An artist investigating the most restricted spaces in the most obvious places, Taryn Simon takes immaculate photographs beneath which lie dark, messy stories.
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.
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