Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 26, 2016
Taryn Simon Taryn Simon: Paperwork and the Will of Capital Exh. cat. New York and Berlin: Gagosian Gallery and Hatje Cantz, 2016. 208 pp.; 1,006 color ills. Cloth $100.00 (9783775741576)
Exhibition schedule: Gagosian Gallery, New York, February 18–March 26, 2016
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Taryn Simon. Bird’s-eye view, Agreement Establishing the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation. Al-Bayan Palace, Kuwait City, Kuwait, May 30, 2006, Press III, Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015). Pigmented concrete press, dried plant specimens, archival inkjet prints, text on herbarium paper, and steel brace, 114.1 x 55.9 x 76.2 cm. (c) Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Mike Bruce.

Taryn Simon’s bibliography for Paperwork and the Will of Capital includes an 1816 volume by Scottish horticulturalist George Sinclair. His Hortus gramineus Woburnensis catalogues the results of soil and planting experiments conducted to enhance the performance and nutritive value of various types of grass cultivated for animal fodder. Plant communities composed of diverse species, Sinclair found, produce a greater yield than less species-rich plots. The implications of this discovery would ultimately extend well beyond the agricultural intentions of Sinclair’s work. Charles Darwin in 1859 reframed the Scottish gardener’s research as a key source for the theory of natural selection and the principle of divergence; in 2002 ecologists recontextualized its implications for biodiversity in a different light, as a pivotal and perhaps inaugural experiment in that field (Andy Hector and Rowan Hooper, “Darwin and the First Ecological Experiment,” Science 295, no. 5555 [January 25, 2002]: 639–40).

Sinclair’s study inflects in various ways Simon’s Paperwork and the Will of Capital, a multifarious project comprising thirty-six large-format photographs set in annotated custom mahogany frames, and twelve sculptures, which are my focus here. For each sculpture, a cast concrete block designed as a simple flower press serves as a pedestal-like support for an unbound sheaf of thirty-six two-page spreads, stacked so that one pair of facing pages lies open to view, approximating the dimensions of Sinclair’s book. (The sculptures can also be exhibited in a closed format on a half-scale press with the top weight surmounting its singly stacked pages.) Each right-hand page features a different grouping of plant specimens carefully preserved and sewn onto herbarium paper, a format that recalls the dozens of pressed-grass samples tipped into Sinclair’s volume. Simon’s specimen pages, however, spring less from a horticultural impetus than from the world of geopolitics and trade. Her project originated in her observation that in photographs documenting the ratification of official treaties an arrangement of cut flowers typically adorns the setting in which signatories convene. Such bouquets, Simon proposes, parallel the arrangements and rearrangements of power they ceremonially mark.

Culling newsreels and image databases, Simon began by selecting thirty-six press photographs of ceremonial signings dating from 1968 to 2014, spanning dozens of nations and sectors of trade and diplomacy—from intellectual property to labor relations, nuclear armament, and land repatriation. She worked with a botanist to identify the species brought together in each bouquet, of which she then created and photographed twelve different versions. Each sculpture’s collection of pages thus represents a complete but unique edition of thirty-six full-color inkjet prints. The images appear opposite their corresponding plant samples, glued beneath a text describing the relevant treaty, including its title, location, and date, and the dignitaries involved. The text also lists the Latin names of the featured plants as well as their country of origin. The resulting works illuminate the bouquets as enigmatic primary sources in the history of global capitalism; recognizing them in this light requires reshuffling category distinctions in the archive of international governance, a methodological precondition shared by historiographers of ecology who relied on similar means to unearth Sinclair’s importance to that field.

Sculpture is a departure for Simon, but in other ways Paperwork and the Will of Capital extends the research-driven, post-documentary axis of her photography-based practice. The 2015 project is also exemplary of Simon’s particular approach to archival practices in contemporary art. Not a fictive archive (think Walid Raad) or an institutive one (Thomas Hirschhorn), Paperwork and the Will of Capital inventories and collates disparate records of international relations, botany, and floristry in order to cut across them transversally (and rewards comparison with the likes of Christopher Williams’s Angola to Vietnam, 1989, a series of twenty-seven photographs of glass flowers from the collection of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, representing species native to countries in which state-sponsored murders occurred in 1984). In Simon’s case, particulars of nomenclature and nationality, presented in a consistent typeface, place official stakeholders on the same terrain with witnesses from the kingdom Plantae, though they infrequently overlap in their country of origin.

Simon’s meticulous adherence to the conventions of botanical taxonomy throws into relief the category confusion the project otherwise enacts. Its Minimalism-inflected serialized blocks implant it obdurately in the realm of sculpture, heavy enough in this case to drain from a daisy every last ounce of moisture. Its sequenced pages, however, shelve its “paperwork” just as readily in the genre of the artist book, with all the mobility this highly distributable form implies, heightened by a bindingless, loose-leaf assembly—suggesting seeds to be scattered—and by the extreme degrees of circulation that characterize the cut-flower industry: Simon imported the four thousand requisite plants from the Netherlands’s Aalsmeer flower market, the largest in the world, which reportedly moves twenty million flowers daily—from growers in Thailand, Ecuador, Uganda, and beyond—to vendors all over the world.

No more stable is the threshold separating unique original from reproducible type. Botanical specimens serve primarily as an exemplar of a species propagated in a potentially infinite series of effectively identical units. Yet each also preserves the molecular idiosyncrasies of organic life. These material particularities in turn differentiate Simon’s otherwise nearly equivalent editions, as do the twelve unique re-creations of the thirty-six flower arrangements illustrated in their pages. A similar tension inheres in the treaties themselves. Each represents a distinctive historical moment brought about by complex geopolitical negotiations and in turn occasioning a specific assembly of leaders. But each also forms an instance or segment of a much larger pattern of globalized economic relations and governance, which Simon highlights by limiting the countries featured to those present at the decisive 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

Paperwork and the Will of Capital’s photographic elements mirror the iterative fluidity of the subject matter at hand by maintaining the same format across all four hundred and thirty-two images. Framed frontally in crisp focus, each presents its bouquet against a bichromatic ground, split horizontally about one quarter from the bottom edge. The background tints sample and radically abstract details of the source images. Hence the light chestnut and sage green backdrop for a spray of white gladiolas derives from the wall paneling and tabletop in the Islamabad chamber where leaders of China and Pakistan sat down at a 2013 meeting about the Beidou satellite navigation system. The pair of background colors blurs slightly at their horizon, evoking less a specific architectural interior than the placeless interchangeability of the world of signs.

The color relations, framing, and life-like detail of Simon’s photographs cite seventeenth-century Dutch flower painting, a genre they moreover recall in a procedural as well as formal sense. Aalsmeer’s flower empire allowed Simon to actualize the seasonally heterogeneous bouquets painters in the 1600s assembled illusionistically by compiling in a single frame flower varieties native to different biomes and time zones. The compression of tenses and geographies in Golden Age still lifes reflects an emerging global circuitry of capital, communications, and travel, in which the Dutch East India Company played a crucial role. Considered the first multinational corporation, the company also established the first modern stock exchange, a precursor to the sign-exchange economics of global financial capitalism in effect today. Dutch Golden Age economics also introduced the lucrative possibilities and devastating risks of futures trading, first initiated in the paper exchange of dormant tulip bulbs, a species indigenous to North Africa and newly popular among Amsterdam’s merchant classes. Though disputed by some historians, the so-called tulip crisis of the 1630s has been described as the first recorded speculative “bubble.”

The confusion of temporal registers embedded in this history subtends Simon’s project in several respects. Trading in leading currencies of contemporary “critical art” (post-documentary and archival practices, for example), it foregrounds the speculative character of the contemporary art market, calibrated less to a past provenance than to an anticipated one. (Simon’s title arguably plays to this point, linking the “aesthetics of administration” that characterize its works on paper to the “institutional critique” implied by its paperwork, to draw on Benjamin Buchloh’s terminology (“Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” OCTOBER 55 [Winter 1990]: 105–43). A treaty projects forward in time as well, and like all speculative propositions, its lifespan is uncertain. The bouquets in turn signal, like their seventeenth-century vanitas counterparts, the pending demise of a present-tense prosperity. This may account for the sepulchral character of Simon’s cast cement sculptures; they evoke what Jacques Derrida calls mal d’archive, the feverish, contradictory compulsion to collect and at the same time entomb the traces of life’s inescapable finitude (Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

The “will” of capital has many valences: future probabilities, volition and drive, a death wish, a final bequest. A will in the latter sense distributes value. An archive’s interpretive matrix does the same for knowledge. Its classificatory systems parcel out what data counts as meaningful. Its taxonomies obscure as much as they make accessible. Just as Simon’s herbaria interleave past and future, sculpture and book, object and sign, it brings floristry into view as testimony germane to the “will of capital” precisely by suspending the disciplinary division between ecology and geopolitics. Like the bouquets themselves, however, Paperwork and the Will of Capital places the prospect of unequivocal evidence—tantalizingly and perhaps dangerously—in abeyance. The dozen versions ramify in a permutational array that courts conflicts of interpretation, while the format of the sculptures occludes in any one presentation all but a fraction of the evidence.

Claire Grace
Assistant Professor, Art and Art History, Wesleyan University

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