Taryn Simon was born in New York in 1975. Her artistic medium consists of three integrated elements: photography, text, and graphic design.
Simon's Birds of the West Indies (2013-14) is a two-part body of work, whose title is taken from the definitive taxonomy of the same name by the American ornithologist James Bond. Ian Fleming, an active bird watcher, appropriated the author’s name for his novels now well-known protagonist. This co-opting of a name was the first in a series of substitutions and replacements that would become central to the construction of the Bond narrative. The first element of the work is a photographic inventory of the women, weapons and vehicles of James Bond films made over the past fifty years. The images comprise an index of interchangeable variables used in the production of fantasy. Testing the seductive surfaces of popular cinema, Simon continues her artistic process of revealing the hidden infrastructures of cultural constructs. In the second element of the work, Simon casts herself as the ornithologist James Bond, identifying, photographing, and classifying all the birds that appear within the 24 films comprising the James Bond franchise. The result is a taxonomy of birds not unlike the original Birds of the West Indies. In this case, the birds are categorized by locations both actual and fictional: Switzerland, Afghanistan, North Korea, as well as the mythical settings of Bond's missions, such as the Republic of Isthmus and SPECTRE Island. Simon's discoveries often occupy a liminal space between reality and fiction; they are confined within the fictional space of the James Bond universe and yet wholly separate from it.
The Picture Collection (2013) was inspired by the New York Public Library's picture archive, which contains 1.2 million prints, postcards, posters, and printed images. It is the largest circulating picture library in the world, organized according to a complex cataloging system of over 12,000 subject headings. Since its inception in 1915, it has been an important resource for writers, historians, artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, and advertising agencies. Diego Rivera, who made use of it for his legendary mural for Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads (1934), noted how the scope of this picture collection might go on to shape contemporary visions of America. In this work, Simon highlights the impulse to archive and organize visual information, and points to the invisible hands behind seemingly neutral systems of image gathering. Simon sees this extensive archive of images as a precursor to Internet search engines. The Picture Collection was developed in response to the online database Image Atlas (2012), created by Simon with computer programmer Aaron Swartz. Image Atlas investigates cultural differences and similarities by indexing top image results for given search terms across local search engines throughout the world.
A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII was produced over a four year period (2008-11) during which Simon travelled around the world researching and recording bloodlines and their related stories. In each of the eighteen “chapters” comprising the work, legacies of territory, power, religion and circumstance collide with psychological and physical inheritance. The subjects documented by Simon include victims of genocide in Bosnia, test rabbits infected with a lethal disease in Australia, the first woman to hijack an aircraft, and the living dead in India. Her collection is at once cohesive and arbitrary, mapping relations of chance, blood, and other components of fate.
Black Square (2006-2014) is an ongoing project in which Simon collects objects, documents, and individuals within a black field that has precisely the same measurements as Kazimir Malevich's 1915 Suprematist work of the same name. Contraband (2010) is an archive of global desires and perceived threats, encompassing 1,075 images of items that were detained or seized from passengers and mail entering the United States. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) depicts objects, sites, and spaces that are integral to America's foundation, mythology, or daily functionality, but remain inaccessible or unknown to most Americans. These subjects include radioactive capsules at a nuclear waste storage facility, a black bear in hibernation, and the art collection of the CIA. The Innocents (2002) documents cases of wrongful conviction in the U.S., calling into question photography's function as a credible witness and arbiter of justice.
Simon's photographs and writing have been the subject of monographic exhibitions at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2013); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2012); Tate Modern, London (2011); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2011); Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2008); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2007); Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2004); and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York (2003). Permanent collections include Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, Whitney Museum of American Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Her work was included in the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 and the Carnegie International in 2013. She is a graduate of Brown University and a Guggenheim Fellow.