Taryn Simon Photographs and Texts at MAM
The day following the Georgia execution of Troy Davis, I stood before Taryn Simon’s series of photos, The Innocents (2002), one of three parts of her exhibition in the Contemporary Galleries at the Milwaukee Art Museum. These portraits of mostly dark-skinned men convicted of violent crimes they did not commit depict the trapped, the lonely, the disenfranchised, perhaps the Troy Davises of our world. I noticed visitors turn away from the wasted, terrifying faces in the photos. They were eager to move on to no-brainer content. They won’t find it in Simon’s work.
A specific image, Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan (2002/2007), sucked me into another part, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), in an adjacent gallery. The photo dazzles me not because of the odd-ball medical device it depicts, but because of the extraordinary elegance of the image of a space capsule to nowhere belching misty clouds of nitrogen. It floats, but where? In heaven; in hell? Purgatory perhaps? Does it matter? Not really. The elegance matters. As Lisa Hostetler, my excellent guide and curator of photographs, put it: “All photographs, especially when they’re beautiful, draw you in.”
But wait a minute. Simon wants visitors to read the text she composed and posted nearby. The small type makes me squint; Simon’s sly approach to signage forces some effort and gives me pause to think. I’m betting most people won’t bother to read what Simon has to say. Just in case you care, the museum provides print-outs of the text, in a larger font, as a courtesy, but I think it dilutes the artist’s intent.
Let’s imagine you are a cryopreservationist who chooses to be frozen and thawed later, like a micro-wave dinner. I mean to say, Americans in particular are the ultimate wasters. It’s really weird to try and hang around forever. Mind you, I didn’t read the text until after being sucked in by the image. Given the juxtaposition of topics and images, now I’m wondering how many cryo-types believe in the death penalty.
This entire section is a sensational introduction to Contraband (2010). Pay attention to the glorious, Vanitas-style photograph of heaps of stuff collected by U.S. Customs. I think of this part of the show as the photographer’s memorial to trash. Our trash. All trash. Stuff we haul home from trips. Illegal stuff. Junk. Dangerous stuff. Confiscated by the U.S. Customs stuff. From a distance, the individual objects resemble things desired, and well, the image of a pair of glass bongs (one green; one yellow) perhaps were, or are desirable, at least. They compel a chap next to me to say he could identify with the bongs, but he missed the the larger point entirely. I’m betting he didn’t stop to ponder Exploding Warhead, a Simon video.
It’s thrilling to see an excellent exhibition of photographs conceived by a highly credentialed artist and curated by the informed and intelligent Hostetler. The curator will give public talks on this show at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25 and 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29. Simon will have her say in Milwaukee at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19. Taryn Simon: Photographs and Texts is sponsored in part by the Photography Council, a support group of the Milwaukee Art Museum. It runs through Jan. 1.