Taryn Simon is obsessive. She’s standing at the entrance to Gagosian Hong Kong, directing an assistant who’s stencilling the name of Simon’s exhibition, Portraits and Surrogates, on the gallery wall. Most artists wouldn’t bother with such minor details, never mind one who’s had solo shows at Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art and been hailed as the most important photographer of her generation. A minute passes. Two. Guests are starting to arrive for the opening, but the title still isn’t perfect. The stencil is tilted a few degrees to the right, and Simon is happy. Gallery assistants exhale.
This painstaking attention to detail is reflected in Simon’s clean and clinical art. Hanging on Gagosian’s walls are enormous canvases that feature rows of perfectly aligned photographs, each of them meticulously staged. One shows an albino child, sat formally with his hands in his lap, staring patiently at the camera. Another image is of neatly lined-up boxes of Viagra. A much larger photo presents a bouquet of flowers, a spray of pink and white lilies set against a teal backdrop.
If there’s a thread that ties all these images together, it’s that they use a combination of photography and text to unveil narratives both hidden and complicated: families torn apart, private political talks with public consequences, objects obscured in travel bags that are brought to light. Simon insists that the photo of a flower isn’t just a still life – it’s an investigation into political power and the arrogance of diplomats. Through Simon’s eyes, the seemingly simple portrait of an albino child becomes an exploration of the cruel randomness of genetics, a statement on the capriciousness of fate.
Simon doesn’t expect you to make these intellectual leaps yourself. To guide viewers, she frames short texts beside each image that explain the sprawling narratives behind the photos.
“The combination of text and image is the work,” Simon explains. One isn’t complete without the other.
This is particularly clear in Paperwork and the Will of Capital, one of three series that Simon exhibited in Hong Kong. Simon started Paperwork in 2015, when she saw a photo of Hitler, Mussolini and Chamberlain signing the Munich Agreement in 1938, which gave Germany permission to annex Czechoslovakia and set the world on course for war. In a photo documenting this uncomfortable meeting, the wary politicians are flanked by a small bouquet of flowers.
The flowers might seem a mundane detail, but they intrigued Simon. “I was thinking of nature being positioned as this decorative item in the room, but also being the only other living organism in the room,” she explains. “I was also thinking about the flowers listening to these powerful men as they make all their demands and decisions.”
After researching the signing ceremonies of hundreds of international treaties, Simon settled on 36 different accords. She then recreated and photographed the bouquets that sat front and centre at these showy ceremonies, using the colour of the desk and wallpaper from each room to create vibrant colour fields in each shot. Framed alongside each of these two-metre-tall photographs is a short synopsis of the agreement that they represent.
Each photograph pulses with colour and life. “You’ll come to something that looks very celebratory,” Simon explains, “but then you’ll go into the text and [discover] it’s a nuclear-fuel agreement or an oil deal between Russia and China.”
Just as flowers slowly fade and die, many of these agreements have since been overruled – even if they were supposed to be permanent. “[In this series] there are innumerable broken promises, but with supposed best intentions,” Simon says. “I think the performance of politics is definitely more pronounced [now that Trump is US president] than previously.
“We’re living in a very unstable moment, but I think it’s always a feature of the present to imagine that the time you’re living in is somehow more unstable than any other time. People have been positing the end of the world since the beginning of the world. So it’s sort of human nature to look in these directions.”
It’s also in human nature to tell stories, something that lies at the heart of Simon’s series A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII. Each work in A Living Man features a series of staged portraits of individual members of a family, neatly lined up to illustrate the progress of a bloodline.
There are 18 bloodlines in the series. One features a pair of feuding families in Brazil. Another profiles the family of a Nazi war criminal. Many of the bloodlines are interrupted, including that of the Bosnian Muslim family who lost several sons and fathers in the Bosnian War. In place of those murdered family members, Simon photographed the men’s teeth and bones, which had been dug out of mass graves.
In Hong Kong, Simon exhibited a work from A Living Man that catalogued the family of a South Korean man who’d been abducted by North Korea. His portrait is a blank square, from which his predecessors and descendants stretch out on either side.
Simon also presented a piece depicting a Tanzanian family carrying the albino gene. Some of the family are albino, others aren’t.
“Albino skin and bones and hair are considered to bring good luck and fortune in Tanzania, so they’re hunted and many are killed,” Simon explains. “The [non-albino] child can go out in public, she can travel, she can go to school – whereas these two [albino] children are kept at home, often, because of the risk to their life. This series is all about fate and the narratives that drive our lives. And the influences of economy, geography, politics and social constructs on those equations.”
All those factors also come into play in Contraband, the final series that Simon showed in Hong Kong. Contraband features 1,075 photographs of objects that were confiscated by border police at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York over the course of a working week. This is somewhat related in theme to Simon’s series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, currently on show at Britain’s Tate Modern, in which an image of a room filled with snatched objects at JFK airport security sits among other snapshots of locations both unexpected and unvisited by the average citizen.
“I had an air mattress in customs and me and my assistants would sleep like sardines between flights,” Simon explains. “But other than that, it was on this constant rotation. I responded to every single claim that came through in that time.”
Everything from heroin to counterfeit Viagra to dead animals appears in the images that make up Contraband. Pointing to a shot of the contorted corpse of a hawk, Simon remembers, “I opened the envelope with a customs officer and there was that huge bird inside, which they claim come through quite often – for witchcraft purposes. We had to evacuate and a whole team came through from disease control.”
But despite that drama, the objects Simon encountered were generally a little less hazardous than she had expected. “The primary seizures I was imagining were guns and drugs, but what was actually being looked at more was counterfeits – and trying to protect brand identities that are cracking,” she recounts. “You see this flattening of desire, where everyone’s chasing the same items and the same dreams – whether it be counterfeit Ambien or Nikes.”
Just like her other series, Contraband is perfectly ordered. It’s a complete, self-contained archive of those five days in JFK airport. “There’s an obsessive precision in all of my work,” Simon admits. “And the precision is often counter to the subjects themselves. This idea of authority providing organisation and order and security and safety and all of these comforts – that idea is reflected in these systems of organisation. The overall structure and organisation of these things is the work. We create certain levels of comfort
in this chaos.”
But with her ambitious, sprawling art, who is Simon trying to comfort?
“I don’t know,” she murmurs. “Sometimes I think I’m organising myself.”