Contraband – Taryn Simon
This post is a slight revision of a post from my People and Place blog and is included here because Simon's approach and presentation are of interest to me.
This exhibition – in the Centre d’Art Contemporain – was the first solo exhibition by Taryn Simon in Switzerland. It featured 546 photos from a set of 1,075 photos of items detained or seized from passengers and overseas mail over a 5-day period at JFK Airport Terminal 4. All the items were classified as prohibited, undeclared, etc.
The press release makes an issue of Simon’s scientific methodology – which veers towards ‘trying too hard’, in my mind, although I can see that such an approach elevates the concept from simple snap-shotting and places it on the footing of a formal study.. Each photo was captured, we are told, using ‘a labour-intensive forensic photographic procedure - large format camera and the same neutral backdrop for all items.’ This is ‘reinforced’ by presenting the series alphabetically from ‘alcohol’ to ‘wood carvings’.
As it happens they were hung in batches which could be viewed in several different orders and they were reproduced at about A5 which talks to my point about trying a bit too hard. However they certainly benefited from being grouped under headings, because many of the items were not easily identifiable.
This was/is a fascinating set of images. I doubt a much smaller group would have had the same impact, but the sheer number and variety of items was memorable in itself. There are some samples on Taryn Simon’s website. People smuggle or carry odd things. In between the obvious – Viagra, heroin, gold-dust, counterfeit handbags etc. – there was dried deer penis, dried guinea pigs, cow dung toothpaste and horse-meat sausages. It was difficult to decide whether to be appalled or amused.
The work itself fits with some of Simon’s previous work which seeks to document unknown parts of daily life in America. Should you ever wonder what customs officials are handling every day this exhibition would be a good place to start.
In the press release Simon is quoted as saying that she was interested not just in the cataloguing, but also the ability of the photos to transcend boundaries –the goods were denied entry but have made it across the border as images. An interesting idea – especially as they have now been re-exported to Switzerland! I can see her point though – without the photos the objects would float in international limbo until they were destroyed and most of us would be none the wiser.