May 2007, WM issue #3: Taryn Simon @ Whitney Museum of American Art
Where do I begin? Perhaps I’m fumbling my words because my tongue would like to fork: Sixty-two photos – nice and even. But maybe only seventeen. Which is odd, uneven at best.
They’re very clean, quite beautiful. Spacious, even. How strange that sixty-two can breath easily while seventeen don’t have the space for a single sigh.
In effect: Sixty-two additions to my mental Museum of Natural History. Seventeen additions to a dusty attic.
Infrequently does an exhibition and its catalogue battle it out for supremacy. It’s perhaps the implicit tension more regularly felt. One is bound to time, while the other effectively runs it out. One is easily viewed, the other, a destination. The case can be made that our generation is one of page-turners while previous eras made it their concern to see the actual artwork. Ease of retrieval and possession has bullied the romances of sight and smell into remission. Though, it may be the current generation’s facility for precise recollection that allows them to visualize a piece so fully as to believe a phenomenal viewing unnecessary. Or perhaps consumption is just the greater name of the game. The huge problematic of reproducibility remains a topic that allows little space for actual consternation since most believe it to be buried underneath the dissertations of hundreds of thousands of retiring and budding historians alike. Regardless of the surrounding discourse, Taryn Simon’s new body of work, entitled An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar stages the startling duel between images in a virtual white space versus an actual one.
Simon herself states that “[e]vidence does not exist in a closed system. Like photography, it cannot exist apart from its context, or outside of the modes by which it circulates.” Simon’s new work currently circulates within both the dingy mezzanine floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art and a spectacularly crafted artist’s book. It seems almost unfair to call these respective formats by the same name, but as they hold this in common, it may be best to begin here, overlooking blatant differences.
Wasting no time, Simon inaugurates her body of work with a dense and problematic title. An American Index, not An Index of America. One could then read this as a project that is specifically American, not simply the images themselves. And this project is not a new one. Photographers have labored over indexes of all varieties, within the borders of and beyond. August Sanders remains one of the great photographers obsessed with creating an index and exploiting the camera as its tool par excellence – able to both organize and preserve. But Simon’s index could only be considered a distant relative of such a project. Even with sixty-two photos, one could not call the endeavor exhaustive in scope. As Elizabeth Sussman and Tina Kukielski point out in their introduction to the book, “the 62 annotated photographs comprising the series are by no means a system of classification. This is not an archive, but a time capsule.” More important than its strict adherence to the idea of an index are its creative meanderings. I would insist, however, on calling it a kind of archive. Authoring the ebullient forward to Simon’s book is the writer Salman Rushdie, noted author of the novel Midnight’s Children. Although seemingly an odd candidate to write the forward, recalling Midnight’s Children may clarify the selection. It too, like Simon’s photos, can be considered an idiosyncratic archive. The book catalogues India's history through the storytelling of Saleem. As he threads his mythical tale, we are caught in India 's memories, myths, and figures, and a singular archive is born. For the process of creating an archive is one of both remembering and forgetting. Simon’s archive, as well as Rushdie’s, just happen to be some of the most fantastical memories of a rarified population. A photograph of Kenny, an inbred white tiger makes the point – he looks like a living drawing. More than reminiscent of colonial depictions of tigers, Kenny is a breathing anachronism. His appearance is due to horrendous inbreeding, causing deformations from head to toe. Attempted mass production resulted in reliance upon crossing familial paths, and thus damaged the beauty of a once rare animal. Kenny resides in the Wildlife Refuge and Foundation in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Simon’s first foray into exploring the photographic index as both beneficial and detrimental in a body of work called The Innocents. Taken of individuals who had been imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, Simon’s project hopes to both redeem photography and warn against the constant threat of its damnation, including the damnation of others. Based on loose photographic support and skewed judgment, photographs became a crucial part of the evidence necessary to jail many of these victims. So, with the help of captions describing these cases, places, and people, Simon reveals photography’s ethical possibilities and its limitations – one can only photograph what has already taken place. Photography is therefore prescriptive in its moral and ethical commentary, not pre-emptive.
Her new work shrugs much of the heavy ethical responsibility that The Innocents carried, but does demonstrate some level of continuity. One can argue that by revealing sites of often unseen, Simon again uses photography as a redemptive practice. To counteract the threat of photography as an exploitative tool, Simon focuses what generally goes unnoticed. We are able to see what, in general, is out of view. Our eyes are opened. The tight-rope one must walk to believe such a claim, however, is awfully skimpy: tread carefully. What makes this body of work hold such an odd place is how it finds its way to us. Simon has been at work on this index for over four years, much of this time devoted to scouting out sites and dealing with the people who govern them. For her to gain access, she must abide by certain rules and regulations. These photos are not swipes of a moment. Nothing at all indicates a sense of hurriedness or fear. Simon was authorized to take these photos. I cannot stress specificity enough – these photos were authorized. The claim then that we are seeing what cannot be seen, begins to falter. I recommend those considering the tightrope now to simply refrain.
That multi-headed monster named authorship once again storms into the frame. How deeply do the signatures of these governing authorities scar the surfaces of Simon’s photos? And can the photos recover a sense of freedom within these confines? But really, such a strict dichotomy of good versus evil, revelation versus concealment, light versus dark, cannot make for a worthy analysis. The work doesn’t even allow it. I page to a photo of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Contraband Room in John F. Kennedy Airport and all I’m able to muster is a hushed mouthing of the word “coool.” And once I notice that ragged pig’s head cozily rotting amidst an assembly of bright and bulbous perishables, even that is eclipsed. The caption below, almost a trademark of Simon’s work, lists every insidious fruit, vegetable, and flesh. “African cane rats infested with maggots, African yams (dioscorea), Andean potatoes, Bangladeshi cucurbit plants…” – each word wraps itself around its respective decay.
One can see that perhaps an epic is not necessary to delve into the complexities of restraint on the artistic practice. Simon’s work does just that, poignantly and beautifully. Not that Simon triumphs over those limiting her, but that the relationship between the two parties may not be so hostile. It may be that Simon enjoys these very limitations, that she finds something fatedly empirical about them – the artist must function within certain confines and must circulate through different systems that allow for only so much. The debts that all artists owe to the predecessors who have arrested their thoughts is what prompts innovation, which is itself limited by the here and now. Everything is perhaps theoretically possible, but for it to be relevant, a certain understanding of history is necessary. This concept of an indebted, fractured artist is not new, only that the present manifestations address themselves more self-consciously. We may notice this kind of mirrored practice in much postmodern theory. Becoming self-conscious of photography’s discursive spaces is just one venue postmodernism has taken. It has unsettled many, but Simon doesn’t seem to be phased. It is her overall acknowledgment of the photography’s status as supplemental that allows her to continue and thrive in a variety of discursive practices.
The photograph must not be treated as reality. Photos are given meaning, and through other supplemental practices, this meaning can be refined, altered, contradicted, or complicated. In Simon’s American Index, the caption once gain appears, this time directing the multiple strands of strange sites and places within the United States . The sumptuousness of a picture is not enough for her, does not give enough information, regardless of its poetic qualities. The photo’s economy of speech must still surrender itself to other discourses that can direct and influence meaning.
More subtle fields of knowledge also determine one’s reading of these photos. Simon has an obsessive interest in particular facts, numbers, and details. This sense of a scientific catalogue with such a seemingly random set of images that hardly lend themselves to a clear methodology, gives one the impression that these photos are a kind of overall diagnosis of, like a set of case studies that points to being too hybridized a species to call it any one thing. We get glimpses of what it might be, and which species it may share more traits with than others (that many of these photos were taken in Maryland is perhaps not just a shock to me), but in the end, we are left with a unclassifiable creature that we can name only, and always, partially.
I make a final return to the initial duel. The Whitney’s exhibition seems to be an afterthought. The lighting is dim, the photos are installed so that each butts up to another forming a necklace around the walls, mind you, with only seventeen links. The captions are displayed as extended titles, something that seems minor, but the nature of the book goes to show how important such details are. Simon’s book is oversized and fabric bound. It mimics the look of an actual governmental index down to the typeface. The novelty of the object alone is fascinating. And the nature of this material is far more suited for the format of a book. One should not be able to see these photos all at once, but slowly wowed, going from one wonder to the next, as if releasing treasure after treasure. Each spread has only one photo, displayed on the right side of the page with only a few exceptions to the rule. This makes for extremely clean viewing and melds caption and photo far more successfully than the exhibition’s attempt. As both can currently be seen, they inform one another, and so the book makes the exhibition look like a simple demonstration. Skip it – what is ordinarily considered the main attraction is now the side show. Though, one can’t really speak of a main attraction anymore, each is only a supplement.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief