Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

Artvehicle 24/Review

13th September 2007 — 11th November 2007

From a distance, the big cat looks like a botched taxidermy job, with a wonky face like those cheaply made teddies you get at funfairs. He's the real thing though, and has a name. Kenny is a blue-eyed, pink-nosed white tiger. Unfortunately, as a result of the selective inbreeding that 'creates' such features, he is mentally and physically handicapped.

A female newsreader sits in profile behind her desk. To her left, a projection of a masked figure wielding a rocket-launcher. To her right, a generic cityscape, just like a thousand other newsroom set-ups. This is Alhurra TV studio, Virginia, a U.S. government sponsored network from which news and information in Arabic is satellited, round the clock, to 22 Arab-speaking countries. Here's the twist. Domestic broadcast of the content is prohibited by law.

The 26 images here, hefty oblongs, add up to a catalogue of oddities not usually seen by the public. Not that we are looking at anything forbidden. All of the photos were taken with permission, though the organisation of the shoots alone represents quite a feat. Simon has assembled a whole spectrum of subject matter, ranging from the benign to the downright cutesy. It regards machinations of the state, corporate undertakings, and the will of individuals, with a clinical eye. The pictures are extremely telegenic, with the sensual colouration of 'CSI New York' as viewed on a jumbo flatscreen. Most of them are empty of people as such, though evidence of human activity is almost ever-present. One human that does feature is not in good sorts. Through a tangle of branches, a pair of trainers and some sports gear can be made out, and the remains of a young boy slowly decomposing within them. This is a re-created crime scene, set up by forensic researchers on a six-acre plot containing some 75 corpses, known as 'The Body farm'.

Environments simmer with a sense of foreboding, and we get that niggling sense of déjà vu thanks in part to the efforts of Hollywood art directors and location finders who have transported us to places like this before. This blurs the line between information and entertainment, which is disorienting. Tinseltown itself has been represented, in the form of the model of the Death Star from Star Wars, a crumbling grey sphere of indeterminate size [though the ever-informative annotation gives us its exact dimensions] Later we find ourselves in the Church of Scientology screening room, at the infamous Celebrity Centre. Marvel at those green paisley seats. Admire that mock-classical giltwork detailing. More propaganda dissemination, but this time it's for business purposes.

I'm not totally up to speed on the theories of L.Ron, but another organisation documented here could well be of interest to the denizens of the Centre. An angled silo shrouded in dry ice apparently contains the wife and mother of the big daddy of Cryopreservation, Robert Ettinger, who hopes they can be thawed out one day.

The exhibition does contain more realistic glimmers of optimism, including a vision of the lush vines, ferns, and moss covered tree trunks of a preserved rainforest, located in Washington State. Overall though, the pictures generate a compellingly ambiguous impression of the way society currently ticks. Although they were shot in the USA, they speak of the United States for example. The issues they touch on are more far-reaching than that.


Photographers' Gallery
5 & 8 Great Newport Street
London WC2H 7H

Monday-Saturday, 11am-6pm
Thursday, 11am-8pm
Sunday, 12pm-6pm

Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar —