Taryn Simon

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Taryn Simon
Born (1975-02-04) February 4, 1975 (age 42)
New York
Nationality American
Education Brown University
Known for Conceptual art
Notable work Image Atlas, Picture Collection, Black Square, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, Contraband, Zahra/Farah, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Nonfiction, The Innocents
Movement Contemporary art
Spouse(s) Jake Paltrow
Awards Guggenheim Fellowship, The Alfred Eisenstaedt Award in Photography, International Center of Photography Infinity Award for publication, KLM Paul Huf Award

Taryn Simon (born February 4, 1975) is an American multidisciplinary artist who has worked in photography, text, sculpture, and performance.

Her work results from rigorous research guided by an interest in systems of categorization and the precarious nature of survival. Simon reveals the imperceptible space between language and the visual world—a space in which multiple truths and fantasies are constructed, and where translation and disorientation occur. The technical, physical, and aesthetic realization of her projects often reflects the control and authority that are the very subject of her work. Invoking the form of the archive, Simon imposes the illusion of order on the chaotic and indeterminate nature of her subjects.[citation needed]

Her work was included in the 56th Venice Biennale (2015). Simon’s installation, An Occupation of Loss (2016), co-commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Artangel, premiered in New York in 2016. The sculpture will be installed in an outdoor space in London in 2017. Simon is a Guggenheim Fellow. She lives and works in New York City.


Simon was born in New York City. Her father and grandfather both worked extensively with image and text,[citation needed] as she does. She first studied environmental sciences at Brown University but quickly transferred to a degree in art-semiotics, simultaneously taking photography classes at the neighboring Rhode Island School of Design. She received her BA in 1997.[1]

She has been a visiting artist at institutions including Yale University, Bard College, Columbia University, School of Visual Arts, and Parsons School of Design.[2]


The Innocents (2003)[edit]

The Innocents (2003) documents the stories of individuals who were wrongly sentenced to death or life sentences, and were released and gained exoneration due to DNA evidence.

The work calls into question photography’s function as a credible witness and arbiter of justice, as in several cases, these individuals were mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses. Eyewitness testimony still carries such weight that it overrode alibis by other witnesses who had been with the defendants in other places.

Simon has commented:

For the men and women in these photographs, the primary cause of wrongful conviction was mistaken identification. A victim or eyewitness identifies a suspected perpetrator through law enforcement’s use of photographs and lineups. [...] In our reliance upon [DNA evidence], we marginalize the majority of the wrongfully convicted, for whom there is no DNA evidence, or those for whom the cost of DNA testing is prohibitive.[3]

This project inspired her to apply for and be awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in photography to travel across the United States photographing and interviewing individuals who were wrongfully convicted.[4] Simon photographed the men at sites that had particular significance to their wrongful conviction: the scene of misidentification, the scene of arrest, the scene of the crime or the scene of the alibi.[5] In Simon's foreword to the book she writes:

Photography's ability to blur truth and fiction is one if its most compelling qualities... Photographs in the criminal justice system, and elsewhere, can turn fiction into fact. As I got to know the men and women in this book, I saw that photography's ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another."[6]

Black Square (2006– )[edit]

Black Square (2006– ) is an ongoing project about the consequences of man’s inventions. To create each Black Square, Simon collects objects, documents, and individuals within a black field that has precisely the same measurements as Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 Suprematist work of the same name.

In an interview with Kate Fowle of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Simon described the first sculptural iteration of the project, Black Square XVII:

The goal was to construct a black square made from vitrified nuclear waste that would hold within it a letter that I had written to the future. The process of vitrification converts radioactive waste from a volatile liquid to a stable, solid mass resembling polished black glass. It is considered to be one of the safest and most effective methods for the long-term storage and neutralization of radioactive waste.[7]

The waste is stored in a steel container reinforced with concrete, at a radon nuclear waste disposal plant outside of Moscow. It will remain at the radon facility, Simon explained, "until its radioactive properties have diminished to levels deemed safe for human exposure and exhibition—approximately one thousand years after its creation."[7]

An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007)[edit]

An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar reveals objects, sites, and spaces that are integral to America's foundation, mythology, or daily functioning but remain inaccessible or unknown to a public audience. These unseen subjects range from radioactive capsules at a nuclear waste storage facility to a black bear in hibernation to the art collection of the CIA. Simon has stated that she "wanted to confront the divide between public and expert access."[8]

The publication has 70 colour plates and a foreword by Salman Rushdie. Ronald Dworkin contributed a commentary, while curators Elisabeth Sussman and Tina Kukielski of the Whitney Museum of American Art contributed an introduction. It was published by Steidl and exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006. In 2007 it was on view at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Germany.[9][10] She discussed the project with photography historian Geoffrey Batchen for the 8th volume of Museo.

Salman Rushdie wrote:

In a historical period in which many people are making such great efforts to conceal the truth from the mass of the people, an artist like Taryn Simon is an invaluable counter-force. Democracy needs visibility, accountability, light… Somehow, Simon has persuaded a good few denizens of hidden worlds not to scurry for shelter when the light is switched on, as cockroaches and vampires do, but to pose proudly for her invading lens…" [11]

Zahra/Farah (2008/2009/2011)[edit]

Brian De Palma asked Simon to take the photograph that is the last shot of his 2007 film Redacted. She traveled to Jordan to shoot a young Iraqi actress, Zahra Zubaidi, posed as if lying raped and burned, the victim of American soldiers. [...] Zubaidi has received death threats from family members, who consider Redacted pornographic, and is seeking asylum in the U.S. Simon arranged for the photograph to be shown at [2011]’s Venice Biennale to draw attention to Zubaidi’s situation.[12]

De Palma and Simon discussed their work and their methods in a conversation published in Artforum:[13]

De Palma: Look, the hard thing—I’m sure you’ve experienced this, too—is that once you have a project, you think about how you’re going to photograph the scene until you actually do it. I have always felt that the camera view is just as important as what’s in front of the camera. Consequently, I’m obsessed with how I’m shooting the scene. When you’re making a movie, you think about it all the time—you’re dreaming about it, you wake up with ideas in the middle of the night—until you actually go there and shoot it. You have these ideas that are banging around in your head, but once you objectify them and lock them into a photograph or cinema sequence, then they get away from you. They’re objectified; they no longer haunt you.

Simon: The haunting can be torturous. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the making of my work. It’s a labor. Do you find pleasure in getting to that point of objectification?

De Palma: You know, there is no rest.

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters (2008-2011)[edit]

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, I–XVIII was produced over four years (2008–11), during which Simon traveled around the world researching and recording bloodlines and their related stories. In each of the eighteen “chapters” constituting the work, the external forces of territory, power, circumstance or religion collide with the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance. The subjects documented by Simon include victims of genocide in Bosnia, test rabbits infected with a lethal disease in Australia, the first woman to hijack an aircraft, and the living dead in India. Her collection is at once cohesive and arbitrary, mapping the relationships among chance, blood, and other components of fate. It probes complex narratives in contemporary politics and organizes this material within a system that connects identity, lineage, history, and memory.[14]

In The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott wrote:

Simon’s chapters, although seemingly dry and archival, emerge as remarkably profound meditations on how we sort through the world, what ethical and moral impulses we honor and which ones we squelch. Her work insists on a more fundamentally rational relationship to photographs, and especially to photographs of people."[15]

Contraband (2010)[edit]

Contraband is an archive of global desires and perceived threats, presenting 1,075 images of items that were detained or seized from passengers and mail entering the United States from abroad, taken at both the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Federal Inspection Site and the U.S. Postal Service International Mail Facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York. From November 16 through 20, 2009, Simon remained at JFK and continuously photographed items detained or seized from passengers and express mail entering the United States from abroad.

Simon’s images and lists embrace both order and disorder, and open up a third space within the cracks of these forms of control: a space of the surreptitious, the forgotten, the bizarre and the banal, exposed to the cold light of the camera…[vague][16]

Image Atlas (2012)[edit]

Created during rhizome.org's Seven on Seven[17] conference, Image Atlas is a collaborative project between Simon and the programmer and internet activist Aaron Swartz.[18] Image Atlas investigates cultural differences and similarities by indexing top image results for given search terms across local engines throughout the world. Users can refine or expand their comparisons from 57 countries and sort by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or alphabetical order.[19] In an extensive article on the Seven on Seven conference Ben Davis writes that "Simon suggested that the site might cut against 'the illusion of flattening' on the Web, offering some way of recovering a sense of the local."[20] Image Atlas has been described as "an elegant project in that it demonstrated how something as fundamental to web interaction as 'searching' is actually bound and determined by many cultural and political forces."[21] Curator Lauren Cornell, Adjunct Curator and former Director of Rhizome stated, "The Image Atlas proposes a singular method of retrieving and comparing pictures, to demonstrate the difference in a world supposedly flattened by the forces of the global economy."[22]

Picture Collection (2013)[edit]

The Picture Collection (2013) was inspired by the New York Public Library’s picture archive, which contains 1.2 million prints, postcards, posters, and printed images, and is the largest circulating picture library in the world, organized according to a complex cataloging system of more than 12,000 subject headings. Simon sees this archive as a precursor to Internet search engines. In The Picture Collection, she highlights the human impulse to archive and organize visual information, and points to the invisible hands behind seemingly neutral systems of image gathering.[23] It was developed in response to the online database Image Atlas (2012), created by Simon with computer programmer Aaron Swartz.

Birds of the West Indies (2013-14)[edit]

Simon’s Birds of the West Indies (2013–14) is a two-part body of work, whose title is taken from the definitive taxonomy of the same name by the American ornithologist James Bond. Author Ian Fleming, an active bird watcher, used Bond's name for his novels’ protagonist. This co-opting of names was the first in a series of substitutions and replacements that would become central to the construction of the Bond narrative. The first element of Simon's work is a photographic inventory of the women, weapons, and vehicles of James Bond films made over the past fifty years. This visual database of interchangeable variables used in the production of fantasy examines the economic and emotional value generated by their repetition. In the second element of the work, Simon casts herself as the ornithologist James Bond, identifying, photographing, and classifying all the birds that appear within the 24 films of the James Bond franchise. Simon’s discoveries often occupy a space between reality and fiction: confined within the fictional space of the James Bond universe and yet wholly separate from it.[24]

A Polite Fiction (2014)[edit]

In A Polite Fiction (2014), Simon maps, excavates, and records the gestures that became entombed beneath – and within – the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s surfaces during its five-year construction. Designed by Frank Gehry, it was built to house the art collection of Bernard Arnault, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals and owner of LMVH, the largest luxury conglomerate in the world. Simon collects this buried history and examines the latent social, political, and economic forces pushing against power and privilege.

e-flux journal featured part of the project in October 2015, explaining:

Simon entered an invisible marketplace, tracking, purchasing, and photographing objects taken from the site. Items include copper and aluminum cables sold to scrap dealers; cement used by a father to build the walls of his daughter’s bedroom; and an oak sapling that a worker took to Poland, planted, and named after his boss. The custody and movement of these objects transform their value, as they pass from employer to worker and, ultimately, to artist.[25]

Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015)[edit]

The photographs and sculptures of Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015) take as their subject matter the signings of political accords, contracts, treaties, and decrees in which powerful men flank floral centerpieces curated to convey the importance of the signatories and the institutions they represent. The signings that inform Paperwork and the Will of Capital involve the countries present at the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, which addressed the globalization of economies after World War II. This led to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.[26]

Teju Cole wrote for The New York Times Magazine:

Simon noticed the ubiquity of floral displays at these occasions. To refocus attention on the workings of power at these signings, she took an oblique approach: a re-creation of the flower arrangements. The flowers were originally a decorative note, a reflex to signal the importance of the occasion. Reconstructed, they are not mere decorations. The people are gone. The documents are absent. The isolated arrangements are like secrets that can be parsed only with the help of their captions.[27]

An Occupation of Loss (2016, 2017)[edit]

In An Occupation of Loss (2016), professional mourners simultaneously broadcast their lamentations, enacting rituals of grief. Their sonic mourning is performed in recitations that include northern Albanian laments, which seek to excavate “uncried words”; Wayuu laments, which safeguard the soul’s passage to the Milky Way; Greek Epirotic laments, which bind the story of a life with its afterlife; and Yezidi laments, which map a topography of displacement and exile. Within a monumental sculptural setting, An Occupation of Loss combines performance, sound, and architecture to consider the intricate systems of grief and uncertainty. The abstract space that grief generates is often marked by an absence of language. Results are unpredictable; the void opened up by loss can be filled by religion, nihilism, militancy, benevolence—or anything. An Occupation of Loss was co-commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Artangel.[28]

Jerry Saltz described his experience of the performance and installation:

After being admitted through a side second-story entrance, 50 or so viewers descend a long staircase to see 11 cement silos or circular towers almost 50 feet high, opened at the top and arranged in a semicircle. It's like a giant pipe organ. Long ramps lead to a slightly elevated oblong opening at the foot of each tower. Viewers may duck inside. There, in intimate quarters usually seated on a bench, are professional mourners from 11 different countries...[29]

He describes mixed feelings of intrusion and empathy as he listens to the mourners' expression of inconsolable grief.[29]


  • The Innocents. New York: Umbrage, 2003. 2nd ed., New York: Umbrage, 2004
  • An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007. 2nd ed., Göttingen: Steidl, 2008. 3rd ed., Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012
  • Contraband. Göttingen: Steidl/New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2010. 2nd ed., Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2015
  • A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII. Exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern/Neue Nationalgalerie. Berlin/London: Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen/Mack, 2011. 2nd ed., London/New York: Wilson Center of Photography/Gagosian Gallery, 2012
  • Birds of the West Indies. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2013
  • Rear Views, A Star-Forming Nebula, and the Department of Foreign Propaganda. London: Tate Publishing, 2015
  • Paperwork and the Will of Capital. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2016
  • The Picture Collection. Paris: Edition Cahiers d'Art, 2017

Public collections[edit]

Simon's work is held in the following public collections:


  • MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York, USA, "Taryn Simon: The Innocents" (2003)[34]
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, "Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar" (2007)[35]
  • The 7th Gwangju Biennale Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions, Gwangju, South Korea (2008)[citation needed]
  • Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia, "Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar" (2009)[citation needed]
  • Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, France (2009)[citation needed]
  • Centre d'Art Contemporain Genève, Genève, Switzerland, "Taryn Simon: Contraband" (2011)[36]
  • Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany, "Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Others Chapters I - IVIII" (2011)[37]
  • Tate Modern, London, England, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters” (2011) [38]
  • Danish Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, Speech Matters, 2011.[citation needed]
  • The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA, "Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Others Chapters I - IVIII" (2012)[citation needed]
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York, "A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters" (2012) [39]
  • The Pavilion Downtown, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, "Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I - IVIII" (2013)[citation needed]
  • Ullens Center of Contemporary Art, Beijing, China, "Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I - IVIII" (2013)[40]
  • Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, France, "Taryn Simon: A Polite Fiction" (2014)[41]
  • MOCAK - Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków, Kraków, Poland, "Taryn Simon: The Picture Collection" (2014)[citation needed]
  • Jeu de Paume, Paris, France, "Taryn Simon: Rear Views, A Star-Forming Nebula and the Office of Foreign Propaganda" (2015)[42]
  • Albertinum, Dresden, Germany, "A Soldier is Taught to Bayonet the Enemy and not Some Undefined Abstraction" (2016)
  • Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv, Israel, "Taryn Simon: Paperwork and the Will of Capital" (2016)[43]
  • Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, "Taryn Simon" (2016) [44]
  • Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Russia, "Action Research/The Stagecraft of Power" (2016)[45]
  • Park Avenue Armory, New York, "An Occupation of Loss" (2016)[46]

Awards and nominations[edit]


  1. ^ "Taryn Simon", Yale University School of Art, New Haven.
  2. ^ Sean O'Hagan (May 22, 2011), "Taryn Simon: the woman in the picture" The Guardian, 22 May 2011.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Taryn Simon: The Innocents, May 11 — August 31, 2003 MoMA PS1, New York.
  5. ^ Taryn Simon: The Innocents, June 11 - July 31, 2004 Gagosian Gallery, London.
  6. ^ The Innocents, Umbrage Editions, 2003
  7. ^ a b ""Into the Void: Taryn Simon in Conversation with Kate Fowle"". aperture. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  8. ^ Art Forum, Summer 2012
  9. ^ "archivetarynsimon". arttattler.com. 
  10. ^ "The Photographers' Gallery - The Photographers' Gallery". The Photographers' Gallery. 
  11. ^ Rushdie, Salman. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar Exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007, p.7.
  12. ^ Joan Juliet Buck (November 2011), "Taryn’s World", W.
  13. ^ Art Forum, vol. 50, no. 10, summer 2012, page 249.
  14. ^ "Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII". MoMA. Retrieved 13 January 2017. 
  15. ^ Kennicott, Philip. ""'A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,' by Taryn Simon"". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  16. ^ Hans Ulrich Obrist. Contraband. Göttingen: Steidl; New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2010, p. 11.
  17. ^ "Rhizome's Seven On Seven Conference". rhizome.org. 
  18. ^ "Seven on Seven 2012: Aaron Swartz and Taryn Simon". Vimeo. 
  19. ^ New Museum Exhibitions [2] The New Museum.
  20. ^ "Can Artists Help Us Reboot Humanism in an Over-Connected Age? - BLOUIN ARTINFO". Artinfo. 
  21. ^ "Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz: Image Atlas - Hacker News". ycombinator.com. 
  22. ^ "Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz: Image Atlas". newmuseum.org. 
  23. ^ Arikoglu, Lale. ""Taryn Simon: The Picture Collection"". Whitewall. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  24. ^ ""Taryn Simon: Birds of the West Indies"". Eastman Museum. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  25. ^ ""Taryn Simon: A Polite Fiction"". e-flux. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  26. ^ "Taryn Simon. Action Research / The Stagecraft of Power". Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Retrieved 10 January 2017. 
  27. ^ Cole, Teju. "Capital, Diplomacy and Carnations". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 10 January 2017. 
  28. ^ "Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss". Park Avenue Armory. Retrieved 10 January 2017. 
  29. ^ a b Saltz, Jerry. "With ‘An Occupation of Loss,’ Taryn Simon Brings You Face-to-Face With Death". Vulture. Retrieved 13 January 2017. 
  30. ^ "Taryn Simon: American, born 1975". 
  31. ^ "L'œuvre Playboy, Braille Edition, Playboy enterprises, Inc. New York - Centre Pompidou". centrepompidou.fr. Centre Pompidou. Retrieved 29 February 2016. 
  32. ^ "Taryn Simon (American, born 1975)". getty.edu. J. Paul Getty Trust. Retrieved 29 February 2016. 
  33. ^ "Dr. Sri, Physician, Tsunami Survivor". high.org. High Museum of Art. Retrieved 29 February 2016. 
  34. ^ "MoMA PS1: Exhibitions: Taryn Simon: The Innocents". ps1.org. 
  35. ^ http://www.whitney.org/www/exhibition/past.jsp
  36. ^ http://www.centre.ch/taryn-simon
  37. ^ http://www.smb.museum/en/museums-and-institutions/neue-nationalgalerie/exhibitions/exhibition-detail/taryn-simon.html
  38. ^ "Taryn Simon - Tate". tate.org.uk. 
  39. ^ "MoMA". moma.org. 
  40. ^ http://ucca.org.cn/en/exhibition/taryn-simon-living-man-declared-dead-chapters-xviii/
  41. ^ 93663027[full citation needed]
  42. ^ http://www.jeudepaume.org/index.php?page=article&idArt=2206
  43. ^ "Taryn Simon: Paperwork and the Will of Capital". Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  44. ^ "Taryn Simon". Galerie Rudolfinum. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  45. ^ "Taryn Simon. Action Research / The Stagecraft of Power". Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  46. ^ "Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss". Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  47. ^ "2011 Edition", Rencontres d'Arles. Accessed 5 September 2015.

External links[edit]