The Intricate Projects of Taryn Simon

This week, Taryn Simon’s exhibition opened in the Prague Rudolfinum gallery — the artist’s first exhibition in the Central-European capital. The untitled exposition features four different projects, created by the New York artist between 2007 and 2014. The Birds of West Indies“, “Contraband, “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” and “The Image Atlas“.

There’s a visible sense of obsession with categorizing, organizing and filtering in Simon’s work. “Contraband” presents her findings from her 1-week stay at New York’s JFK airport, where she photographed hundreds of products captured by the local customs and border protection officers. Food, drugs, natural produce, pirated CDs, DVDs and many other captures… All carefully sorted and exhibited in seperate categories throughout the gallery walls. The photographs are enclosed in plexi-glass covers, as if the viewer should be denied any contact, possible contamination or unauthorized access to the peculiar mix of forbidden goods. An oddly satisfying “catalog” of global desires, which are not always globally accepted.

“Contraband” at the Helsinki City Art Museum, 2012. © tarynsimon.com

Simon’s impressive obsession (and patience) with categorization and extensive research is even more evident in “The Picture Collection”. In this project, Simon works with the picture library of the Mid-Manhattan Library in New York — the largest and most important picture collection in the world, where over 1.2 million pictures, prints and photographs are stored and organised into a complex catalogued system based on over 12.000 subject headings. Simon uses the library’s system of subject headings (the modern language would call these “tags”) to gather similar images into large collages, which often showcase how the catalogues can create absurd, random and sometimes accidental connections between seemingly unrelated pictures. Reproductions of famous artworks are shown next to travel postcards and generic advertising material. The historically validated images are exhibited side-by-side to those that are not.

Ultimately, Taryn Simon explores this unstable image of the modern day, which could easily create basis for how the future generation will look upon the visual history of this civilisation. She brings into consideration that the future collective understanding could very well be based upon collections like these.

“Folder: Express highways” from “The Picture Collection”. © tarynsimon.com

The theme of a collective understanding based on the presented visual history reoccurs in Simon’s other project — an interactive installation titled “The Image Atlas”. In cooperation with programmer Aaron Swartz, Simon created a image search engine that shows and compares search results from 57 countries world-wide. The results can be filtered and sorted based on the gross domestic product of the given countries.
 The results, depending on the query, can vary in many extraordinary ways — simple searches s such as “girls”, “america” or “party” will come up with different results in each country. These results can then greatly manifest the cultural and social differences, as well as the differences in what these cultures are ultimately searching for in these queries.
 Simon seems to be questioning the universal visual language, and turning attention to the implications these unknowing algorithms can have in the future of communication.

“The Image Atlas” at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, 2015. © tarynsimon.com

Perhaps the only part of this exhibition, that does not carry the sense of constant categorisation, is “The American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar”. Here, Simon brings out her journalist excellence and hits hard on the anti-american note. The series of photographs capturing the hidden and unknown of the american society is an incredibly intriguing insight. We see the Palestinian woman, fearing the cultural implications, undergoing hymenoplasty (restoration of a ruptured hymen) in Ft. Lauderdal, Florida. We see a white tiger Kenny who, as a result of selective in-breeding, suffers from mental retardation. We see the military testing of explosive warheads and we see the special edition of Playboy, for the visually impaired.
 We see the dark and/or unwanted side of America. We see the side of it, that nobody wants to see, but nobody can fully ignore. The hidden and unfamiliar of the “great land of freedom”. A land, that is no longer what it dreamt to be.

“White Tiger (Kenny)”, © tarynsimon.com
“An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” at the Musem for Modern Art, Frankfurt, 2007. © tarynsimon.com
“Exploding Warhead — Test area C-80C”. © tarynsimon.com

Originally published at blog.olivermcgillick.com on April 30, 2016.