Taryn Simon: The Pictures Collection at Gagosian Gallery, London

Building on an extensive body of work, Taryn Simon’s latest project The Pictures Collection, has recently opened at the Gagosian on Davies Street.

Although Simon’s work is primarily photography-based, the real crux of her practice is in the research and data gathering that goes on behind the scenes in her photographs. Previously, Simon’s work has taken her to the ends of the earth in order to investigate, and photographically systematize, the elements of chance and fate that determine the destinies of both individuals (The Innocents, 2003) and entire bloodlines (A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2011).

The focus of Simon’s most recent project, The Pictures Collection, concerns an investigation into the various factors that shape and determine the organisation of the New York Public Library’s vast image archive.

Founded in 1915, and currently holding a collection of over 1.2 million images, the collection is organized according to a system of generic subject headings such as ‘swimming pools’ or ‘explosions’. The works on display at the Gagosian comprise photographic reproductions of collages, constructed using images selected from the library’s extensive archive. Through the careful selection and meticulous arrangement of these images, Simon explores the methodology behind the institution’s cataloguing system. A comparison between the works seems to challenge the efficiency of employing such a systematic approach to reducing the essentially chaotic nature of the library’s image collection into one singular classificatory system.

For example, the collage in Folder: Express Highways (2012) is organized in such a way so as to reveal an intricate pattern of interwoven spaghetti junctions and overpasses. At a glance, the piece resembles an abstract composition marked by a strong sense of formal coherency. Highways thus reinforces the advantages of using such an objective system to analyze and classify a pool of images that have been culled from a diverse range of secondary sources, including books, magazines, and posters.

However, turning to another work, such as Folders: Costume-Veil (2012) would seem to subvert this notion. In this piece images obtained from bridal magazines, of glamorous brides wearing decorative veils, are juxtaposed with images of middle-eastern women draped in heavy burkas, highlighting the multiplicity of interpretations that such an all-encompassing and bi-partial system can represent.

Although exhibition itself is certainly modest in scale, displaying only five of forty-four works produced in the series, it is nonetheless a significant exhibition as it marks an important shift in the artist’s work to date.

Previously, Simon has adopted an almost scientific approach to documenting and producing indexes to map out the patterns in the chaos that surrounds us in our daily lives. Viewed in comparison with A Living Man…, then, The Pictures Collection opens up a new chapter in the artist’s work in that it prompts the viewer to question the potentially problematic approach of organizing information around such patterns. In focusing on the New York Public Library, and the all-purpose methodology it employs to organize its archive, The Pictures Collection inevitably leads us to question the objectivity of the systems and search engines, such as Google and Wikipedia, that we consult on a daily basis.

Róisín Lacey-McCormac

Taryn Simon: The Pictures Collection, Gagosian Gallery, 17-19 Davies Street, London, W1K 3DE. www.gagosian.com


1. Swimming Pools, 2012. © Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.