Taryn Simon interview

by Iona Whittaker 爱安阿
translated by Chen Yufeng 陈煜峰

This interview first appeared in Ran Dian Issue 2. Readers may be interested in Simon’s current solo exhibition “Paperwork and the Will of Capital” (Feb 18–Mar 26, 2016, West 24th Street, New York), as well as an upcoming show at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, “Action Research: The Stagecraft of Power”, which will run from March 17–May 22, 2016.

Taryn Simon is a New York-based artist known primarily for her meticulous work combining photography and text, though her practice has included sculpture and performance. Among her earliest solo exhibitions are an eponymous show at Camerawork in Berlin (2001) and “Taryn Simon: The Innocents” at MoMA PS1 in New York (2003). The project for which she is best known, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters (2008-2011), was first exhibited at Tate Modern in London in 2011, and at MoMA in New York the following yearIn 2013, the series was shown (in reduced form, as a result of censorship) in Beijing at UCCA. Paperwork, and the Will of Capital featured in the headline exhibition of the 56th Venice Biennale, “All the World’s Futures”, in 2015.

Iona Whittaker: You have proved an elusive subject for interview. There is some irony to this because your work has often involved tracking down subjects which are themselves elusive; for the series A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (2008-2011), you spent four years researching bloodlines in different countries. I wondered if this has infused your own approach—perhaps there is a sense of pleasure in being buried in the work and letting it overcome your own presence. There is a cult of personality around artists, and I imagine it’s something you don’t want to court.

Taryn Simon: I would say it’s more just repulsion! If anything, I keep myself purposefully outside the work. It’s also both subconsciously and consciously avoiding a focus on artist identity that too often surrounds women in art.

Scene of arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana
Police found Mayes hiding beneath a mattress in this room
Served 18.5 years of an 80-year sentence for Rape, Robbery and Unlawful Deviate Conduct
Archival inkjet print, 48 × 62 inches / 121.9 × 157.5 cm, 2002

IW: The import of each of your major projects depends on a combination of text and image. As a viewer, one must read as well as look. Given the amount of explanation you provide in the work itself, were you ever tempted not to speak about it?

TS: I think historically I wanted to speak about the art—speaking can be viewed as a shortcoming in the school that aims for the luxury of a purposelessness in art or a void full of dreams and multiple interpretations. I don’t think speaking negates these states, but I also don’t mind having something to say, especially after committing so much of my time and guts to these things. But also, text is such an enormous part of the work, a part that can’t be accounted for in lectures or other contexts. So for me, visually, on its own, the work is not the work. Its true form on the museum wall is precisely what it’s meant to be—a combination of text and image. I do feel compelled to speak when it is presented outside that context, because it’s got its legs chopped off.

IW: You present your projects as exhibitions very precisely, in terms of their mounting and graphic design. I wonder why you hold fast to this intense physical display. There are other modes available to you—for example, the digital presentation and circulation of images.

TS: It is more complex to maintain or exercise aesthetic control in other contexts—the physical form of the work is what I have the most control over. Elsewhere, things visibly morph and become fragmented; the work in its physical form allows for psychological fragmentation but through something very fixed. When a physical work is distributed in digital or printed form, it is fragmented prior to a controlled state, and therefore it doesn’t have that play between the fixed and the broken. “Image Atlas” (2012) is a work that was made specifically for an electronic space. It doesn’t suffer these problems because its original form was for the internet.

IW: The appeal of photography lies largely in the fact that it is always both memorial and revelation; a photograph is a piece of evidence, but is also highly selective. Where does its particular strength lie for you? Perhaps it’s because they are so arbitrary.

TS: The role of photography in my projects keeps mutating; I began with a cinematic and theatrical approach, then moved towards a very machine-like approach. Now it is appearing in ways which aren’t necessarily the center point of the artwork. It’s always there, always something I’m doing, but its form or function is dictated by the concept. For me, it’s the idea that determines if I use this machine to either elude or capture the subject. It’s a form of obsessive collecting.

Nixon Gift Vault, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, Maryland 
President Richard M. Nixon is the only U.S. President whose presidential materials and records are governed by the 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA). This Act of Congress stipulated, among other things, that presidential materials related to abuse of governmental power be processed and retained by the National Archives in the Washington, D.C. area. In 2004, the U.S. Congress passed legislation providing for the establishment of a federally operated Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. This legislation amends the 1974 PRMPA allowing the transfer of Nixon’s presidential materials and recordings from the Washington, D.C. area to Yorba Linda. Critics argue that the transfer, which began in 2006, does not guarantee a unified collection, adequate public access or independent review. 
1 Plastic dried-apple-head Nixon doll, from Mrs. Ruby of Hibma, California. November, 1972.
2 Elephant made of gourds, from Mrs. Clyde Sparkman of Conover, North Carolina. March, 1971.
3 Framed Nixon portrait rug, from Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Shahanshah, Shah of Iran. October, 1971.
4 Nixon portrait on velvet, from the People of the Philippines.
5 Indonesian woodcut, from General Suharto, President of the Republic of Indonesia. 1969.
On the left side of the shelf sits an audio recorder installed in the White House by the United States Secret Service. It recorded tapes used during the Watergate Trial. 
Chromogenic colour print, 37-1/4 × 44-1/2 inches framed (94.6 × 113 cm), Ed, of 7, 2007

IW: Where do you think that impulse comes from? Was there a time when you started to collect photographs and keep them together in a certain way? Yours is a very particular attitude—regardless of the varied emphases of your projects.

TS: That would stem from very early on when I was first introduced to photography through my father and grandfather. It was always linked to data collection; in my grandfather’s case the photographs were macro, close up details of minerals and flowers or stars seen through telescopes, and were associated with texts that were fairly technical and mathematical. My father’s were more journalistic in tone—portraits and landscapes—but always connected with fantastical stories. They were in multiples or en masse. They’re both sort of pack rats—it’s not just photographs, my father collected jars, spoons and screws and publications . . . [Laughs]. His basement looks like a crime scene. I’d say it’s probably genetics. There is a space between image and image; in multiples it becomes much less about the singular image and more about an unarticulated state established through the weaving together of so many.

IW: How do you manage that sort of passion in this day and age, when it’s so easy to take and retake a photograph and keep it? Or perhaps you draw a line between your work and the rest of your life.

TS: Buy a larger RAID. But, I don’t take photographs in my regular life; I never did before digital and I still don’t. I don’t really do snapshots; it’s always the formal, calculated effort or none at all. So, the abundance is somewhat regulated.

IW: I don’t know if one could say the photo is an end point in your process, but they can feel like an image is at the apex of a mass of effort, rather than the starting point for your research.

TS: It’s usually the last step—but rarely a single photo. In A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, there is no single image to site. The individual image is completely lost within the collective and in repetition. For that particular project I would go back on saying it’s the last step because the last step is in fact the graphic design and the way in which it’s all pieced together.

The Central Intelligence Agency, Art, CIA Original Headquarters Building, Langley, 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 premier art museum.
Since its founding 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.
Archival inkjet print, 37-3/4 × 44-1/2 inches framed (94.6 × 113 cm), 2007

IW: I’d like to ask about the process of composing that project, because it is so acutely designed. What was your process here—for example, for the sequence of gathering evidence and placing it within the design? Did you have a system in mind before you began your research? And if so, was it forced to change or adapt at any point? Did you know how it was going to turn out?

TS: There were systems, maps or mathematical approaches to every step, which were modified repeatedly as information was accumulated. But from the get-go, the fact that it’s bloodlines means it doesn’t allow for abstraction at the start because they are already so regulated. I was creating genealogies and maps of them and collecting associated data before I could even get out into the production aspects of the project. So it was pretty formal from the beginning. And then in many ways it was almost breaking away from the traditional means of conveying those things and coming up with my own language and index to present it more like a periodic table. In the back of the book you’ll see these elaborate graphs I made that show the logic behind the system I generated in order to lay it all out.

I’m interested in how graphic design can convey a certain authority to something potentially much looser—using the appearance of math and organization and calculation to support the idea of something being comprehensive, when ultimately it is somewhat of an arbitrary and individual system I’ve created.

IW: I wanted to ask you about the system behind your own looking. There must be a great deal of instinct in it. In the process of making An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), for example, you must have seen many things that you chose not to show or to pursue further. Those you did select include the art collection at the CIA, a Braille copy of Playboy, an inbred white tiger, film set archives, and president Nixon’s gift vault.

TS: This is where I get a bit tongue-tied, because I know so precisely when I have something I want. It’s a twist, a certain disconnect, or an uncomfortable, strange noise. It’s impossible for me to identify in language exactly what that is, but I do know when I have it and I do know when I fail. There’s many that I discard or reject along the way.

Taryn Simon, “Folder: Costume—Veil”, archival inkjet print, 119.4 × 157.5 cm, 2012

 Peter Schjeldahl once suggested that a mark of success for a work of art is if, upon completion, it becomes strange to the artist who created it. Can you relate to this idea at all?

TS: Well, that happens. Although I have stopped working on them, the works continually mutate under different politics, economies, cultures and times. An example is the show I had in Beijing of A Living Man Declared Dead where all of the text panels and most of the portrait panels were censored. I responded to that limitation by tracing black fields on the wall where those panels would have hung, and consequently made an abstract painting which is now hanging at the Guggenheim; it became an art work in another way and in response to a local response to the works. The work does unfold in these different ways that are far less anticipated by me—it’s more of a reactionary thing, and dictated by the subjects that are simultaneously the subjects of the works themselves. It sort of comes back around. In A Living Man Declared Dead, there’s a piece about the Srebrenica massacre which talks about Radovan Karadžić—one of the key figures in that genocidal act—being at large; that is now dated information because he’s been detained. It’s all been resolved and stands in stark contrast to what my text conveys. I’ve been at institutions where they have asked to correct and update the texts of An American Index or A Living Man Declared Dead because a lot of them are not factually accurate anymore. They were at one point current, then become locked boxes about a certain moment or history or era. I would never change them. These disruptions and time’s passage are part of the work.

IW: Have you ever been censored in the US?

TS: That’s a good question. [Thinks for a moment] No.

IW: Speaking of context, do you feel—this is more specific to the “American” works—that they are better shown in the US, or does it not matter? Can travel be disruptive to them?

TS: It depends again on when the work is shown. I know that when I originally produced An American Index and it traveled throughout the world, I often felt it was being used in different ways to support an assumption or to provide proof of a certain interpretation of America that I didn’t want to participate in. I didn’t want not to participate in it either—to me, the work is the work. I was very careful and mindful about how it was used. That’s why things like wall texts are really important and I prefer to not give them over to institutional language. I like it to exist in a space that has been conceived by me.

Global media operates and presents disruptions as well. I could see a slippage where the work was being co-opted as a sort of prostitute for some other idea or agenda. That can happen to any work—even something about balloons! But the work itself is about that—it’s about translation and interpretation, different controls on language and cross-cultural communication. So it’s a bit of a “touché” for it to enter into that problem which is simultaneously what it’s looking it.

Playboy, Braille Edition, Playboy Enterprises, Inc. New York, New York
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a division of the U.S. Library of Congress, provides a free national library program of Braille and recorded materials for blind and physically handicapped persons. Magazines included in the NLS’s programs are selected on the basis of demonstrated reader interest. This includes the publishing and distribution of a Braille edition of Playboy.
Approximately 10 million American adults read Playboy every month, with 3 million obtaining it through paid circulation. It has included articles by writers such as Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Kurt Vonnegut and conducted interviews with Salvador Dali, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Malcolm X. 
Chromogenic color print, 37-1/4 × 44-1/2 inches framed (94.6 × 113 cm), Ed, of 7, 2006/2007

IW: All of which shows how a photograph can never offer a solution, only composition.

TS: Yes— a space of multiple truths . The photograph itself is missing something from the before and after; it’s taken out of time and space and put into a different realm; it’s impossible.

IW: I want to talk about history. How conscious are you of depicting the time in which you live, or of providing a particular angle on it—perhaps to address what you feel is missing from the record?

TS: I just completed a work that is part of the Black Square series. I made a black square out of nuclear waste which has been vitrified; a process which turns the waste into a black glass allowing for its storage. I made the black square in collaboration with the Russian atomic energy corporation where it will be buried for 1000 years. Inside this black square—a shape and size established by Malevich—is a letter I’ve written to the future. It will be unearthed when it has lost its radioactive properties and is safe for human exposure—1000 years from now, well after my lifetime and my children’s lifetimes and my children’s children. This doesn’t necessarily answer your question, but this piece reflects the idea of being mindful or aware of ones’ time and the recording of it. To sit down and write a letter to the future is in some ways an exaggerated form of that.

IW: To me that seems to show great confidence in history.

TS: Yes, But it also plays on the knowledge that it can potentially vanish. [Laughs] It may be profound and important today through its absence, but perhaps it’s never going to make it and have zero resonance in a future in which it is lost. 

Taryn Simon, “Picture request from Alden B. Baxter, User of the Picture Collection, to the New York Public Library. 28 Aug. 1958″

IW: Usually the projects are very long. A Living Man Declared Dead, for example, took four years. It’s a great risk to embark on such a project when you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. What is consistently at stake in what you’re doing? I imagine that before you began that project, you had the idea of fate in mind and the hope that unforeseen threads might arise. Perhaps that is the real concern—whether that imaginative flight will happen or not. Meanwhile, you go through a hugely laborious process of emailing, calling, tracking down, and translating in pursuit of your subjects, which doesn’t necessarily feel creative as you’re doing it. I’m interested in this balance between belief and work—between what you can control, and what you can’t.

TS: I think it’s actually the opposite: it’s a belief in failure, and therefore the assumption that it’s always going to fall apart and, in that paranoia, somehow maintaining a path to getting it finished.

IW: It’s like a destructive relationship which is somehow comfortable and compelling . . .

TS: Exactly. [Laughs]

Black Square XI
Blue and Gold Macaw, ‘Amiga’, suffering from feather destructive disorder.
Archival inkjet print, 31 1⁄2 × 31 1⁄2 inches (80 × 80 cm), 2012

IW: When you began The Innocents (2002), your first major project in which you photographed victims of miscarriages of justice at the sites where they were supposed to have committed the crimes, you wouldn’t have had the benefit of confidence gained from previous works. I wonder what the germ of the idea for The Innocents was, how your confidence evolved, and how you nourish your work as it goes along.

TS: That project is specifically bound to the idea of the photograph determining what is and what isn’t, and literally changing a life by providing “evidence”—false identification which meant people became characters in a story that is not their own; it’s a blurring of truth and fiction, and it certainly had a huge impact on me. In many ways this is the root of my use of text (in combination with my father and grandfather’s practice). In The Innocents you could directly witness the terrifying power text can hold over and image—how these men’s photographs could be cruelly taken out of time and space and given a narrative that was influenced by police coercion or corruption, or just accident. Suddenly a new history is created. That had a very powerful effect on me.

IW: It’s interesting that text and image have such a tight and necessary relationship in your work, because as you’re describing, it’s a sort of war between them about the kind of evidence or testimony they can provide.

TS: Text can seem more concerned and certainly less abstract than the image, but language itself started to break apart in The Innocents. I became very interested in the way language operates, mutates and evaporates much like the image—perpetuating a constant confusion while claiming the opposite. At the base of all of that is solitude. No matter how tightly you weave it, there’s an inevitability of solitude.

IW: Everything can only really be an approximation.

TS: Exactly.

“Black Square XIII, ‘The Liberator,’ 3D printed gun. Printed on the MakerBot Replicator 1, in New York, NY on July 12, 2013, using black ABS plastic. Print time: 9 hours, 48 minutes.”.
Archival inkjet print, 31-1/2 × 31-1/2 inches (80 × 80 cm), 2013

IW: I was struck recently by a critic’s remark that they write “in order to see”. I thought it was an interesting way to express it—interchanging the terms, as it were.

TS: I just did a new book with the Tate, Rear Views, A Star-forming Nebula, and the Office of Foreign Propaganda. The frontispiece is a letter to the New York public library which I photographed as part of The Picture Collection (2013). It’s a father writing to the archive to ask for a specific picture that he has been trying to describe to his son since he was born, but he needs a visual ”in order to see” what his memory and language can’t convey. His language works for him but not for his son. He’s desperate to find the referent and acknowledging the impossibility of a shared experience.

IW: What would you say you are loyal to in your work?

TS: Avoiding lyme disease. I’m sitting here staring at a scary looking bite on my ankle as I speak to you—I’m going to stay on concrete!

IW: You’ve been to some pretty raw places . . .

TS: I guess I can’t answer that question. I’m allergic to summing things up—maybe that’s a bad by-product of everything I’ve experienced, but I avoid definitive clarity. Whatever I would say in answer to that question wouldn’t be true. I probably have 100 different answers; it’s giving one that I find difficult.

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