Journey to the world's most fascinating sights by road
ALL IN THE NAME OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Yet, while Simon’s method – of hunting down unusual subjects in unusual places – might read like photojournalism, the final product hews more to what one would find tacked to the walls of a biology or forensics lab.
In 2009, Simon spent five sleepless days at John F. Kennedy Airport in order to photograph the goods seized from passengers and express mail entering the United States. The result was “Contraband” (2010), comprising 1,095 shots of confiscated items of all stripes, from counterfeit jewellery, drugs and DVDS
“WHEN SOMETHING DOESN’T HAVE AN ECONOMIC REASON TO EXIST, IT STARTS TO DISAPPEAR. THAT IS JUST THE REALITY”
to deer penises and cow urine. Simon doesn’t dwell on the bizarreness; isolated from their immediate surroundings and pared down to their aesthetic elements, the photographed objects are bereft of overarching socio-political messages.
Simon is often described as a photographer, but the term doesn’t do justice to her breadth. The artist has a proclivity for subjecting herself to draining ventures, making her as much a performance artist as photographer.
In 2008, she embarked on a four-year journey to track down different bloodlines around the world. Taking her trusty 4x5 camera and several hundred kilograms of equipment with her, Simon shot 922 images of 18 bloodlines, culminating in “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII”.
The artist is quick to emphasise that it’s bloodlines she is interested in mapping out, not families. Like “Contraband”, the human subjects in the images are isolated from their surroundings and arranged neatly on the wall, with the clinical precision of the series belying the harrowing stories within. Stories of Tanzanian albinos who are under constant threat of persecution, or of the South
Korean family who were abducted by North Korea, give the viewer plenty to review.
Ironically, a minimalist aesthetic is also what makes Simon’s art so powerful. Amid the perfect symmetry and taxonomic attention to detail, the artist explores the idea of how systems came to be – how do things fall into a certain category but not another? Who decides whether something – or someone – is legal or illegal?
A deadpan style doesn’t necessarily mean that Simon can easily extricate herself from her human subjects, particularly for “A Living Man”, where the artist came face to face with living, breathing human beings; some living on the fringes of society, others under constant threat of persecution.
“It’s hard but I always keep a distance. I don’t want to come out and say that this work is about me, or there is an activist’s message. I step back, I leave myself out of it,” she pauses. “I torture myself about every decision that I make, be it about a project where there is human interaction, or where I have to deal with flowers. I have an obsessive commitment to precision. It’s like being on a hamster’s wheel, but I don’t stop.”
In Simon’s art there is a sense that image and text are of equal importance, where one informs – or misinforms – the other. In 2012, the artist collaborated with the late Aaron Swartz on Imageatlas.org, a search engine that compares and contrasts the top six images generated by local search engines when given the same terms as input.
“You see incredible differences, but also similarities. Everyone sees love in the same way, but everyone sees hate differently,” notes the artist.
Does she feel that in the world of emojis, Instagram and Snapchat, images often trump text? “When something doesn’t have an economic reason to exist, it starts to disappear. That is just the reality,” she replies. But perhaps for the artist, language isn’t so much disappearing as it is mutating.
“I TORTURE MYSELF ABOUT EVERY DECISION THAT I MAKE, BE IT ABOUT A PROJECT WHERE THERE IS HUMAN INTERACTION, OR WHERE I HAVE TO DEAL WITH FLOWERS. I HAVE AN OBSESSIVE COMMITMENT TO PRECISION”
In “Occupation of Loss” (2016), which debuted in New York, Simon tackles the language – or lack thereof – surrounding loss and grief. “I was looking at the space that loss generated, and how that is performed,” she says.
At Park Avenue Armory’s grand, dim exhibition hall, professional mourners from around the world, including India, Venezuela and Bhutan, performed grieving rituals inside 11 48-foot-tall concrete pipes, said to be inspired by the Towers of Silence traditionally used in Zoroastrian funerals. The US Citizenship & Immigration Services was an unwitting co-curator, when it rejected many of the Visa applications that Simon filed on behalf of the mourners.
The artist is currently adapting the project to a yet-to-be-disclosed location in London, opening later this year.
The loss of a loved one is something always felt extremely personally, but we’ve also all seen how grief can be played out in the public space. Does such public expression mean that our emotions have been liberated, or is grief ultimately governed by a hidden set of societal and moral codes? It’s an increasingly blurry line, especially in the age when so many of us are accustomed to broadcasting our feelings on social media.
As the artist notes, “[the expression of grief ] is not fake, it is not real. It just exists in this nether space.”
04 Handbags, misc. (counterfeit) (detail), 2010, archival inkjet print. 05 Chapterv, Alivingman Declareddead andother Chaptersi-xviii, 2011, archival inkjet prints comprised of 3 components, 84 X 118 3/4 inches.