These flowers sat between powerful men as they signed agreements designed to influence the fate of the world.
In Paperwork and the Will of Capital, artist Taryn Simon examines floral centerpieces against accords, treaties, and decrees drafted to influence systems of governance and economics, from nuclear armament to oil deals and diamond trading present at the 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The artists works involve all the countries which addressed the globalization of economics after World War II, leading to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In images of the signings of these documents, powerful men flank floral centerpieces designed to underscore the importance of the parties present.
“Flower power” may be a tired marketing slogan for florists, but the truth of the matter is blossoms truly do communicate far more than aesthetic beauty. For Simon the project was about “dissecting the stagecraft of power—how it is conveyed, marketed, and maintained,” she says.
The Gagosian gallery in New York recently presented Taryn Simon’s final project of sculptures and photographs. The sculptures—Simon’s first foray into the medium—previewed at the 56th Biennale di Venezia in 2015; the Gagosian exhibition brought them together with large-scale, annotated photographs as a complete body of work for the first time.
The new series comprises 12 unique sculptures and 36 editioned photographs. The photographs—large, colorful, and spectacular with a nod to Pop art, and custom-framed in mahogany to emulate the style of boardroom furniture—speak to the bombast of national and corporate symbolism; the sculptures—stylized concrete flower-presses containing delicate preserved floral specimens and their documentation—operate in a discrete and classified zone.
For the new work, Simon’s investigations yielded twin points of departure: archival photographs of official signings; and George Sinclair’s nineteenth century horticultural study containing actual dried grass specimens, an experiment in evolution and survival cited by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking research.
Each of Simon’s recreations of these floral arrangements represents an “impossible bouquet”—a concept that emerged in Dutch still-life painting parallel to the country’s seventeenth-century economic boom, which ushered in the development of modern capitalism. Then, the impossible bouquet was an artificial fantasy of flowers that could never bloom naturally in the same season and geographic location. Now the fantasy is made possible—both in the original signings and in Simon’s photographs—by the global consumer market.
For the recreations, Simon worked with a botanist and from archival records to identify all the flowers. She imported more than 4000 specimens from the world’s largest flower auction in Aalsmeer, Netherlands, where 20 million flowers arrive and depart daily, bound for international retail destinations. She remade the floral arrangements from each signing, then photographed them against striking bicolored fields relating to the foregrounds and backgrounds in the historical images, pairing each arrangement with a description of the pertinent accord. For the sculptures, selected specimens from the 36 arrangements were dried, pressed, and sewn to archival herbarium paper; a complete set of the 36 botanical collages was then placed in each of the 12 concrete presses, along with the same number of photographs and narrative texts—sealed together in a race against time.
Paperwork and the Will of Capital addresses the instability of executive decision-making and the precarious nature of survival, as well as the reliability and endurance of records: the accords and their far-reaching effects, Simon’s photographs, and the preserved botanical specimens in their concrete presses; language itself. The photographic still lifes stand in contrast to the sculptural natures mortes: as time advances, so may these artifacts transform, revealing mutable versions of themselves.
A fully illustrated catalogue published by Hatje Cantz and Gagosian includes essays by Kate Fowle and Nicholas Kulish, botanical texts by Daniel Atha, and a short story by Hanan al-Shaykh.
Simon is currently working on her first work involving live performers, jointly commissioned by Park Avenue Armory, New York and Artangel, London. This as-yet unnamed work will premier in New York in September 2016 before moving on to London in November of this year.
Taryn Simon (b. 1975) lives and works in New York City. She graduated from Brown University and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001. Permanent collections include Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; LACMA, Los Angeles; Tate Modern, London; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and MMK, Frankfurt.