Taryn Simon's "Paperwork and the Will of Capital": perspectives on transience of power
Born in New York, artist Taryn Simon has achieved international recognition for her distinctive body of work combining photography, research, performance and written narrative. Kate Fowle, director of MoMA PS1, has described Simon as “first and foremost a storyteller of facts, a chronicler of truths that are hard to believe,” unearthing and bringing to light little-known stories and information. Broadly, her practice engages the discourses and medium of photography itself, questioning its status as document, evidence or index.
Simon’s 2015 series Paperwork and the Will of Capital consists of 36 photographs and 12 sculptures, with 4 photographs and 1 sculpture now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Each of the large-scale photographs depicts a floral centerpiece, centered in the frame and shot in front of a two-toned background. As noted in the work’s accompanying text, “The photographs and sculptures of Paperwork and the Will of Capital had twin points of departure: archival photographs of official signings; and George Sinclair’s nineteenth century horticultural study containing dried grass specimens, an experiment in survival and evolution cited by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking research.” Of particular significance to the project was a photograph from the 1938 Munich Conference in which Hitler, Chamberlain and Mussolini are seated around a bouquet of flowers that bears witness to the men’s negotiations. Following extensive archival research, Simon selected 36 photographs in which powerful men signing significant political accords flank floral centerpieces curated to communicate the importance of the signatories and governments they represent. She then worked with a botanist to identify the plant species in each image and used this information to recreate and photograph the 36 bouquets.
These arrangements reference the 'impossible bouquet’ of 17th-century Dutch still life painting, which depicted idealized groupings of flowers that could never exist in real life due to seasonal or geographical constraints. Originally, these paintings were a sign of wealth for the rising middle class. Fuelled by colonial expansion and the establishment of interconnecting systems of global trade, they represent the beginnings of globalized capitalism and consumer society. In sourcing the flowers for her bouquets, Simon worked with the Dutch Aalsmeer Flower Auction, “the Amazon of flower markets” as she described it in her interview with Cultured magazine in 2016. Together they organized the shipping of more than 4,000 plants from around the world to her studio in New York, accessing current networks of global exchange to make the impossible possible.
Reminiscent of bands on a flag, the flat planes of colour in the background of each image are sourced from the historical photographs of these meetings and taken from the wall and table colours at the particular event. The signings represented by the recreated bouquets all took place between leaders of countries involved in the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. This historic conference saw the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the building blocks of present-day global economic systems, the seeds of the “will of capital” referenced in the project’s title. By focusing on the silent floral centerpieces, rather than the world leaders convening around them, Simon gestures toward a performance of power in which nature is relegated to a passive, feminized, decorative role. Further, by referring to the props usually relegated to the background, Simon also evokes the (feminized) labour of arranging these meetings, the behind-the-scenes preparations for staging neutral yet formal settings that will properly convey the weight of the decisions being made.
This weightiness is echoed in the series' 12 sculptures, each of which is comprised of two concrete plinths that display a unique 64-page folio containing prints of the photographs and their texts and, facing, sheets of herbarium paper onto which the artist has mounted specimens of each of the plant species used in the formation of her bouquets. With forms that refer to podiums or perhaps office towers, the plinths can also function as flower presses when displayed closed as single presses rather than open in pairs. When a press is in its open configuration, the pages of the folio are visible and can be turned to change the display. The plant specimens will continue to disintegrate and fade, marking and wrinkling the 'paperwork’ and echoing the precarious nature of the political or economic agreements they witnessed — many of which faltered, dissolved or were broken or forgotten with the passage of time. This disintegration also hints at the impossibility of preserving or archiving all the multiple facets of any historical event, with the bumpy awkwardness of pages that will never quite lie flat or succumb to the weight of the press, a kind of paperwork that will always resist tidy filing.
Simon’s research for the project was prompted by her interest in the history of botany, a source of inspiration that is underscored by her use of herbarium paper and detailed taxonomic labelling of the individual plant specimens. Indeed, the history of botany chronicles shifting ideas about the practice as an aesthetic and “polite activity and one widely gendered as feminine,” towards a professionalized practice considered “utilitarian or scientific” (read masculine), as discussed by scholar Ann B. Shtier in her 1997 Osiris article. This potential ambiguity again resonates with that of the photographs, which collapse distinctions between traditionally masculine and feminine domains and are at once beautiful and loaded with political significance. Connections can also be made to the popular Victorian fascination with flowers “as primary expressive elements in human experience,” which Beverly Seaton examined in her 1985 article on John Ruskin and the Victorian “flower books” that associate individual plant species with specific emotions. By contrast, instead of communicating romantic messages between individuals, Simon’s arrangements stand in as symbols of relationships between nations, citizens and corporations.
As in Simon’s previous work, captioning plays an essential role: text works in tandem with each photograph to reveal source and context. Each caption lists the name of the treaty or decree, the place and date, the signatories, the history and outcomes of the agreement, and a list of plant species in the bouquet. For the photographs, the captions are embedded directly into custom-built mahogany frames, which recall boardroom furniture. The caption for Gdańsk Agreement. Gdańsk Shipyards, Gdańsk, Poland, August 31, 1980 details the agreement between striking Polish workers and the government. It also describes the aftermath, including the union being forced underground when martial law was declared in 1982, the involvement of U.S. labour organizations and, finally, union leader Lech Walesa (a signatory of the original agreement) becoming the first democratically elected President of Poland in 1990. The caption of Agreement for cooperation on China’s Beidou Navigation Satellite System in Pakistan. Aiwan-e-Sadr, Islamabad, Pakistan, May 22, 2013 describes a deal between China and Pakistan aimed at countering the overwhelming global dependence on U.S.-government run GPS systems and at strengthening the Chinese-run Beidou system as an alternative. The text of Classified “Spare Parts” deal. Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C., United States, May 16, 1975 describes a 1975 meeting between President Gerald Ford and the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in which the signatories agreed to overcharge Iran for the sale of arms so that Tehran could then send ʻspares’ on to Turkey and circumvent the embargo imposed by the U.S. Congress in 1974.
The work Protocol Decision on the Principles of Resumption of a Full-Scale Freight Railway Communication through the Territory of Pridnestrovie. Tiraspol, Transnistria, March 30, 2012, also in the Gallery's collection, is a notable departure from the other photographs in the series. Rather than depicting a floral arrangement, this image is empty and shows only a two-toned green and off-white background. The reason for this unusual composition is that the foliage in the source image turned out to be plastic and was thus omitted from Simon’s rigorous reproduction of the original bouquets through the use of real plant specimens. This methodical approach not only extends Simon’s close attention to detail in composing her images (such as using black and white photography for those source images that were originally in black and white, as in Classified "Spare Parts" deal…), but also reflects her ongoing interest in recording gaps, exceptions, omissions or irregularities within the systems and structures she examines. Perhaps most fittingly, the agreement being brokered in the source image for Protocol Decision… relates to Transnistria, described in the work’s caption as “an autonomous territorial republic between Ukraine and Moldova that is unrecognized by any United Nations member state” – effectively not a 'real’ country.
Covering treaties brokered over 46 years, this series provides a panoptic view of the topics and realms of influence addressed by these agreements, from the people working on the ground, to the satellites orbiting the earth, to the weapons moving covertly to fuel future conflict. From a distance, the brightly coloured and seductively framed images could pass as merely beautiful or decorative. But the captions underscore the relationship of the bouquets to what Simon refers to as the “stagecraft of power,” the preparations, rituals and backdrops that make these meetings possible. Once seen up close, writer Christian Kerr observes in his article on the artist in Hyperallergic in 2016, that the “photo’s prettiness becomes pathological – diplomacy distilled to its empty aesthetics.” Together, the flowers, frames, sculptures and text connect the luxury commodities that circulate under global capital, the elaborate performance of international diplomacy, and those human lives and natural elements inevitably impacted by the agreements that were brokered.
Taryn Simon's Press VI, from the series Paperwork and the Will of Capital, is currently on view in Gallery B201 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.