of the archive to subvert testimony and advance discursive possibilities. What distinguishes this work is its ostensible manipulation of the more seductive aspects of the irreducible and overdetermined, its almost manneristic deployment of an esthetic of open-ended insinuation.
Photo: Detail of Chapter XVII, 2011, from Taryn Simon’s project “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,” pigmented inkjet prints, 84 by 2417⁄8 inches overall; at MoMA.
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.