Monday, February 26, 2007

Witney Museum, An American Index of The Hidden and Unfamiliar

An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar: March 9th - June 24th, 2007

In this snap happy age when any old fool can click away with a digital camera, a photographer has to be jolly good in order to stand out. Taryn Simon is one such dazzling talent. The gallerist Larry Gagosian was seduced into representing Simon by her carefully composed photographs and their daring subject matter and now, at the tender age of 31, a new body of her work entitled An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar is currently on show at New York’s Whitney Museum.

Avian Quarantine Facility, from the series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, 2007

Chromogenic color print
37 X 44 in. (94.6 X 113 cm)
Collection of the artist; courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York

Simon presents a series of photographs of the peripheries of American culture, turning her large format 4 x 5 camera upon a wide range of subjects from the interior of the C.I.A headquarters to hibernating brown bears. Each image is helpfully accompanied by an adjacent wall text explaining its context. These days America is under strict scrutiny, and although parts of the world are busy flag burning, these images remind us that American culture remains full of mysterious eccentricities.

One wonders how on earth she gained access to these hidden places. Simon is clearly an intrepid photographer, she has documented disasters in Israel and for a series The Innocents, she turned her camera on the nation’s unjustly accused, often cajoling them into returning to the place of their wrongful, violent arrest. She clearly has the power of persuasion. For this current series, she convinced the C.I.A headquarters to let her photograph their collection of Abstract Expressionist art. An informative text explains that the C.I.A championed these post war American artists to challenge the social realist style prevalent in communist nations. They wanted to portray the Abstract Expressionists freedom of expression as an example of something truly American.

Cryopreservation Unit, from the series
An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, 2007

Chromogenic color print
37 ¼ x 44 ½ in. (94.6 x 113 cm)
Collection of the artist; courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York

In Simon’s particular brand of realism there are no vast, sublime landscapes and no victims of the fast food industry. The photographs provide a welcome refuge from the surplus of recognisably American imagery. Diane Arbus revealed America’s oddities in her pictures of its citizens, but few people feature in Simon’s images. She makes an exception for Don James, an advocate of the ‘Death with Dignity’ campaign for physician assisted suicide although one imagines he may not be around for much longer.

Science is a recurring theme throughout the series and perhaps as a result Simon’s images of unusual Americana seem infused with a laboratorial cleanliness. A Palestinian girl lays legs akimbo, like a scientific specimen, a hospital robe obscuring her face. She has recently undergone hymenoplasty in anticipation of her wedding night. The Cryonics Institute is where patients are frozen soon after death in liquid nitrogen. Simon depicts a white shell like container surrounded by billowing clouds of nitrogen. When medicine has sufficiently progressed they will be thawed out to enjoy eternal life. There are currently forty eight pets in cryostasis.

Simon isn’t over zealous with her lighting and several images emanate a particular gloominess, perhaps signifying impending doom for these scientific advancements. Her lighting has a surreal, dramatic quality which is reminiscent of Gregory Crewdson’s elaborately staged photographs. Kenny, a genetically engineered white tiger with a limp and malformed features which impair his breathing, was photographed on a dank, grey day in Arkansas. His cross-eyes stare back idiotically at the camera. The last image in the show is one of nuclear waster capsules at a storage facility at the Hanford Site in the state of Washington. The capsules glow an eerie, deathly blue.

In a back room at JFK airport sit a variety of agricultural products confiscated from passengers on their way into America. A table buckles under the weight of African yams, Andean potatoes, strange plants and a whole pigs head. With this image, Simon offers some explanation for her subject matter, the sagging table serves as a metaphor for the diversity of America culture.

— Constance Wyndham

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