March 2, 2016
Taryn Simon's latest body of work "Paperwork and the Will of Capital" is on view at Gagosian West 24th Street, New York until March 26th. The bold large-scale photographs and related sculptures containing delicate botanical specimens address the instability of fact and the precarious nature of survival.
How did your ideas for Paperwork and the Will of Capital evolve?
I discovered a book made by George Sinclair, a gardener in the nineteenth century, concerning an experiment in which he examined the performance of different species of grasses and herbs in various types of soil. Sinclair’s work later influenced Darwin’s theory of evolution. The book contains preserved dried specimens of the plants studied, and this inspired me to use botanical specimens as both subject and object.
At the same time, I came across an archival photograph of Hitler and Mussolini at the Munich Conference sitting around table with a floral centerpiece. I started thinking about the flowers as silent witnesses listening to men's determination to control the economic, geographic, and political fate of the world and I began searching for similar historical images.
The photographs also refer to the "impossible bouquets" of seventeenth century Dutch still-life painting. At the time that they were painted, the floral arrangements depicted were logistically impossible, given that all the flowers did not bloom in the same place or time, and therefore could not have been brought together in the same moment. With the advent of the modern global flower market—also a Dutch invention—these "impossible bouquets" became, in effect, possible.
What goes into creating a body of work like this?
There was an enormous amount of writing, image collecting, and research involved. We worked with presidential library archives, image archives including Getty, Corbis, and Reuters; newspaper archives in China and Pakistan; and the Internet.
I collaborated with a botanist to identify the flowers that appeared in the archival source images. We then sourced plants and flowers to recreate the floral arrangements, from the largest flower auction in the world in Alsmeer, Netherlands, which allows the modern consumer access to any flower despite the natural limitations of season or place. After photographing the arrangements, the flowers were dried, flattened, and sewn onto herbarium paper.
This project was a bit schizophrenic in its making. I started with something seemingly factual and concrete and subject it to a process of destabilization.
What attracted you about this material?
I wanted to distill political theater down to its aesthetic elements and look at the patterns in the stagecraft of power—the background and foreground colors of the settings and the repetition of a castrated collection of flowers.
As my point of reference, I used the historic 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, which addressed the globalization of economies after World War II, leading to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In subsequent treaties and agreements, Paperwork and the Will of Capital focuses on the broader machinations of state and corporation and their impact on global history.
Did you design the large frames for the photographs?
Yes, in mahogany, to evoke the style of boardrooms and governance.
Were any of the historical flower arrangements particularly notable or unusual?
Many were completely surreal in color and form. There were notable oddities—like the small bouquet of succulents made for a meeting between Ronald Reagan and the mujahideen in the Oval Office—clearly curated for the mujahideen.
What is the role of the sculptures?
The sculptures are versions of plant presses, fabricated in concrete, with steel straps holding the concrete blocks in place. Within each "press" are thirty-six photographs of the recreated floral bouquets and their stories, presented side by side with the preserved herbarium specimens. The photographs take the bouquets out of time's continuum, in contrast to the specimens, which eventually lose their color and transform. Yet flowers sealed in Egyptian tombs have been preserved to the present day.
Who knows what will survive the longest—man's governing laws, photographs, flowers, or language?
"Taryn Simon: Paperwork and the Will of Capital" is on view at Gagosian Gallery West 24th Street, NYC through March 26, 2016.