(c) Taryn Simon


Taryn Simon, Paperwork and the Will of the Capital is
on view at 
Gagosian Gallery 
555 West 24th Street 
February 18 – March 26, 2016

           Throughout much of her artistic
career, Taryn Simon (b. 1975) has utilized the power of visual media—including
photography, sculpture, video, and performance—to critique systems of power. Her
work exposes the dark side of existing practices and, in particular, the ways in
which law affects the lives of people. Simon exploits the dual record-keeping
and fiction-making role of photography to document and fabricate the invisible.
For example, in The Innocents series
(2003), the artist shames the flawed American criminal justice system by
photographing wrongfully convicted men at the sites of their alleged crimes. Such
works reveal the inadequacies or, more often, harms that result from the
current systems in place. Her works compel the question: whom are these laws meant
to serve?
            Simon’s
work answers that the law is meant to serve its people, but the practical applications
of law often do not reflect this purpose. 
Law exists to maintain order that will facilitate a free society in
which people can pursue happiness without impinging upon the pursuits of
others. However, law is often used against the very people it was meant to serve
and protect.
(c) Taryn Simon
  
          If
Simon’s previous work exposed the perverse applications of law, her most recent
body of works on display at Gagosian Gallery reveals another side of law: its
empty and symbolic nature. Part humor, part lament, we often joke that politicians
are full of crap. Unfortunately, the statement is funny because it is often
true. Simon’s photographs and sculptures highlight the artificiality and
hopelessly symbolic nature of international treaties: perhaps some of the
emptiest promises by one group of politicians to another.
            The
power of these works—the large photographs in particular—stems from captivating
images that, despite their startling vividness, remain harmless to the viewer.
We use flowers
as harmless speech. We buy flowers most often as symbolic gestures to
commemorate an occasion or to express particular sentiments to others. We use
flowers as harmless objects of contemplation, to provide visual reminders of
such sentiments and occasions.
Such speech-flowers
are fragile and ephemeral. Their visual and olfactory pleasures expire as
quickly as the feelings of the occasion begin to fade from our memories. When
they lose their value as sensory pleasure-givers, we toss them out. Unlike
other symbolic gifts, we readily dispose of flowers because of their purpose as
temporary symbols.[*]

(c) Taryn Simon

            Simon
highlights the utterly symbolic and superficial role of flowers—and the
occasions they were to commemorate—by exaggerating the surface beauty of
flowers that were once sitting on the tables where international powers signed various
agreements. Most of the photographs show exquisite arrangements in intensely vivid
colors, all against equally striking and beautifully color-blocked backgrounds.
However, the texts accompanying the mesmerizing centerpieces state the common
fate of all these treaties: failure of the signatories to implement them.
The artist
thereby disturbs the easy assumptions held by many people, that once codified
into law, the harms addressed by the law will remedy themselves. Her beautiful
photos and their accompanying texts expose this as a faulty assumption, which presumes
the automatic integration of such agreements into real life. However, laws do
not execute themselves—people do.
            First,
many international treaties are not self-executing; local governments must pass
laws that allow their execution. Even after the agreements are passed as local
laws, law truly exists—and therefore holds power—when it is enforced in
everyday life. Without enforcement, these international agreements remain as
mere words on paper, nice and fanciful ideas, and nice gestures by participating
governments, yet nothing more.
            The
horror bestowed upon us by Simon’s beautiful work stems from the realization
that this is actually how legal systems in general work, and that substantial
harm can result from the nature of law as a multi-step process. A law may be
passed because of a felt need to address existing problems, but the law can
only fulfill its initial purpose when it is executed properly in everyday life,
down to the police men, government agencies, and the judiciary.
(c) Taryn Simon
Today, when instances
of misapplication and faulty enforcement of the law continue to demonstrate the
shortcomings of the current system, Simon’s recent work prompts a second look
at law as “mere words,” and invites us to emancipate it from its purely
symbolic status toward a working system that better serves its true master: the
people.



[*] The other side of this sad fate of flowers as symbols
is that if one does not wish their flowers to meet their inevitable destiny in
the trash, one must prematurely remove them from their life-extending
environments in water and place them between the pages of a book—or a
flower-press, as Simon has—and crush them live in the name of preservation.