|Taryn Simon, Cutaways, 2012|
“The photograph is just another place from which to observe” Taryn Simon
What then is Taryn Simon observing? And what for her is the photograph? Or rather, what kind of photographs are Simon’s images observing? And what is observed in those her images observe? The answers to Simon’s complicated body of work are equally complex and, at times, elusive. While these images come close to our most articulate examples of images as a political weapon, they are also much more, and much less, than that. It’s difficult to place Simon’s work because there’s something in them that is not yet resolved. I shall try to put my finger on what that something is.
|Taryn Simon, Larry Mayes. The Innocents. 2002|
In the most compelling series in this current exhibition, Simon photographs and films The Innocents, men who have been wrongly accused of violent crimes and served a big chunk of their often lifetime sentences. When all evidence shows the men are innocent, and yet, the police still don’t have a conviction, Simon argues, photography comes to be used against the suspect most likely to be indictable. Through a series of false moves, a photograph is shown that will convince the victim to identify the innocent in a lineup, and the lie is fully fabricated, there is no turning back. Simon points to a use of photography that runs counter to all we have come to know it to be, to do and to argue: she reveals photography’s ability to blur evidence, truth and create a memory for victims looking to identify and punish perpetrators.
|Taryn Simon, Calvin Washington. The Innocents. 2002|
Simon then takes the accused “back” to the scene of the crime, a place or location they have never been before, and there she takes a photograph that creates a memory they (and we) did not have. She too uses photography to fabricate evidence. In her talking heads documentary of the same “innocents” they explain the trajectory to their imprisonment, life inside and the compromise to their freedom as a result of a wrongful conviction. What’s so powerful about this series and other of Simon’s photographic work is that she might be the only artist working at the intersection of text and image that leads to getting men off death row. I say “might” because Simon’s photographs and film don’t go that far. This is the “something” that I found frustrating about her work. I wanted the resolution of an otherwise motivated narrative: to effect a political change. While Simon is clearly making visible what is ordinarily kept from view, she still works within the boundaries of art, not politics. The photographs are indeed aesthetically pleasing, even gorgeous. The slickness and beauty of the photographs are somehow surprising as one might expect her to make images that are more cutting edge. That she doesn’t, takes the edge off the frightening subject matter of inmates convicted and serving time for crimes they did not commit. Similarly, there is no visual or textual context for these people’s lives. Who were they before their conviction? What led them to be caught in a line up in the first place? Why are the police keeping mug shots of their faces? Are they guilty of other, smaller crimes? This taking out of context is the prerogative of the artist, and no doubt is Simon's point. However, I was frustrated by the questions left unanswered.
|Taryn Simon, Contraband, 2010|
In other series, she archives, catalogues, to creates memories, rather than to hold onto or preserve memories as is the usual purpose of these practices. Simon spent 48 hours in the contraband room at JFK airport and photographed the enormous amount of confiscated and abandoned goods. Everything from guns and class A drugs and steroids to apples, pirate DVDs and fake Louis Vuitton bags are photographed and displayed in Contraband. She photographs the goods as an archive, arranging objects for display, again, making them look beautiful, artistic, appealing. Unlike The Innocents, these photographs also have an evidential/ documentary aspect to them that makes us look at them as a record of what is not allowed into the country, and we remark on the absurdity of US customs. Again, the objects are taken out of all context, shot naked against a white background, making me wonder who they belonged to, why they are forbidden.
|Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2011|
In another series about invisibility, about what cannot be seen, what will never be seen, what cannot be seen, even by the photograph, she photographs the bloodlines of a Nazi criminal, victims of Bosnian genocide, India in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII. In the every day people including cute children, with everyday jobs and everyday lives we look for the sadistic power of the Nazi ancestor, or the inherited trauma of the Bosnian victim. Of course we can’t see them, even the photograph does not reveal the bloodlines, even as Simon has archived them and displayed their connections. In the middle panel of each bloodline she places text that explains the images, and on the right, what she calls a footnote, with various related images. It’s a fascinating work because everything is created in the connections, in the archive that Simon creates, even as nothing can be seen, known or made certain.
|Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2011Detail, V|
Simon’s complicated and very sophisticated conceptual body of work challenges our longstanding beliefs as it zooms in on the absences, the secret chambers that the security of governments and nation states are built on. I think because very little of it comes as a surprise, I found myself waiting for Simon to go further. I kept wanting her to do more than observe, that is, to show me a photograph as a place from which to act. That said, i can't be sure that this is not the response she is looking for through her photography: a spectator motivated to want more.
All images courtesy Taryn Simon