A florist of a different kind: Taryn Simon’s historical bouquets at Almine Rech (Brussels)
What would I do? It’s a question I sometimes ask myself, playfully, visiting exhibitions. What if I would be an artist? What kind of work would I make? What would it look like? Probably something like this, I thought recently, looking at Taryn Simon‘s striking photographs of floral bouquets at Almine Rech (Brussels, through November 5). Something eerily beautiful and puzzling at the same time. Work for which a lot of research and patience is needed and that contains references to stuff that matters to us in this world, today.
“The hottest woman in art photography”, The Guardian described Taryn Simon in 2011. And you can read that in both ways. When Vogue wrote about the pictures that are on view at Almine Rech now, they used the words “unnervingly beautiful”. To describe the artist, not her work. Check out the TED talk the American artist gave in 2009: it has been watched 1,4 million times already.
Her work has a “coolness” that is visually appealing in this day and age. But there’s more to it than just that. “Her practice involves extensive research”, to begin with, as the entry on her Wikipedia-page states. Simon’s most recent series Paperwork and the Will of Capital is yet another proof of that. It was first presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and was already on view at Gagosian, first in New York (February-March 2016) then in Rome (April-June 2016).
It all started when a floral arrangement in a photo of Hitler, Mussolini and Chamberlain, taken in 1938 in Munich, caught Simon’s attention. “The banality of the gathering seemed perfectly encapsulated in the flowers, which were in a shallow bowl in the middle of a coffee table”, the artist told The Guardian. “I was interested in the idea of these men who feel they can control the evolution of the world through their language and assertions, and the flimsy paperwork that they are about to sign. And nature is just this castrated, decorative thing that sits between them.”
Studying other photographs of signings of important treaties, she realized it was a recurrent thing, those flowers. Or as she explains in a Charlie Rose video interview: “Looking at the sort of stage craft that surrounds those agreements and how that is conveyed to a public, what is the ceremony that surrounds it? And in that, I found that there is this repeating pattern of this presence of flowers always sitting amongst these very powerful men as they’re declaring their design.”
The flowers made her think of something else: the concept of the “impossible bouquet”, in seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting. “Paintings of floral combinations that could never have bloomed in the same place at the same time due to seasonal and geographical limitations”, Simon told Mousse magazine. “What was then a fantasy is now a reality, due to the global flower market that services consumer desires irrespective of natural limitations.”
After which a period of research followed. First, Simon selected a series of photographs of signings of agreements, treaties or accords: nuclear armement, oil deals, diamond trading. Then, she identified the various flowers in the images with a botanist. And following that, she needed to get all those flowers into her New York studio. She imported more than 4.000 specimens from probably the biggest flower market, in Aalsmeer, in the Netherlands.
With a florist she reconstructed the original arrangements. “I had the botanist confirm that every bouquet I was re-creating was an impossible bouquet. Meaning those flowers could never be together at the same time and the same place in nature.” Then she photographed them against their respective backdrops in her studio. “For the photographs, I distilled the imagery down to its aesthetic elements: the color fields of the background and the surfaces upon which agreements were signed. I designed the mahogany framing to emulate the aesthetics of boardroom bureaucracy.” (Mousse)
Sculptures were added as well, with flowers and paperwork. “The flowers can remain these sort of beautiful conveyances of power and life and vitality and bombast and ceremony, whereas the specimens themselves which I also preserve in my sculptures, they will turn and tarnish just like the agreements themselves, where they will turn and reverse. So, there is all these questions about survival and the precarious nature of survival.” (Charlie Rose)
To some viewers, the photographs probably just look like hip eye candy, perfect stuff for hipster magazines. For me they exude a sense of melancholy. Yes, they have a certain visual blandness, but looking at them, I couldn’t help thinking about all those meetings, all the hours spent preparing them, and these bouquets being the only thing left of it, as all the agreements that Simon has chosen, were later on broken or not honoured. There’s nothing festive to this. They look like mourning bouquets.
Or as Simon explains, in Mousse: “A photograph removes its subject from time’s continuum. It preserves the moment of ceremony and vitality. Given that many of these works reveal broken promises and reversals, the herbarium specimens highlight the turning and tarnishing of the real, after the stagecraft of power. They reveal the precarious nature of survival.”
The complete series consists of 36 photographs and 12 sculptures; 13 photo’s and 4 sculptures are on view at Almine Rech (through November 5.) A beautiful book documents the whole series (published by Hatje Cantz, here).