Friday, September 22, 2023

Review: Taryn Simon, Paperwork and the Will of the Capital

By Caroline Keegan

Taryn Simon’s exhibition “Paperwork and the Will of Capital” presented itself as a group of archival style photo and sculpture works that documented agreement meetings in international juridical history; it embodied the intersection of art and law. For the series, Simon’s recreated bouquets presented the instances world leaders were brokering deals. She selected countries that were part of the Bretton Woods Conference. She then photographed the bouquets, and paired them with text summarizing the historical context and archiving the species of plant. The text was written as an elegy, which in frame with the bouquet read as a lament. Clearly, the work did not simply record the pivotal moments but within the archival methodology effectively reacted to it and highlighted the artifice of both the impossible to nature bouquets and the meetings respectively.

 Taryn Simon Bratislava Declaration Bratislava, Slovakia, August 3, 1968. From the series Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015. Archival inkjet print in mahogany frames with text in windowed compartment on archival herbarium paper 85 × 73 1/4 × 2 3/4 inches framed (215.9 × 186.1 × 7 cm). © Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon. Bratislava Declaration. Bratislava, Slovakia, August 3, 1968. From the series
Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015. Archival inkjet print in mahogany frames with text in windowed compartment on archival herbarium paper. 85 × 73 1/4 × 2 3/4 inches framed (215.9 × 186.1 × 7 cm). © Taryn Simon

On entering the gallery space there were indicators of a predominant legal theme in the exhibit. The title “Paperwork and the Will of Capital” had layers of suggestion; “paperwork” which initially indicated the artistic medium (photography and text) of the series, additionally recalled documents in an office, paperwork contrived, for example, in the creation of a contract, suggesting these paperwork photographs may serve as paperwork in the documentation of an understanding between parties. Following, “Capital” too has many interpretations. The capital of a place, of course, is generally the seat of government for a country or region. A capital crime is one that can result in the death penalty. Capital in language marks the beginning of a sentence. And probably most notably in this case, capital is wealth in the form of money. Interestingly, the classic view of monetary capital is that it has no will, that the invisible hand will correct any attempt to put an agenda on it. The will of the capital is dispersed over the capital holders, no one capitalist can fully exert their personal will. Capital’s only real “will” is to accrue interest through its productive use. In the case of this exhibit, the Bretton Woods Conference set up the system through which capital is still being put to use now.

The substance of the photographs and sculptures was juridical history. The countries present in the historical events documented in Simon’s work were all countries that took part in the Bretton Woods Conference, a conference set to regulate the international monetary and financial order. The conference represented a moment in which relationships that would otherwise develop and evolve were put together and fabricated in one event, and each attending party made legislative changes to reflect the established order. The settlement established the rules and institutions that would govern international trade, and ensured that the Americans and Europeans had primacy in the system going forward. The meeting was one of the most important events that happened internationally at the end of World War II, worthy of both comment and highlight. It represented a moment in which documents were drafted that reflected the will of the world leaders and had incredible effect on people internationally.

The works surveyed documents drafted by world leaders that impact international relationships via government and economics and paired them with photographs of replicas of “impossible bouquets” that were present at the meetings. Simon considered the flowers as “witnesses” to the classified events, their ornament emphasizing the importance of the agreements. Impossible bouquets are first part of the canon of art history within seventeenth century Dutch still-life painting reacting to the development of modern capitalism. These flowers, which could never bloom together naturally, represent the success and possibility industry provides. The bouquets in Simon’s work were a critique of the dominant structure of power, while they are “silent witnesses” to the signings; we are also silent witnesses to the agreements and passive recipients of new laws forced upon us. Simon then took another step to present the photographs and sculptures as archival. Simon’s reference to George Sinclair’s archival horticulture study that influenced Darwin’s research on evolution in conjunction with her appropriation of law highlights that the juridical structure is a living organism that evolves.

Simon borrowed the subject from the Dutch still-life paintings, but rather than displaying the flowers in their actual form or painting them, she photographed them. One of my initial reactions to the exhibit was to consider why Simon photographed the bouquets she meticulously researched, ordered, and presented rather than exhibiting the bouquets themselves. The photographic element is a nod to Walter Benjamin and likewise Karl Marx, a reaction to power structures that law enforces. The mechanical reproduction element of Simon’s work, as Benjamin would put it, emancipated the work from “parasitical dependence on ritual”. Rather than the audience reacting to elaborate bouquets or skillful paintings, they were presented with re-contextualized historical documentaries. Likewise, the images and sculptures made the “impossible” bouquets reproducible and accessible to the public. It allowed the viewer to move past the “aura” and absorb the political commentary and Marxist consciousness of the photographs. The quiet subtlety of the images compelled the depths of the subject, in this way the works were able to be highly politicized, a move from manual labor to intellectual labor in a Benjaminian respect.

(Taryn Simon’s exhibition, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, took place at the Gagosian Gallery from February 18, 2016 to March 26, 2016).


Caroline Keegan received her Bachelor of Arts in History and Criticism of Art from Florida State University before working at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of art, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In 2014 Caroline was a Fellow in the Art & Law Program. She is currently a Summer Associate at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and a third year law student at Fordham University School of Law completing a concentration in intellectual property and information law.

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