Taryn Simon • Artist, U.S.A.


Landscape Stories: "Contraband" is a world revealed, with its secrets and distortions. In a period where artistic process and product have largely merged, "Contraband" could arguably be an example of the most radical disparity between an end result and the grueling, frantic hours it took to get there. Can you elaborate more on this idea?
Taryn Simon: There is a simplicity in its minimalist appearance that betrays the complexities, fatigue, red tape, smells, contaminants etc... behind the scene. I'm interested in the illusion of order and its consequences.

"Bird corpse, labeled as home décor, Indonesia to Miami, Florida (prohibited)", 2010 " © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery"

Landscape Stories: How do you choose your subjects? It seems that you do it with extreme care.
Taryn Simon: I spend an enormous amount of time researching, writing, exploring, trying, failing etc... to get to what in the end is my subject.

"Deer penis, Asian origin (9CFR.94) (prohibited)", 2010 - "© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery".

Landscape Stories: What strikes me are the photos with prohibited animal corpses. Can you tell me about these photos?
Taryn Simon: The most notable one was a massive bird corpse that came in an envelope without any special packaging to Florida. Customs claimed it was for witchcraft purposes. We were sifting through a ton of material with speed. When that was opened everyone was immediately locked down and gloves and masks were brought in.

"Chicken feet (Avian Influenza/Newcastle Disease) (9CFR.94) (prohibited)", 2010 - "© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery"

Landscape Stories: Is the inclination of the taxonomy that your imagery implies, a way to curb the illusive power of photography?
Taryn Simon: It depends on which project your talking about. In Contraband, I was not so focused on issues surrounding photography. In the Innocents, I am. In Contraband photography is used in a machine like form to allow a relentless pile of images representing a flattening of desire (everyone chasing the same forbidden escapes) and the impossibility of economic controls invested in the idea of preserving branding, preserving the original. There were an enormous number of counterfeit items being seized by Customs: Counterfeit pharmaceuticals, handbags, clothing.... The copies weren't allowed entrance to the country but the photograph was: a copy of a copy that is then entered into another economic exchange as 'art'.

"Guinea pigs, Ecuador (CUI) (prohibited)", 2010, "Oxalis tuberosa, Peru (7CFR) (prohibited)", 2010 - "© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery"
"Oxalis tuberosa, Peru (7CFR) (prohibited)", 2010 - "© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery"

Landscape Stories: The experience of photographing the 1,075 objects , I read , that it was a disorienting for you. You lived in the airport for five days, worked long hours, found it hard to sleep. Can you tell me more about these days?
Taryn Simon: They were spent under fluorescent lights that never went out. The roughest part was actually dealing with my feet. I was committed to documenting a full working week's seizures and working at the pace of the goods entereing into the United States. This required working around the clock without stopping. Being on your feet all that time is brutal. By the end I was wrapping paper towels around my feet and trying to build cushions in my shoes. I felt like I was standing on the most sensitive bruises I had ever experienced. That coupled with mind numbing fatigue was the main challenge.
Landscape Stories: How do you gain access to so many restricted areas? What is the process you use?
Taryn Simon: There's no formula. It depends on what I'm trying to enter.

"Nesting dolls with Disney characters, Snow White (counterfeit)", 2010 - "© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery"

Landscape Stories: "Contraband" is narrowly focused, the result of an intense period of engagement with a single, but endlessly intriguing, subject. It reveals the contemporary America. What do you think?
Taryn Simon: —-

"Blue and yellow pharmaceutical pills awaiting testing, Pakistan (prohibited)", 2010 - "© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery"

Landscape Stories: Your works revealed issues on which confront the gap that exists between the public access and the privileged knowledge. Can you tell me about how you see the idea of the public vs. the restricted now that you have gained access to the restricted?
Taryn Simon: Separations are often necessary. The result of these divides is the preservation of power and often the furthering of fantasy.

"Handbag, Louis Vuitton (disguised) (counterfeit)", 2010 - "© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery"

Interview by Camilla Boemio