Law as Symbol: Taryn Simon at Gagosian
Taryn Simon: Paperwork and the Will of the Capital at Gagosian Gallery
February 18 to March 26, 2016
555 West 24th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 741 1111
Throughout much of her artistic career, Taryn Simon has utilized the power of visual media — including photography, sculpture, video, and performance — to critique systems of power. Her work exposes the dark side of existing practices and, in particular, the ways in which law affects the lives of people. Simon exploits the dual record-keeping and fiction-making role of photography to document and fabricate the invisible. For example, in The Innocents series (2003), the artist shames the flawed American criminal justice system by photographing wrongfully convicted men at the sites of their alleged crimes. Such works reveal the inadequacies or, more often, harms that result from the current systems in place. Her works compel the question: whom are these laws meant to serve?
Simon’s work answers that the law is meant to serve its people, but the practical applications of law often do not reflect this purpose. Law exists to maintain order that will facilitate a free society in which people can pursue happiness without impinging upon the pursuits of others. However, law is often used against the very people it was meant to serve and protect.
If Simon’s previous work exposed the perverse applications of law, her most recent body of works on display at Gagosian Gallery reveals another side of law: its empty and symbolic nature. Part humor, part lament, we often joke that politicians are full of crap. Unfortunately, the statement is funny because it is often true. Simon’s photographs and sculptures highlight the artificiality and hopelessly symbolic nature of international treaties: perhaps some of the emptiest promises by one group of politicians to another.
The 36 large-scale photographs depict recreated floral centerpieces that had ornamented press events announcing an international treaty or decree. Each photograph is accompanied by a description and the fates of the international agreements the flowers were meant to commemorate. Most agreements influenced systems of governance or economics, such as the Convention of Cluster Munitions in 2008, where 91 nations and the Holy See agreed to ban the use of cluster bombs, which continue to be used by countries today, including the United States. Simon framed the photographs and their descriptions in a rich mahogany, as though the works could be part of the very boardrooms at which these agreements took place. 12 sculptures in the center of the room consist of pressed flowers, specimens of the 36 centerpieces, sewn onto paper, that sit above or between tall concrete flower presses — the heavy masses bear their weight into the floor with the gravity of solemn monuments.
The power of these works — the large photographs in particular — stems from captivating images that, despite their startling vividness, remain harmless to the viewer.
We use flowers as harmless speech. We buy flowers most often as symbolic gestures to commemorate an occasion or to express particular sentiments to others. We use flowers as harmless objects of contemplation, to provide visual reminders of such sentiments and occasions.
Such speech-flowers are fragile and ephemeral. Their visual and olfactory pleasures expire as quickly as the feelings of the occasion begin to fade from our memories. When they lose their value as sensory pleasure-givers, we toss them out. Unlike other symbolic gifts, we readily dispose of flowers because of their purpose as temporary symbols. The other side of this sad fate of flowers as symbols is that if one does not wish their flowers to meet their inevitable destiny in the trash, one must prematurely remove them from their life-extending environments in water and place them between the pages of a book — or a flower-press, as Simon has — and crush them live in the name of preservation.
Simon highlights the utterly symbolic and superficial role of flowers — and the occasions they were to commemorate — by exaggerating the surface beauty of flowers that were once sitting on the tables where international powers signed various agreements. Most of the photographs show exquisite arrangements in intensely vivid colors, all against equally striking and beautifully color-blocked backgrounds. However, the texts accompanying the mesmerizing centerpieces state the common fate of all these treaties: failure of the signatories to implement them.
The artist thereby disturbs the easy assumptions held by many people: that once codified into law, the harms addressed by the law will remedy themselves. Her beautiful photos and their accompanying texts expose this as a faulty assumption, which presumes the automatic integration of such agreements into real life. However, laws do not execute themselves — people do.
First, many international treaties are not self-executing; local governments must pass laws that allow their execution. Even after the agreements are passed as local laws, law truly exists — and therefore holds power — only when it is enforced in everyday life. Without enforcement, these international agreements remain as mere words on paper, nice and fanciful ideas, and nice gestures by participating governments, yet nothing more.
The horror bestowed upon us by Simon’s beautiful work stems from the realization that this is actually how legal systems in general work, and that substantial harm can result from the nature of law as a multi-step process. A law may be passed because of a felt need to address existing problems, but the law can only fulfill its initial purpose when it is executed properly in everyday life, down to the policemen, government agencies, and the judiciary.
Today, when instances of misapplication and faulty enforcement of the law continue to demonstrate the shortcomings of the current system, Simon’s recent work prompts a second look at law as “mere words,” and invites us to emancipate it from its purely symbolic status toward a working system that better serves its true master: the people.