The work is meant to be disorienting. It was produced during a disorienting time in my history as an American. There is an element of exploration—of discovering a new American landscape—politically, ethically, and religiously.1
The resulting exhibition – An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar – is an idiosyncratic guide to the American mindset, whose subjects traverse the realms of science, government, medicine, entertainment, nature, security,and religion. Among other things, the show takes in glowing capsules in an underwater nuclear-waste storage facility, a Braille edition of Playboy, a retarded inbred tiger, a teenage corpse rotting in a forensic research facility, the Death Star and a Scientology screening room. Shot with a large-format view camera, Simon's images range from ethereal to foreboding, from deadpan to luscious. Each is accompanied by a text that provides often chilling background information on what is shown.
Walking through the show, one is surprised-but never so surprised. We know rape victims get DNA tested, so it's not implausible that somewhere there is a backlog of kits awaiting analysis. National borders are protected by customs agents and patrols – it would only be scandalous if they weren't. And this won't be the first time we've heard of the KKK, cryonics, serpent handlers, government bunkers, and black ops. But while we know all these things, we don't expect to be confronted with them en masse. Simon's subjects are mostly the half-secrets that people exile to the backs of their minds to maintain their collective sense of security as they live their lives and go about their business. As one commentator put it, ‘What's most strongly conveyed by these photographs is how conscientious we can be about what we don't want to be conscious of.'2 Slavoj Zizek said something similar when he observed that Americans saw 9/11 as unimaginable when Hollywood had been imagining it for years.
It's hard to look at the Index without speculating on the research and negotiation that would have attended the creation of each image. What did Simon have to say in order to get access? How much resistance did she face? How secretive was she about her intentions? If this is what she can show, what is it that she can't show? One imagines that many of the bureaucrats and technocrats who permitted her access were understandably proud of their well-oiled facilities, like that executioner in Franz Kafka's story In the Penal Colony who finally demonstrated his machine on himself. However, Simon acknowledges resistance in one work. This text-only piece excerpts a 'no letter' from Disney which argues that 'the magical spell cast on guests who visit our theme parks is particularly important to protect and helps to provide them with an important fantasy they can escape to.' It is odd to think that one can photograph nuclear-submarine work stations, the mint, the CIA, government marijuana crops, and death-row exercise cages, but backstage at Disneyland is off-limits. Simon suggests that the entertainment industry may be more fastidious than the military in maintaining appearances.
For me, one image offers a telling key to Simon's inquiry into secrecy. Hymenoplasty, Cosmetic Surgery, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, Florida shows an operating theatre in which a young woman, spread-eagled in stirrups, awaits an operation to restore her hymen 'to adhere to cultural and familial expectations regarding her virginity and marriage'. The image is conflicted. On the one hand, the woman is obscenely displayed; on the other, her face is hidden and her sex modestly veiled. Perversely, the image exposes the existence of a dishonest procedure but protects the woman's identity, making us complicit with her subterfuge. In specifying that the woman is 'of Palestinian descent', Simon's text introduces a twist. Through its support of Israel, America may be implicated in the deceitful oppression of Palestinians, but here, in the 'free world', this young Palestinian-American woman's own lie can be enabled. Is restoring her 'innocence' resisting misogynist cultural expectations or buying into them?
It's complex. America is complex.
As much as Simon reflects on America, she also reflects on photography. For someone who cut her teeth as a photojournalist, she is surprisingly skeptical of photography's claims to truth and attentive to its limitations. Her previous series, The Innocents (2003), presented portraits of persons who had been wrongfully convicted, often on the basis of photographic evidence. The Index also emphasises misrecognition. Simon compares her approach to that of exploration-period artists who made seductive images of locations and specimens only to supplement them with the driest of descriptions. Simon's texts emphasise what her spectacular images don't or can't say. Viewers experience a double take, only recognising the implications of what they have seen after they have read her text. Simon says, 'the image is meant to float away into abstraction and multiple truths and fantasy, then the text functions as this cruel anchor that nails it to the ground.'3
At first glance, it is easy to see the Index simply as a documentary project, but it is more than merely evidential. Simon's images are highly crafted, contrived, themselves duplicitous: she famously rearranged seized contraband to recall a classic Dutch still-life and chose a particular group of glowing nuclear-waste capsules because their disposition suggested a map of America. Rhetorical installation is also crucial to her plan. Simon insists on laboratory-white gallery walls and even, regular spacing of her images. And she runs her texts small, as if they were literally 'the fine print'. While the show appears sedate and systematic, the works—the registers they operate in and their implications—are so heterodox that they generate a burgeoning sense of disorder and dislocation. For all its encyclopaedic breadth, the paradox-fuelled Index refuses to join the dots. While it furnishes building blocks for a conspiracy theory, it pulls back from an overarching explanation. In doing so, it exemplifies, engages, critiques, and inverts Bush-period paranoia. The prospect of an American axis of evil constantly appears and evaporates under our gaze.
Robert Leonard is director of the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar
Inspired by rumours of weapons of mass destruction and secret sites in Iraq, Taryn Simon decided to address secret sites in her own country.
From an underwater nuclear-waste storage facility to a Scientology screening room, these images provide an extraordinary record of a never-before-seen side of the contemporary USA.
Hidden Light: Early Canterbury and West Coast Photography
Uncovering the remarkable, largely unseen work of early New Zealand photographers.
Representing Women: Ann Shelton’s Dark Matter
What is ‘dark matter’? For theoretical physicists it is matter that cannot be directly observed but whose existence is nevertheless scientifically calculable – productively present yet simultaneously invisible. In a similar vein, the everyday phrase ‘dark matter’ describes objects, conditions and situations that harbour unease or trauma. Trauma that is often concealed, repressed, or buried. Both definitions are active in Ann Shelton’s mid-career review exhibition Dark Matter, and they provide a rich point of entry into this compelling collection of her photographic work. These are photographs that bristle with intensity and refuse to let their subjects die a quiet archival death.
Ann Shelton: Dark Matter
An expansive view of Ann Shelton’s tightly conceived, large scale and hyperreal photography
New Zealand artist Laurence Aberhart is internationally regarded for his photographs of unpeopled landscapes and interiors. He photographs places redolent with the weight of time, which he captures with his century-old large-format camera and careful framing. But he’s always taken more spontaneous photographs of people too, particularly in the years he lived in Christchurch and Lyttelton (1975–83) when he photographed his young family, his friends and occasionally groups of strangers. ‘If I lived in a city again,’ he says, ‘I would photograph people. One of the issues is that I even find it difficult to ask people whether I can photograph a building, so to ask to photograph them – I’m very reticent. I also know that after a number of minutes of waiting for me to set cameras up and take exposure readings and so on, people can get rather annoyed. So it’s not a conscious thing, it’s more just an accident of the way I photograph.’
Aberhart Starts Here
Iconic and unseen early photographs of Christchurch by Laurence Aberhart
The Devil’s Blind Spot
Te Puna o Waiwhetū Christchurch Art Gallery has a long-standing tradition of curating exhibitions of emerging and early-career artists. We do this in order to contribute to the ecology of the local art world, as well as because – quite straightforwardly – we’re interested in the practices of artists at all stages of their careers, and would like to bring the work of outstanding younger artists to wider public attention. The Devil’s Blind Spot is the latest in this ongoing series, but unlike earlier exhibitions, it’s concerned with a single medium – photography.
The Devil’s Blind Spot: Recent Strategies in New Zealand Photography
Recent photography by an emerging generation of New Zealand artists.
The Camera as a Place of Potential
To Māori, the colour black represents Te Korekore – the realm of potential being, energy, the void, and nothingness. The notion of potential and the presence of women are what I see when I peek at Fiona Pardington’s 1997 work Moko. And I say peek deliberately, because I am quite mindful of this work – it is downright spooky. Moko is a photographic rendering of a seeping water stain upon the blackboard in Pardington’s studio, taken while she was the recipient of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in Dunedin in 1997.
Joyce Campbell: Flightdream
Joyce Campbell’s immersive video work takes the viewer on a journey into the ocean’s fathomless depths, exploring processes of creation and annihilation.
Death, sex, flesh and the female gaze are among the many themes explored in the Gallery’s newest exhibition, Fiona Pardington: A Beautiful Hesitation.
The Lines That Are Left
Of landscape itself as artefact and artifice; as the ground for the inscribing hand of culture and technology; as no clean slate.
— Joanna Paul
The residential Red Zone is mostly green. After each house is demolished, contractors sweep up what is left, cover the section with a layer of soil and plant grass seed. Almost overnight, driveway, yard, porch, garage, shed and house become a little paddock; the border of plants and trees outlining it the only remaining sign that there was once a house there.
Fiona Pardington: A Beautiful Hesitation
A survey exhibition by a leading New Zealand photographer explores sex, death and the female gaze.
Kamala, Astral and Charlotte, Lyttelton, March 1983
Laurence Aberhart's 1983 photograph of Lyttelton children is displayed on our Gloucester Street billboard.
Selwyn Toogood, Levin
I spent much of my adolescence in hospital, confined to bed due to a chronic illness. With a 14" TV beside me, I’d travel to imaginary places via the controller of my Nintendo games console. At the time, I couldn’t imagine walking to the letterbox, let alone experiencing the more exotic places of the world.
A generous, multimedia selection of animal-themed works, both lively and thoughtful.