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Text to Image, The Jeu de Paume with Florence Henri and Taryn Simon

(Paris.) Continuing to cover all of photography’s styles and eras, Jeu de Paume shows Florence Henri and Taryn Simon, two artists with very few in common, indeed.

Born in America, travelling Europe, and settling down in Paris like a true Lost Generationer, Florence Henri (1893-1982) was friends with many avant-garde artists of the 1920s and 30s. All works in the show date from these years, and Jeu de Paume declares its desire to “give back a strong place to [the era’s] female photographers”. In other words, it might be hard to justify the retrospective with artistic merit alone. But those interested in the period will welcome the opportunity to see the vanguard’s rear...

Florence Henri sought to “compose images”, and consequently called most of her works Compositions (i.e. Composition nature morte, Abstract Composition, etc.); she played with perspectives, mirrors and montages to create semi-abstract pictures. In the beginning of her career focusing (on) metal objects, marbles, gramophone records or thread rolls, she later added more organic materials, flowers and fruit mostly. If favourable critiques from Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and others not necessarily prove the appeal of her works, then at least her talent in what we refer to today as networking. Florence Henri’s “very personal approach to advertising photography” (Jeu de Paume) turns out to be not so different from her style in non-advertising photography, except that these objects are branded. Later portraits – the Delauneys, Leger, Kandinsky, Arp, etc. - are less abstract, and Henri consequently dropped the “Composition” part from their titles. A journey to Rome gave material for many a collage, and there are some views of Bretagne and Paris, too. All this is nice, but not that special in comparison to a dozen other photographers from the same era. We tend to see the show as a mere prelude, that supporting act you won’t regret of having missed.

The main reason to visit Jeu de Paume is Taryn Simon.

The American artist (born in 1975) uses photography in a much different way. Where artistic photographers focus on the image as anti-text, with a photography-using artist the accompanying text (the "con-text") gets inseparable from the image.

The works of Taryn Simon’s series The Innocents appear like film stills, with serious looking persons standing, sitting, or lying around in different settings. Viewers feel inclined to interprete the situation, that exceeds a mere portrait. But the image is only half the work: The backstory has long been written, and needs to be read as part of the reception process. Comparable to religious, tribal, art, we depend on meta-information to access the meaning, all interpretation is closed, all meaning predefined by the artist Taryn Simon’s Innocents are American citizens, who for the misinterpretation of a photographic (mug shot) or a mental (false memory) image have been found guilty of crimes they did not commit. After their eventual acquittal, the artist made them return to places in one way or another related to the story, the place of arrest, the crime scene, or the alibi location as confirmed by defence witnesses. First of all, we should probably congratulate them on surviving their arrest, in particular those with a darker-than-average complexion. Knowing more of Taryn Simon’s work, it seems not too farfetched to see some criticism of the American justice system involved. The main idea though is to question the truth and interpretation of an image, while paradoxically employing the same technics of definition and explanation. Taking a step further, is not this representation of events also questionable, could not at least one Innocent be actually guilty? Even more fundamentally, nothing but the artist’s word assures us of the authenticity of all cases, of all depicted persons and places. If we agree to follow Taryn Simon, we must agree to doubt her, though maybe not her intention. Can get quite confusing, can’t it?

In A living man declared dead and other chapters, the text no longer figures as meta-information/documentation, but has formally been made a part of the artwork. Starting from one person and connecting it with objects and family relations, Taryn Simon establishes “bloodlines”. Each chapter, as the artist calls the individual works, consists of three panels, one for portraits of the main character’s living relations, one for a descriptive text establishing the facts in a rather neutral, unbiased way, and a third one elaborating on details that create a more emotional perspective. It kind of reminds of the strict separation of fact, explanation and comment that journalism has abandoned so long ago.

All cases are related to acts of violence and oppression (often exerted by authorities) from Srebrenica to North Korea, the choice of main characters includes victims and malefactors alike. If there is (self-)censorship, it is exposed by a blank. Its motives are not always clear, there might be safety concerns and religious taboos involved (women undepictable like prophets?), also several descendants of Nazi functionary Hans Frank chose not to collaborate (out of shame? or for fear of repression?). A chapter on North Korean abductions of foreigners could not be shown in China, and the artist decided to keep the panels blank in all subsequent exhibitions.

This series has a strong notion of scientific research to uncover hidden connections, yet the recourse to genealogy seems to subvert the claim. Genealogical facts do tell a truth, but they have too often served to “explain” much more than possible. These panels do show facts, but they don’t lead to a true gain in knowledge. Once again, we’re stuck in questioning the truth of an image or a text, of error and misinterpretations arising from their perception.

The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection has been established in 1915, and Taryn Simon exploits it for several work series. Her Folders are collages made from photographs thare are tagged under the same term - “Express Highway”, “Rear Views”, “Chiaroscuro”, etc.. They are well chosen, on the one hand depicting a multitude of aspects, on the other creating a certain impression (maybe due to the available images), e.g. the “Police” collage comprises only martial scenes, but no donut munching deputy with a smile on his lips. Every single image could be used in interpretations of truths different from the collage’s. These visual definitions born from the arbitrariness of a vast collection, owe something to Joseph Kosuth.

Before there was library software, there were reference cards, and these can get quite poetic, if properly arranged – to an “image”? – by the artist. The same vitrine holds a selection of letters and requests. How to convey a meaning, how to make yourself clear when talking about an image that exists in your mind and has to be somewhere out there, too? Many choose to attach drawings, or even send a drawing alone without any written clarification.

There are more noteworthy works in this exhibition, like the Cutaways video, resulting from an interview Taryn Simon gave to a Russian TV station. In the end, she was asked to silently stare at the anchors for minutes, the images later to be used in montage. Here shown in full length, it’s another piece on image and interpretation. Thanks to meta-information we know the artist’s mimics are fake, and still we try to figure out her thoughts, and imagine to see how hard she’s trying hard not to laugh. The (ir)relevance of information does not end open interpretation. Hidden truths are brought to light with An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, a collection of lesser known facts from the CIA's art collection to inbred white tigers and nuclear waste facilities (a highlight: Disney Corporation's written refusal to cooperate in the project), and Contraband, images of objects – animal carcasses, fruits and counterfeit products - seized at JFK Airport.

Taryn Simon is an “image writer”, and in the very least she deserves a prize for this year’s best exhibition title with Rear Views, A Star-Performing Nebula, and the Office of Foreign Propaganda. The connection between the title we read and the art we see, remains open, once gain. What is an image, how to interpret it, and which is more open to error. Where lies the difference between a fact and a truth, the one passively given, the other actively formed, those are the questions that haunt her.

Florence Henry, Miroir des avant-gardes 1927-1940, 24 February-17 May 2015

Taryn Simon, Rear Views, A Star-Performing Nebula, and the Office of Foreign Propaganda, 24 February-17 May 2015, Jeu de Paume, Paris



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