Taryn Simon: Rear Views, A Star Forming
Nebula and the Department of Propaganda
Galerie nationale de Jeu de Paume, Paris
24.02.15 – 17.05.15
Translated by: Richard Dobson
‘They are all these systems of statements ( whether events or things ) that I propose to call archive…The archive is first the law of what can be said… it is that which, at the very root of the statement-event, and in that which embodies it, defines at the outset the system of its enunciability…It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.’ ¹ ( Michel Foucault )
Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge gives us this definition. Archives are not papers covered in dust on a bookshelf, nor are they stagnant memories, but should be an active, constantly and realistically interactive knowledge system. Archives’ such limitless scalability, searchability and complexity has attracted a large number of artists to use them as a base on which to create their works. When I was a child, my father plastered the walls of our home with archives of genealogy. The research methods of archival science and genealogy permeate the works of Taryn Simon. For example, materials used in her 2013 series The Picture Collection were taken from the more than 1.29 million photos, postcards, posters and pictures clipped from magazines and stored in the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection. All the pictures and documents are ordered and categorised with the aid of a computer algorithm, and based on selections made by contributors and archivists, as well as special requests from users. It’s inevitable that items of unequal value will appear together in the same group. For example, images from mass advertising and the photographs of Weegee are all jumbled in together. Artists have emphasised their impulsive desire for the visual information archive to be sorted out and highlight the invisible hands manipulating the seemingly neutral collection system.
The images aren’t just what we can see, it is the way in which we describe them, especially in the contemporary era, where information is blended together and collides: photos are distributed across the Internet and are presented in a way that is determined by what the user is searching for. On the one hand, we make our selections from among the images and texts displayed on the screen, while on the other the website will record each user’s preferences in real time. The images are constantly manipulated, by being moved around, tampered with and reconfigured; all of them have also have been encrypted, hidden from view and annotated, with a view to preparing them for display. Through the careful organising of the grouped images, reproductions of text files and the records and correspondence of archivists, the exhibition results in a paradoxical reversal, or denial, of our customary expectations. This is clearly the case with the entire series belonging to The Picture Collection, presented in the artist’s usual rough and ready style, directly evoking the archival impulse. It shows how our new ideological assumptions are conceived.
Today, information can be virtually ‘ready-made’, and the working materials may also consist of any kind of ‘inventory’, ‘detail’, or ‘sample’. 2 In this series in particular, the artist merely spreads out the archives she has assembled. This type of neutral presentation mixes the real and the imaginary, on the one hand challenging reason and on the other revealing falsity. Just as with the birth and death of industrial production, there has been no point at which people have not had archives, or have been at peace. Even worse, this data ( whether visible or invisible ) may continue to survive after death, and even grow and evolve.
The invisible ‘gap’ in the archives may represent the invisible part of interpersonal communication and also the fractional difference between interpretation and misunderstanding. This gap reflects the loneliness and impossibility of ‘absolute’ understanding. In her 2010 series Contraband, Taryn Simon continues with her focus on the ‘gap’. For five days without a break, she camped out at the US Customs and Border Protection Federal Inspection Site inside John F. Kennedy, in New York, which is the busiest airport for international travellers in the US. She photographed 1,075 items of contraband, from everyday objects to those that were illegal. They included all kinds of strange and unimaginable things, such as animal organs, fake designer bags, an Asian deer’s penis, pirated CDs, aphrodisiacs and condoms. By using an indexical form of presentation, the artist included herself in the history of ‘inventory style’ art, as an extension of the work of the 1970s pioneer of conceptual art, Christian Boltanski, in his Individual Portrait Inventory. 3
The history of inventory art continues to be written. In 2009, Umberto Eco curated a large exhibition at the Louvre, ‘Mille e tre’, which took the archiving craze to a new extreme. Inventories reflect diversity, as well as unlimited and excessive greed. They represent a form of postmodernist collapse, and have also encouraged the development of an extremely unorthodox kind of poetic aesthetics. As in the case of Nietzsche’s genealogy, the craze for archives has also been accompanied by the emergence of a subjective, disparate, decentralized intermittent, totally haphazard, and diverse space for aesthetic appreciation. In the Contraband series, the aesthetic way in which the genealogical material was presented was in stark contrast to the actual content. All the disorderly items were processed into clearly ordered images, centered on square sheets of paper. The neutral grey background produces a kind of ‘objective’ scientific record, without any context. Everything has been ordered and categorised, in one fell swoop.
Contraband can be translated as danger, as it poses a threat and challenge to the definition of official power and security by the contemporary authorities. Even in this noisy chaos, it is possible to find common elements and repetition. Fake designer handbags, numerous aphrodisiacs and pirated CDs appear over and over again. This type of repetition undoubtedly constitutes a metaphor for contemporary society, pointing to the endless obsession with mindless consumerism.
Speaking of the genealogy of images, it’s impossible not to mention that master of ‘memorial’-style human portraiture, August Sander. Simon’s series A Living Man Declared Dead and Other, Chapters I – XVIII draws inspiration from Sander’s work, arousing curiosity about people ‘of our time’ and offering new interpretations against a contemporary backdrop. The method of presentation stresses an individual bias by employing genealogical methods in group portraits, while the international theme relentlessly challenges the motifs of individuality, identity, social determinism, and even photographic authenticity. The author stresses the wide range of topics that fan out from bloodlines and genealogy, such as in India, where behind the family of the deceased the fighting amongst the relatives over the inheritance of land is hidden away, as a tragic secret; or in Bosnia, where the bones of the victims of ethnic cleansing are left behind, as evidence; or in Ukraine, where it seems impossible to trace the parentage of young orphans.
Each chapter is meticulously arranged into three strictly unified segments. On the left are the portraits arranged against a white background. The negative space that surrounds the photographs is undoubtedly intended to organize, highlight, embellish, isolate, and even challenge, these images; the central area is for annotations, with the content of the text providing the audience directly with reference material they can read, to explain the background of each incident and the subjects’ identity. The right-hand side contains footnotes, with stories about individuals highlighted in the accompanying ‘bloodlines’, or genealogical tables. The blank spaces in the works are left for those people who could not be photographed, for some reason, or were unwilling to be included in the project. The kind of magic in photographic portraits that ‘brings the dead back to life’ 4 was ideal for this project and ended up exuding a charm that was contradictory, ambiguous and difficult to fathom.The diversity of the portraits, text and images also reflects a strong desire to try and prevent memories from fading. Emotionally, the body of work is extremely neutral, and all its forms are intended simply to record, save and declare,without in any way passing judgment. All the events are ghost stories: as living people were once pronounced dead; in the future, the dead are being brought back to life through photographs. When displayed in an exhibition hall, it goes without saying that this body of work is solemn and monumental; firstly, as it is organised into three segments and prompts one to make a direct association with the religious triptychs that were widely popular in the 12th and 13th centuries; secondly, the images and text are presented in a such a way as to accord them equal status, appropriate for this style of memorialisation. Throughout, the audience is confronted with text, abstract history and blood lineage, but once they have cast aside their preconceptions they are still left blank, with no clear answers.
The powerful ability of the artist to process the relations between image and text is very refreshing, and this makes it easy for audiences to follow, as they only need to look closely and to read. The visual and written narratives are irreducible. Most European visual artists have based their works on established texts from the classical period right down to the 18th century. Painters simply took on these religious, historical or allegorical texts and turned them into visual images, 5 which also provided the basis for iconological research.
Does a completely new cognitive angle for visual and written narrative exist, such as Foucault employed in the study he made of classic texts and images in The Order of Things, by positioning himself either at an external vantage point or on the boundary between the two?
Vantage point? Or could the relations between the visual and written narratives serve as a channel through which to open up a new space in which to think? Within the transitional space between the two exhibition halls there was a video clip of an artist, from an interview recorded for a Moscow television programme, where he was asked to remain seated in silence facing the audience for a few minutes after the main interview was over, while the filming continued. The resulting video was then edited at the post-production stage, for use as a filler. Originally this would have had a voiceover, but now only the image was left, provoking an element of absurdity that was extraneous to the image offered to the audience. That this image could be seen, but not heard, turned it into something of a joke, with similar characteristics to the pipe in Magritte’s This is Not a Pipe. By this means, the relations between text and image were disrupted.
The artist places equal importance on the status of text and image, just as they are presented in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other, Chapters I – XVIII. This content-heavy book of visual and textual archival material has been catalogued completely in order; the methodical, and often confusing, story of blood lineage shows the messy conflict between the two. Chapter 15 shows how, in 2009, the artist asked the State Council Information Office to choose a multigenerational family to represent China in this project. There are very few blank portraits in this chapter, and everyone is shown. Here, one can trace the evolution of the one-child policy through the blood line, and with the text comes an understanding of how the Information Office is responsible for all propaganda. In the additional, embedded information, the artist records how she was asked to take a photo of a television tower and shows us the gift bag she was given. But in this different context, she has developed a new interpretation for the relationship between image and text.
When this series was exhibited in the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art ( UCCA ) in Beijing, after being shown to audiences all over the world, the full three segments of only a few of the eighteen chapters could be shown in their entirety. The other chapters were missing annotations and footnotes, and some of the boxes containing texts had had to be blacked out, so that viewers were unable to make out anything in the parts that had been blotted out. Chapter 15 had been completely blacked out, so three giant black squares were all that was left. The impact was tremendous. This interference with the exhibition meant that it could only be shown in a restricted context for contemporary art. This, in turn, left its mark and imbued the works with a range of new and totally unexpected meanings.
The artist was very keen to capture this new interpretation, and displayed the same series to a French audience, but audiences elsewhere have not been able to see the new material. The Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris exhibited this group of works separately, on each of the gallery walls. A set of reproductions of the complete work was then shown at the UCCA, including the three blocks of black and an accompanying commentary, detailing the background to the exhibition. These three indecipherable, but connected, black blocks torment us – and foreign audiences – in the way they stand for acquiescence, acceptance, perception, interpretation and propaganda.
In my opinion, Taryn Simon is a tough artist, not only because of the extreme difficulty we have in processing the material, but also because she has consistently faced stubborn and ambiguous resistance from all viewers, confronted with her photographic images. Set against that, this type of toughness enables the work to evolve when it encounters new environments. As Simon notes, because of this strange experience, which led to the change in her method of presenting her work in an exhibition and having constantly to fill in for the missing works, ‘I feel more vital than ever’.
1. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge ( L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969 ), New York: Pantheon Books, 1972, p. 128.
2. Hal Foster, An Archival Impulse, October, 110 ( 2004 ), pp. 3 – 22.
3. Les Archives de Christian Boltanski, Centre Pompidou Archive.
4. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography ( La Chambre Claire, 1980 ) ( London: Vintage, 1993 ).
5. Meyer Schapiro, Words and Pictures: On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text, Edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, Research Center for the Language Sciences, Indiana University, 1983, pp. 9 – 10.
法国，巴黎Jeu de Paume美术馆
一切陈述机制的总和（ 包括重大事件和物 ）构成了‘档案’。档案首先是言说之法，也是事件陈述之源（ 可陈述性 ）和事件陈述之法（ 功能性 ），所以在对可供处理和掌控的事件做陈述的层面上，‘档案’是一切陈述形成与转变的日常机制。1 ——米歇尔·福柯（ Michel Foucault ）
福柯在他《知识考古学》一书中给出我们这样的定义。档案（ Archive ）不是书架上落满灰尘的纸张，也不是记忆死水，而应该是一个活跃的、不断和现实发生互动的知识体系。‘档案’的这种无限延展性、可探索性和错综面吸引了众多艺术家以此为基来创作。
孩提时父亲就将族谱档案贴满家中墙壁，档案学呈现方式和谱系学研究方法也贯穿泰伦·西蒙作品的始终。以2013年《The Picture Collection》系列作品为例，作品取材自保存着多达129万张照片、名信片、海报及杂志剪图的纽约公共图书馆图片收藏部门。这里所有图像文件排列和分类均由计算机运算得出，同时考量赠与者、管理员喜好和用户特殊需求。同组中的不等值的现象在所难免，如将大众广告图与Weegee的摄影作品混排。艺术家所要强调的是抑制不住想给视觉信息归档、整理的欲望，以及在看似中立的收集系统上操纵的无形之手。图片不仅是我们所看到的，更是我们阐述它的方式：尤其在信息交融碰撞的新时期，照片在网络上泛滥，呈现方式也依用户搜索内容而定。一方面我们对屏幕上的图像和文字经行选择阅读，另一方面网站也会针对每位用户实时记录下他的品位偏好。这些操作将图片不断移动、篡改、重置；所有的图像也都‘被’加密、‘被’遮蔽、‘被’解说，为了能提前做好将欲望展现的准备。通过展览精心整理的图片组、文件夹的复制品、图书管理员的纪录和书信往来，秩序精巧的自相矛盾贯穿于《The Picture Collection》系列始终。艺术家的呈现方式与惯常一样粗暴，直接唤起档案学式的冲动。对意识形态的新假定由此诞生。今天，信息可以作为虚拟的‘Ready-made’，工作材料也可以是各种‘清单’、‘明细’、‘样本’。2 尤其在这个系列，艺术家只是将所收集档案铺陈开来，这样简单赤裸的呈现混合着真实与虚构，一方面挑战着理性，一方面也针砭所认定事实的虚假面。如工业生产般的出生和死亡，人无时不与档案相伴一刻也不安宁。更糟糕的是，这些资料（ 可见或不可见 ）可能在死后继续存活甚至无限增衍。
档案间‘不可见空隙’可以是人与人沟通间不可见的部分，也可以是翻译与误读之间相差的毫厘。这样的空隙折射出‘绝对理解’的孤独性与不可能性。泰伦·西蒙创作于2010年的《违禁品》（ Contraband ）系列持续了她对‘空隙’的关注。五天不眠不休蹲点美国国际旅客最多的肯尼迪机场海关安检处，拍摄下1075张违禁品的照片，从日常到非法，千奇百怪、匪夷所思。如动物器官、假名牌包、亚洲鹿鞭、盗版光盘、壮阳药、避孕套等。索引编排的呈现形式将艺术家自己列入‘清单式的’艺术史，承接70年代‘个人肖像清单’的观念艺术先驱Christian Boltanski。3 清单的艺术史继续书写，2009年Umberto Eco在卢浮宫策划大型‘名单展览’《Mille e tre》将‘档案狂热’推向高潮。清单体现的是对多元、无限和过度的贪求，是后现代主义的‘形式的崩溃’，也使诗意美学达到异端的极致。也是对尼采谱系学——突现非客观的、相异的、分散的、断续性的、充满着偶然性的多样化空间的欣赏。在《违禁品》系列中谱系学美感在强烈对比下被放得更大，所有无序的物品被处理成像在等长等宽的正方形相纸上居中排列，自然中灰为背景，产生了一种‘客观’的科学记录，没有了上下语境，被赋予秩序同时也‘被’分类。‘违禁品’可以转译为危险，是对当下官方所定义的官方权力与安全的威胁和质疑。即使是在这样的嘈杂纷乱也能找出共性与重复。反复出现的仿制名牌皮包、多不胜数的壮阳药、盗版光碟，这样的重复无疑构成了对当下社会的借喻，直指对商品过剩生生不息的狂热。
在作品补充说明嵌版上，艺术家记录下被要求拍照的电视塔，以及被赠予的礼物袋。但新语境下，艺术家对图像、文本关系的处理又产生了新的解读。这个已巡回世界的系列在中国UCCA进行展览时十八个章节中只有少数几个章节的作品能以完整的三版式呈现，其他章节缺失注释或附注部分，只能在保留框架的基础上做黑色填充，如审查者拉黑的印记。第十五章更是全部涂黑，所展出的只有三联巨型黑色方块，极具冲击。所受的干扰也将展览强制代入了一个受限的当代语境并留下印记，使作品本身有了意料之外的发展。艺术家极其敏锐地捕捉到了这一解读，让法国观众缘见同一系列下，其他观众无法得见的新素材。Jeu de Paume展出的这组作品，系列进行到最后一面展墙，完整再现了在UCCA展出的三联巨型黑色方块并配以背景情况解说。这三联不可视的黑方块，在拷问着我们（ 或他们 ）对显性表征的接受、感知、解读和传播。