THE CRACKS WE CANNOT SEE
Ahead of her solo show at Gagosian Hong Kong, conceptual artist Taryn Simon talks political floristry, global rituals of death, and how making art is like being trapped in a hamster’s wheel.
Few could put such a poetic spin on political treaties as Taryn Simon.
The American multidisciplinary artist, who has previously turned her lens to subjects including the inside of a nuclear waste storage facility and a hibernating family of bears, centred her 2015 exhibition “Paperwork and the Will of Capital”, around a relatively harmless agent: the bouquets present at the signing of international treaties.
For the series of photographs, Simon recreated and photographed the bouquets after identifying the flower species with a botanist. Each image, accompanied by Simon’s interpretation of the treaty, represents a frozen moment in global history.
While funnel-shaped Portuguese gladiolus accompanied the signing of an agreement on the Beidou navigation system between China and Pakistan, the bouquet for the signing of a 30-year natural gas contract between Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation comprised American bear grass, Dutch cymbidium orchids and Lisianthus.
The discrepancies are unmissable: reams of miniscule text siding up against giant bouquets; the weightiness of the treaties negated against flower arrangement, considered a frivolous activity in many quarters, and the immaculate arrangements belying the oft-tumultuous relationship between the signing parties.
The essence of “Paperwork and the Will of Capital” recalls the ‘impossible bouquet’, a 17th century Dutch style of painting that combines many native and non-native species of flowers that could have never existed at the same time.
“Formally, I love [Dutch still life]; the simplicity and the feeling of accessibility. Yet at the same time, it’s completely surreal,” notes the 37-year-old artist during our meeting at Gagosian Hong Kong, where her solo show, “Portraits and their Surrogates”, is running until August 5.
The ‘impossibility’ of the featured bouquets also speaks to the fragility of the international treaties themselves – of the 36 agreements that Simon picked for the project, many were later broken or remain unfulfilled.
THE UNUSUAL APPROACH
Simon, who was born and raised in London, reveals her obsession with the idea of framing goes back two generations: her grandfather was a physicist who built telescopes. “He ground the glass that became telescope lenses – it was all about the beyond, all the minerals and the constructs of the physical world”, she says. Simon’s father worked in data collection for the US Department of State. An ardent amateur photographer and collector of surrealist photography, it was he who bought Simon her first camera.
While studying semiotics at Brown University, Simon took photography classes at the Rhode Island School of Design on the side. Upon graduation, she worked as a photographer for the New York Times and did ad campaigns for Stella Mccartney. Now married to filmmaker James Paltrow, brother of Gwyneth, Simon’s openings are regularly attended by Hollywood A-listers such as Cameron Diaz and Tilda Swinton. Salman Rushdie is a close friend, though perhaps for a different reason. In an exhibition essay the writer – himself the target of a fatwa after the publication of The Satanic Verses - ponders on the artist’s daredevilish tendencies.
Indeed Simon, while lithe in frame, has the heart of a lion. In the past decade, the artist has willingly exposed herself to 120 million curies of radioactivity at a nuclear waste facility in Washington, stepped foot into a cave of hibernating black bears and their cubs, and thrown herself amid 75 corpses in various stages of decay at a Tennessee research facility.