The Picture Collection - Taryn Simon
Exhibition review for Photomonitor.co.uk (April 2013)
Taryn Simon’s latest exhibition The Picture Collection at Gagosian London uses as its source the ultimate analogue image archive. The NYC Public Library contains 2.1 million hand-clipped, printed images from diverse sources in books, magazines, posters and postcards and for nearly 100 years has been an important resource for artists like Andy Warhol and Diego Rivera as well as for countless other cultural producers and academics. In working with the largest circulating picture library in the world, Simon was interested in the fact that the images are chosen and labelled by unseen hired hands, as well as this picture library’s unique place in presaging the ubiquitous web search engine.
In this modestly-sized show in which five of forty-four works are shown, Simon re-photographs personal selections from the archive that are chosen from subject headings like ‘Veils’ or ‘Rear View’. Arranged in grid-like rows, images frequently overlap and partially occlude the view of the next, perhaps referencing the accelerated flow of imagery we currently produce and consume in a media-saturated 21st century. Housed in glass-cased frames reminiscent of ‘cabinets of curiosities’ (where objects whose categorical boundaries remained un-defined), the line-up of images points to the very human need for order amid chaos and control over chance. A Weegee photograph sits happily next to a 1970’s ad image, a photograph of a Brancusi sculpture next to a cartoon illustration of Mickey Mouse, mixing high and low ‘art’ and ultimately highlighting the arbitrary and idiosyncratic nature of all archiving systems, past and present. Text and image slide toward incoherence while the object-ness of the images is kept firmly in the picture frame with hand-written pencilled captions, stains and creases, and the library’s rubber stamp of ownership reminding us of their age and provenance. The materiality of the originals highlights their precious ephemerality, and reminds us that we view most imagery on-screen now, without physicality or specificity. This raises pertinent questions about algorithmically derived image searches: who, how, and why do we validate those who edit, program, choose, and decide? What do popularity and page-ranking reveal? And how neutral is statistical data?
Simon raises profound questions for photography in a time of profound change. Inclusion and occlusion are at the very heart of this exhibition, with notions of classification, collation, cataloguing, indexing, and archiving ironically creating more chaos than they are meant to quell. Through a clever use of appropriation, her edit of decontextualized, already-edited images reveals in equal parts the poignant need and the haphazard absurdity of all edits, made by fallible human beings with personal perspectives, who in turn made the machines that now do the same job. Simon correctly points to the current transformation of visual language where images are accessible, relentless, disposable, networked, and then circulated, raising the question of eventually losing their singularity, and thus their heterogeneity. The new currency is data and images are a complicit part of that equation. As the endless sea of digitalisation unfolds, Simon’s subtle interrogation of information systems could not be more prescient and timely.