Sunday 27 January 2019

Taryn Simon Starling

Recently I have become re-acquainted with the work of Taryn Simon. During some conversations where her work was discussed, neither I nor the people I spoke to seem to be able to argue why her work is called art, rather than high-quality investigative journalism. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it wouldn't differ much from the scenario where a person would like to sell various kinds of meats and then opens up a cheese-shop, when there is already a well-established section of society called the butcher-shop that could fulfill this role. If this person would still use the 'cheese-shop' to sell only meat, it is up to them to explain why that would be appropriate, rather than the other way around.

Investigating a little bit into the work of Taryn Simon, there are very few clues as to why her work would be anything other than investigative journalism. One of her galleries, as well as she herself, have stated that her work 'integrates photography, text, and graphic design'. This seems to me like quite a good description of what a magazine is.

But let us look in depth at 'The Innocents', her breakthrough project, initiated in 2001.
The exact sequence of events is of course somewhat unclear, but two definitive facts are known. The project was funded by a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as The Innocence Project, and it seems like the ultimate culmination of the project was a book published in 2003. A book that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a fleshed out magazine article.
It was this project that led to the first commercial gallery exhibition I could find, held at Gagosian Gallery's London and Beverly Hills branches in 2004. The press release for this exhibition mentions no other exhibitions or art projects besides the previous showings of 'The Innocents' at PS1 in New York and Kunstwerke in Berlin. Other than some mention of the book that accompanied the project and the Guggenheim fellowship that funded it, the only relevant experience given is work published in traditional media outlets such as New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Frontline, CNN and BBC.
What isn't said in this press release is that 'The Innocents' was first shown at Duke University's Centre for Documentary Studies and later moved on to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, both public institutions where art is a secondary concern.
All things considered, it seems that 'The Innocents' was a project instigated by a young photojournalist, funded by a well-known arts foundation and introduced to the world of fashionable collectors by a high-profile gallery. As such, it somewhat stumbled into a world it was never really meant to be part of, but once this threshold is crossed there is no real turning back.

After this first baptism into the strata where art value is no longer questioned, her approach to her work has hardly changed and Simon has done little to assert any kind of artistic aspirations beyond aesthetic concerns. Perhaps most telling is a statement from a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose where she claims that working outside of the corporate structure of published media is her 'medium': 'getting the agreements and getting access and being able to produce these things as an individual person, you know, outside of any overarching media structure for example. It's -- that is my -- my medium in a form'.
This would indicate that it is not so much her work, the way she produces it, nor the way she handles it afterwards that make her work circulate inside the art world, but rather a want for autonomy that can only be afforded with the kind of financial possibilities an art market can provide for a singular person. This is echoed in a remark made in another interview with Charlie Rose from 2007. When asked why a museum is the place for her to ultimately place her work she responds that 'it is a public forum, and I'm dictating the context. Although I'm still in the context of a museum, it's not motivated by certain -- it doesn't have certain political motivations. It doesn't have financial motivations. Although we all know museums do have these -- these overarching things -- they need to please. It just feels like the purest form in which you can show a photograph'.
I can't help but feel that freely distributed e-books on a website that costs $25 a year to maintain would have even less political and financial restraints, if those are truly her primary concerns.

Her work remains close to the quintessence of investigative journalism, both in content and in appearance. Her inclusion within art seems closely related to showing in well-known public institutions, which in turn can be linked to her inclusion on the roster of a well-known commercial gallery. Presumably to justify the increase in perceived monetary value, the production value of her work has grown accordingly. Lavishly produced books and mahogany frames might be a sight to behold and posses, but they are not prerequisites of art.

Now let us contrast this with Simon Starling, whose work similarly contains a large photographic element stemming from percipient research. One might expect that Starling's work therefore has similar issues, but some essential differences are present that prevent this from being the case.

One of Starling's more photograph-reliant projects is titled 'Pictures for an exhibition', from 2013. In this project he took an installation view from the 1927 Brancusi exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago. The entire series consists of 36 photographs, yet within the first four the overarching narrative is already made clear, employing a kind of visual storytelling that Taryn Simon never manages to achieve.
Simon Starling, Pictures for an Exhibition, #1
The first picture in the exhibition is a photograph from the ground glass of a large-format camera aimed at a cityscape. This ground glass is obviously modified, with the outline of some kind of arrangement of sculpture on top of it. Even if we don't know if the building in the center is the first home of the Arts Club of Chicago, at the very least we can deduce that building somehow held these works inside it.
Simon Starling, Pictures for an Exhibition, #2
The second picture is clearly a composite photograph that follows the exact contours of the works etched into the ground glass of the first. We might not know where these works were photographed exactly, but clearly they are not located all together in the same space and brought together only by photographic means. The modification of the ground glass thus serving as a guide to take replicate the exact arrangement.
Simon Starling, Pictures for an Exhibition, #3 and #4
This assumption is further exemplified by the third and forth picture. They are a shot reverse shot of one of the pieces in the previous overview, placed in exactly the same location it was in that second photograph. Without using any words, the whole methodology of project is made clear. 'I recreated this set-up that was present in this building, by creating this composite photograph using this camera by photographing the objects wherever they are now', it says.

Starling is very skilled at letting these silent objects speak for themselves and tell their own story. As he explained in a conversation with Janet Harbord: 'They're sort of objects that have gone through some kind of process normally, they've been transformed or they've been moved [inaudible] And the hope is they can sort of tell their own story and bring those processes with them. You know like the shed that I showed here for the Turner prize. This structure that has been kind of cut and drilled and reconfigured as a boat and then put together as a shed and it's kind of readable in its material sense. So, you hope that the work can sort of embody these kind of processes and things.'

One of the main differences between Starling and Simon is that the emphasis in Starling's research and presentations always lies in whatever he himself brought to the situation. When he moved the invasive Rhododendrons from Scotland to the Spanish Parque Los Alcornocales they originated from, he did not show a picture of a plant with a lengthy text describing how it was actually an invasive species that also overtook our perception of the Scottish landscape. Instead, the end result of the work is a group of photographs that document the journey wherein Starling moved the plants in his own car and he did so by creating a makeshift studio that show the car, the plants and the photographic equipment in the same arrangement, while the landscape around it slowly changes.
Simon Starling, Rescued Rhododendrons, 1999
Again, this is a thoroughly researched investigation that is not aimed at simply presenting the facts of the world, but an introspective journey that explores the artist's own relationship with the subject matter, predominately in a physical sense, as well as the tools at his disposal.

Taryn Simon's work, although executed well, never adds anything to a standard technical repertoire of the professional portrait, product or journalistic photographer. Starling on the other hand uses the medium to both create an implicit narrative and continuously reflect on the medium he employs. This latter strategy is wholly personal and has no counterpart in contemporary society, therefore it can not be called anything other than art, while the first is still mostly a reflection of whatever common strategies journalistic media employ.