Documenting the unseen

NYC-based artist reveals her CIA-inspired are exhibition

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NYC-based artist Taryn Simon reveals how she gained access to the CIA’s art collection and took photos of contraband goods at JFK Airport.

While the US media was obsessing about the supposed threats outside the States following the events of September 11 2001, US artist Taryn Simon was doing the exact opposite. ‘The government was focused on the hidden and secret beyond its borders. I wanted to look inward,’ she says. This internal investigation is the subject of two separate projects on show at The Pavilion for just one more week.

‘Both “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” and “Contraband” look at the unseen,’ says the 38-year-old New Yorker. ‘They both confront the divide between public and privileged access and consider what constructs national identity.’

Pairing photos with snippets of text, Simon says the relationship between the two is intrinsic to her narrative. ‘The viewer comes to the photograph with their preconceived notions and interprets the image with that foundation. They then move to my text, which repositions the work and debunks, verifies or scrambles their original thought,’ she says. They then move back and forth between the text and image – one continually redefining the other.’

Ironically, the back-and-forth nature of Simon’s art also manifests itself in her research process. The photos show she gained access to incredibly sensitive material, but this achievement, she explains, was the culmination of ‘years of letter-writing, phone calls, researching and lots of dead ends – I just didn’t give up.’

The bodies of work include images of the CIA’s art collection, contraband goods at JFK Airport, and now-deceased mentally-retarded and deformed tiger Kenny, the victim of selective breeding.

One of Simon’s favourite pieces is her photograph and accompanying text of the CIA’s art collection. ‘The CIA has a long history with abstract expressionism. It’s speculated that their interest and support of it was to popularise a safe aesthetic that would counter a more politicised and potentially activating Soviet art during the Cold War era,’ she says. ‘For me, it’s a deeper look into how taste is developed. We imagine our appreciation of art to be individual and from the soul. It highlights how nothing is outside of the machine or programming.’

Simon goes to great lengths for her art: she spent five days in New York’s JFK Airport in order to snap images of items seized by customs officials. ‘Getting permission to stay there for a full working week without sleep on 24-hour rotations was very difficult and unprecedented. It took nearly a year to gain that access,’ she says. ‘My team and I took small naps between flights – but never a full sleep. By the end of the shoot we were all delirious. It was torture.’

Yet Simon says it was one refusal that has opened her eyes the most. ‘Disney denied me access to its underground facility where the characters remove their costumes, where the garbage is also dumped and there is a holding cell,’ she says. ‘In the rejection, the managers wrote: “During these violent times, it’s important to give the public a fantasy they can escape to.” That says it all.’

The Lowdown
Exhibition: ‘An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’ and ‘Contraband’ until May 5 at The Pavilion, Downtown Dubai (04 447 7025).
Artist: Taryn Simon.
Price range: Not for sale.

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