Taryn Simon: Contraband

Counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags from Taryn Simon’s ‘Contraband’ (2010) (all images courtesy Hatje Cantz)

On the cover of Taryn Simon’s Contraband is the corpse of a bird of prey, its body contorted over a nondescript envelope that was marked “home décor” and on its way from Indonesia to Miami, Florida, when it was seized at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The reissue of the monograph this year by Hatje Cantz has 1,075 of Simon’s photographs, all taken between November 16 and November 20, 2009, of illicit and contraband items both strange and mundane.

Cover of ‘Contraband’ by Taryn Simon (click to enlarge)

The book was first published in 2010, and this 2015 reissue returns to the New York-based artist’s sterile portraits of items ranging from a bird nest facial mask from China to a whole heap of dog bones with unidentified meats from South Korea. Each of the photographs presents the item quietly against a white backdrop, underlying the intense 24-hour effort of Simon’s time at JFK where she had a simple studio set up at the airport.

All items were taken from airline passengers or express mail by the US Customs and Border Protection Federal Inspection Site and the US Postal Service International Mail Facility. While the objects, whether the obviously questionable gun-shaped belt buckle that is also a lighter or the more banal counterfeit Chanel, never entered the country, they continued their journey beyond the border through the photographs.

In an introductory essay, also in the 2010 first edition, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist noted that the photographs question the dominance of digital in our current economy. He writes:

Simon’s work clearly shows the myriad ways in which we continue to rely on the ceaseless material production of ever more disposable commodities, a maelstrom of overproduction steadily depleting our natural resources. Contraband gives the lie to phrases such as the “dematerialized economy,” which only ensure that we conveniently forget that we are beholden to both nature and material production as never before.

Khat from Taryn Simon’s ‘Contraband’ (2010) (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Oca (a prohibited tuber plant) from Taryn Simon’s ‘Contraband’ (2010)

An index in the back of the book tallies the seized cigarettes from around the world, the various deer parts from tongue to penis (which was delicately carried on yellow satin), which are all arranged alphabetically. Botox and counterfeit Beanie Babies both figure in the nearly 500 pages of the massive monograph. The perspective is similar to other artist projects like Tom Keifer’s The American Dream on things left at a US Customs and Border Patrol station in Arizona, or Christien Meindertsma’s Checked Baggage documenting items seized at the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (that book included a confiscated object with each copy).

In all these efforts, there’s a sense in trying to arrange some system of the chaos, which represents the various illicit desires of consumption, whether testosterone from Pakistan packaged in carbon paper to hide it from X-rays, or the visually visceral horse sausage from Eastern Europe. Like Simon’s more recent series A Polite Fiction (2014) that examined the layers and unearthed artifacts from the five-year building of the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, or her An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) that included a visit to the JFK customs site among other off-limits locales, there’s an interest in the invisible passage of objects and hidden human stories. There are no details on the people who attempted to bring these banned items into the country, just a visual interpretation of humanity’s strange commerce.

Shuangxi cigarettes from Taryn Simon’s ‘Contraband’ (2010)

Prohibited fruit from Taryn Simon’s ‘Contraband’ (2010) (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Unlicensed pistols from Taryn Simon’s ‘Contraband’ (2010) (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Prohibited plants from Taryn Simon’s ‘Contraband’ (2010) (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Contraband by Taryn Simon is out now from Hatje Cantz.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...