Thursday, October 11, 2007

Taryn Simon - An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

I kept seeing Taryn Simon's name and references to her work, but for some reason I also kept avoiding it. I think in part the title put me off and in part the hip-hype. But eventually I gave in - mainly because of one picture initially. Now I'm waiting to look at the book An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar via the library system - so I'll see what my views are after lookign at that.

But what I've seen online is actually quite fascinating. As one review put it; "Few Signs are as bewitching as a posted warning to KEEP OUT" I find the pictures both unsettling and intriguing as well as finding myself - as a photographer - imagining the negotiations and effort it took to actually gain access to be show us some of these things.

The one piece that really caught my imagination me is the CIA art at the top here. Just the idea of the CIA decorating their halls with contemporary art, never mind what was involved to actually get and photograph it, along with the CIA's history of actively using contemporary art as a weapon of the Cold War and US cultural imperialism.

"Ms. Simon comes naturally to documenting places average citizens can’t access. For the State Department her father photographed Soviet cities during the cold war, restricted sites in Southeast Asia during the war in Vietnam and out-of-the way locations in Afghanistan, Israel and Iran in the 1970s...

Ms. Simon can work as long as a year to gain permission to photograph high-security zones like the government-regulated quarantine sites, nuclear waste storage facilities, prison death rows and
C.I.A. offices on view in the show. There are also pictures with lighter themes, taken at sites with presumably fewer restrictions: the sandpit where the Grucci family tests fireworks, ski slopes being dynamited for avalanche control and the second Death Star, from “Return of the Jedi,” at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.

What’s amazing is how many closed doors open for Ms. Simon. Interestingly, Disney did refuse her request, saying it wanted to protect the fantasies of theme park visitors. (A copy of its reply is in the catalog.)" (from the
NY Times)

The pictures are also accompanied by often quite extensive captions, which confirms something of my recent change of direction about captions (I used to dislike almost all captions on displayed photography...):

The Central Intelligence Agency, ArtCIA Original Headquarters BuildingLangley, Virginia

The Fine Arts Commission of the CIA is responsible for acquiring art to display in the Agency’s buildings. Among the Commission’s curated art are two pieces (pictured) by Thomas Downing, on long-term loan from the Vincent Melzac collection. Downing was a member of the Washington Color School, a group of post World War II painters whose influence helped to establish the city as a center for arts and culture. Vincent Melzac was a private collector of abstract art and the Administrative Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.’s premiere art museum.Since the founding of the CIA in 1947, the Agency has participated in both covert and public cultural diplomacy efforts throughout the world. It is speculated that some of the CIA’s involvement in the arts was designed to counter Soviet Communism by helping to popularize what it considered pro-American thought and aesthetic sensibilities. Such involvement has raised historical questions about certain art forms or styles that may have elicited the interest of the Agency, including abstract expressionism.

"Simon uses text as few photographers do, as an integral part of the work. There are images that do not reveal their meaning until the text is read. There are (rare) instances when the text is more bizarrely interesting than the image. Cataloguing the confiscated contents of the US Customs and Border Protection Contraband Room at John F Kennedy Airport, Simon offers up a kind of surrealist fugue, an ode to forbidden fruit (and meat) that outdoes even her cornucopia of an image. For the most part, however, her images easily hold their own. The smoky, white-on-white portrait of the degree-zero cryogenic preservation pod in which the bodies of the mother and wife of the cryonics pioneer Robert Ettinger are frozen is beyond spooky, speaking so eloquently of our fear of death and our dreams of immortality that few words are necessary. And in at least one instance there’s a remarkable piece of ‘found’ art. Who could have predicted that those 90 stainlesssteel capsules containing radioactive cesium and strontium submerged in a pool of water and giving off that blue radiation would so closely resemble, when photographed from above, the map of the United States of America? When a photographer comes up with an image as potently expressive as that, even a dedicated word-person such as myself is bound to concede that such a picture is worth at least a thousand words." more

There is also an interview here and you can watch her on Charlie Rose - which probably gives the best insight into her and her work (second interview)

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