Inspired by rumours of WMDs and secret sites in Iraq, American photographer Taryn Simon decided to address secret sites in her own country. For An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2006), she photographed hidden places and things within America's borders
Her subjects range across realms of science, government, medicine, entertainment, nature, security, and religion, and include glowing capsules in an underwater nuclear-waste storage facility, a braille edition of Playboy, a death-row exercise yard, an inbred tiger, corpses rotting in a ‘forensic park’, and a Scientology screening room. Geoffrey Batchen described the project as ‘an ethnography of the American psyche rendered through an obsessive documentation of its repressed places’.
Shot over a four-year period, mostly with a large-format camera, Simon’s images are sometimes ethereal, sometimes foreboding, sometimes deadpan, sometimes cinematic. In examining what is integral to America’s foundation, mythology, and daily functioning, her Index provides a surprising map to the American mindset. She
explains: ‘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.’
The New York Times Magazine said, ‘What’s most strongly conveyed, perhaps, by a close study of these photographs, is how intricate and often systematic this off-limits land of ours is—how conscientious we can be about what we don’t want to be conscious of.’
Simon is attentive to photography’s limitations. Her earlier series, The Innocents (2003), documented cases of wrongful conviction where photographic evidence was implicated. The photographs in the Index are all accompanied with texts that crucially expose what photography cannot say.
IMA director Robert Leonard says, ‘American Index is one of the most compelling photography projects I’ve ever seen. As you go from image to image, and text to text, Simon takes you deeper and deeper into her shadow-world view of America. It is the way she treats diverse subjects such in a matter-of-fact way, without any overt political agenda, that allows her to take you so far.’
American Index was first exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006, where it drew great acclaim—Interview described Simon as ‘one of the leading artists to understand our moment in history’. Our exhibition, which includes over forty works from the Index, will be shown at the IMA, 29 August—17 October (it opens on Saturday 29 August at 5pm). The show will travel to Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand.
Simon will give two public lectures: at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, on Saturday 29 August, at 12 noon, and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, on Wednesday 2 September [time tbc].
Simon’s lectures are presented jointly by the IMA and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.