Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Here is an edited talk Martin Patrick recently gave in Dunedin about the American photographer, Taryn Simon, who is exhibiting at DPAG.

Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar
Dunedin Public Art Gallery
19 December 2009 - 9 May 2010

I feel almost comfortable with the recent photographs of Taryn Simon. And actually, this is quite a disturbing thing to acknowledge, as Simon spends much of her time acting as a kind of pictorial private detective, one who aims to depict extremely uncomfortable, hidden, alienating, and institutional places via her meticulously researched and crafted images. But then again, I am an American and Simon’s subjects, however particularly and sometimes astonishingly chosen, seem to be altogether emblematic and characteristic ones for my rather disunited homeland. I would like to think that these would have a much less familiar and more eerie quality to many people, particularly those not so accustomed with contemporary US Surrealism on a full-time basis.

One could perhaps cite Sigmund Freud’s term The Uncanny which literally translated from the original German means The Unhomely, and I would certain concur ultimately that Simon’s pictures are quite unhomely in many respects, although at the same time, they serve with pinpoint accuracy as evocative and telling representations of little-advertised aspects of the American cultural environment - the sort of topics that seem to overpopulate those “only in America” or “there go those mad Americans again” sidebar stories so frequently found in international newspapers.

Warhol once said: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, there I am. There's nothing behind it.” And so it is with Taryn Simon’s medium, the same one Warhol used in dramatic fashion to transfer into the context of painting such archetypal American horrors as the electric chair, race riots, automobile accidents, and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Surfaces may be initially off-putting or reassuring, but they often act to hide or veil other information difficult to directly represent. Such surfaces can help distance us from intimations of the acts of corruption, and violence that are common undercurrents of each new wave of American culture.

Taryn Simon remarks:

Reality has always been interpreted through layers of manipulation, abstraction, and intervention. But now, it is very much on the surface. I like this honesty about its dishonesty. Every photograph has many truths and none. Photographs are ambiguous, no matter how seemingly scientific they appear to be. They are always subject to an uncontrollable context.

So much is always hidden in American society, just think of all the ubiquitous and secretive acronyms such as FBI, CIA, and the less familiar ICE, the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Or perhaps the attempts by George W. Bush’s government to establish a clandestine bureau of misinformation; the frequent reports of officials such as Vice President Cheney sequestered in an “undisclosed location,” for fear of terrorist attacks. More recently the news that circumstances around the prisoners who had taken their own lives at Guantanamo Bay were suppressed under President Obama’s watch. And so it goes, as another great writer on American conspiracies the late Kurt Vonnegut would say.

Although many photographers come to mind when I gaze at these images I am also cognisant of the connections Simon’s work has with other contemporary artists of the last several years. Such examples would include Luc Tuymans, who painted a portrait of Condoleeza Rice as if seen from a television or computer screen, Thomas Demand’s photographs of his intricate sculptural constructions of historically significant sites, or Jane and Louise Wilson’s scrutiny of now-disused bunkers, subterranean enclaves, and governmental headquarters.

Taryn Simon commented in an interview with photo-historian Geoffrey Batchen:

I prefer to have people continually re-define what [photography] is and may be. Identifying genres in photographic practice often involves a commitment to traditional thinking. Current generations are no longer working in such clear forms [in any domain]. Everything is very quickly becoming interdisciplinary. People are continually trying to place the work in a comfortable envelope and are often confounded by what envelope that may be. It bridges a number of long-established definitions: documentary, political, and conceptual. I prefer that it float between and in and out of everything.

Maybe so, but I would argue that Simon’s practice certainly does not float freely from a constellation of photographic antecedents and contextual referents, and some of the examples brought to my mind include the following: Robert Frank’s road-tripping through 1955 America uncovering many things generally off-limits in the mainstream photographic press, or the direct, unyielding gaze of Frank’s most significant influence, the inimitable Walker Evans. Evans has often been considered a cold, methodical practitioner, but this lends a particular rigour and eloquence to his matter-of-fact images.

Simon’s approach bears similarity to that of Evans as she states:

In confronting loaded subject matter, I often choose to avoid any editorialized, spoon-fed emotion or angle. By doing so, my personal distance from the subject is built into the audience’s experience of engaging with the photograph. I’m avoiding a stance of “understanding” or of having knowledge that others don’t have. It says: “Here it is, and I don’t really know.” In my own work, I avoid that which claims to have a closeness with its subject.

The North American continent in its vast panoramic scope, is impossible to contend with visually except in small doses, even if one wants to somehow account for it all in a representation, such as the genres of the road movie or the travelogue, and of course in such formidable bodies of modern and contemporary photography as those of Frank, Evans, or Stephen Shore, Richard Misrach, and William Eggleston. I also think of anecdotes, one being about playwright and actor Sam Shepherd, who regularly travels across the US in a car as a way of thinking, grounding himself, taking it all in so to speak, or the British songwriter Ray Davies, famous as the singer of the Kinks, who spoke once of how the US seemed to harbor so many possibilities - as it was a place that if one was completely desperate, one could steal some money and a car, and drive across that vast expanse without stopping. Certainly he made this comment rather ironically, and romantically, and in stark contrast with the geographic limitations of any similar gestures taking place in the British Isles.

Simon’s photos in some respects could be confused with the genre of institutional critique, but how do we really determine a specific critical stance from an artist who has stated: “I want to seduce the viewer.” Essentially the formal crispness and coherence of the images is paramount to Simon, above and beyond any perceived ideological messages imparted through them. One could wonder if these images are simply another reification of capitalist excesses, sold back into that very market? Certainly to some degree they are, but the nuances and sophistication of the works emerging from Simon’s curious impulses are indeed impressive. She has remarked that she spends most of her time working through all the bureaucratic steps to gain access to such restricted sites, and that her initial interest in many of her chosen subjects was simply due to her direct curiosity; she makes lists of what she would like to see photographed.

Despite her edgy topics, Simon is an old-fashioned formalist in many respects, although at her ripe young age - Simon was born in 1975 - I would argue that there is a moralism and idealism very much at the core of these images, even if a major catalyst for her process has been the dark and perturbing external realities of the last decade.

In the artist’s words:

Over a five year period following September 11th, when the American media and government were seeking hidden and unknown sites beyond its borders, most notably weapons of mass destruction, I chose to look inward at that which was integral to America's foundation, mythology and daily functioning. I wanted to confront the boundaries of the citizen, self-imposed and real, and confront the divide between privileged and public access to knowledge.

Simon’s images are eminently pictorial, although accompanied by textual captions, and according to the artist:

What I'm most interested in is the invisible space between a text and its accompanying image, and how the image is transformed by the text, and the text by the image. So, at best, the image is meant to float away into abstraction and multiple truths and fantasy. And then the text functions as this cruel anchor that kind of nails it to the ground.

In many respects the more one wants to take pictures in the United States, the more one is thwarted, by one more generic fast food franchise, strip mall, or the clichés recycled yet again from film, television, video games, etc. etc. Nonetheless fine art photography remains one of the last hold outs to potentially challenge the banal hegemony of many other kinds of imagery. Photography can deliver images that cut through our massive indifference if only slightly, sporadically, and momentarily. As viewers we can confront otherness with the hope of realizing that this otherness is more part of us than we previously assumed. The best photographs offer up an opportunity to challenge our complicity with and acceptance of business as usual.

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