the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

The Art of Secrets

Posted by gninja on January 29, 2008

Wired lets me know of a new book coming out, Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.


(Confiscated comestibles at JFK airport.)

From Amazo’s synopsis:

In An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Taryn Simon documents spaces that are integral to America’s foundation, mythology and daily functioning, but remain inaccessible or unknown to a public audience. She has photographed rarely seen sites from domains including: science, government, medicine, entertainment, nature security and religion. This index examines subjects that, while provocative or controversial, are currently legal. The work responds to a desire to discover unknown territories, to see everything. Simon makes use of the annotated-photograph’s capacity to engage and inform the public. Transforming that which is off-limits or under-the-radar into a visible and intelligible form, she confronts the divide between the privileged access of the few and the limited access of the public. Photographed with a large format view camera (except when prohibited), Simon’s 70 color plates form a seductive collection that reflects and reveals a national identity. In addition to this monograph, there is also an exhibition of Simon’s work opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art in March 2007.

Immediately, I had thoughts of Peter Aertsen when I saw the image above.


(Peter Aertsen, Meat Stall [with Flight into Egypt], 1551).

It’s not that the images are all that strikingly familar.  But the crowded still-life and sense of something “hidden” underlying it runs throughout both.  In the case of Aertsen, various interpretations have been offered including the religious symbolism of Carnival versus Lent (manifested as meat vs pretzels and fish) and some contemporary land dispute alluded to on the sign in the upper right.  In the same way, Simon has arranged the array of illicit foods at JFK into a composition that demands we ask some questions.  The “property of” boxes in the background, the growing plant emerging from the heaps of trashed produce in a stainless steel sink, a decomposing  animal’s head peeking out at us from the vegetation.  This is the property of no one, and yet it’s a cornucopia.  It’s eerie.

Other images include a man in solitary confinement, nuclear waste, and a braile issue of Playboy.  All beautiful photographs, every one of them (that I’ve seen).

What I like most about these photographs, though, is Simon’s ability to create an image that not only aestheticizes the covert and often threatening, but that also underscores the obscurity of the subject.  Her subjects are mostly devoid of active human presence, and they announce their separation from the activities of the everday.  She focuses on cages or empty compositions, darkness, and sterility to remove them from us.  Yet, at the same time, her images are incredibly simple.  It’s as if the most harmless looking things hidden from our view are those which wield the most power when released.

A final image of a bottle of HIV:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: