It is tempting to view Taryn Simon’s ‘American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’ as a corrective to, or reparation of, a post-9/11 world of suspended civil liberties and sinister governmental machinations: a way of turning the camera back upon those who surveille, directing an illuminating flash onto the covert operations of contemporary American biopolitics. Yet what immediately strikes the viewer is how few of these photographs engage any topic that might be linked straightforwardly to the excesses of the Patriot Act. For example, we are presented with an image of cables erupting from a linoleum floor in a sinisterly barren room, but this is no exposé of illegal wiretapping. Rather, it is a room in VSNL headquarters, New Jersey, through which the sub-marine cables that carry over sixty million simultaneous voice conversations are routed across the Atlantic. If anything, the image is a meditation on how blasé our acceptance of remarkable feats of technology has become—warrantless wiretapping included. Similarly, our access to the CIA is limited to a photograph of the Abstract Expressionist art works on display in the lobby of the organisation’s headquarters at Langley. The only skeletons in the closet of the FBI are the corpses used for forensic research at the so-called ‘body farm’—the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility. We imagine the agents and officers benefitting from this research as so many Clarice Starlings rather than Fox Mulders.

What I want to suggest, however, is that in failing to offer us hard evidence of nefarious dealings in Washington or Gitmo or any number of shady foreign states mobilised as hosts for extraordinary renditions, what Simon’s series indexes is a version of American secrecy—the hidden, the unfamiliar—that has less to do with content than with form. That is, it is no secret that the United States government has engaged in activities that are less than transparent; therefore, a self-consciously constructed photographic account of such activities could not tell us any more than the infamous images from Abu Ghraib or banned photographs of flag-draped coffins already have. What is at stake, then, in Simon’s ‘American Index’ are the formal operations of secrecy itself vis à vis the work of art: the means by which the artist maintains the aura of mystery required of the work of art—the incitement to the viewer to unpack and confront its meaning—and simultaneously renders it accessible and assimilable in order for it to be enjoyed. But if this tension is universal to the work of art, what is it about Simon’s treatment of this dilemma that is peculiarly American? How does the form of her work stage an intervention into American political and artistic culture that moves beyond its content? To address these questions, I want to turn to two defining moments in American political and artistic history and trace a speculative trajectory from these points to Simon’s series in order to claim that her images and their accompanying captions offer a critique of American openness as nothing more than a fiction of transparency, even as her work participates within such a fiction and draws its complexity from it.

The first moment to which I want to direct attention occurred on 4 July 1776 as the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. On this occasion Thomas Jefferson proposed, and the founders subsequently ratified, that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain, unalienable Rights’. Yet this self-evident truth that was so universally acknowledged that it need hardly inhabit narrative space, was, of course, hardly self-evident at all to the half a million enslaved Africans living in the newly independent nation. What this rhetorical sleight of hand reveals is that the best way to hide an inconvenient truth—in this case that a nation founded on ideals of liberty and equality was established on the back of slave labour—is to blind naysayers with the glare of the seemingly obvious. Through its mobilisation of a rhetoric of common sense, the ‘Declaration of Independence’ produces a fiction of transparency which enables the elision of the unpalatable, the unjust, the unequal, the undemocratic.

The foundational artistic moment I want to place alongside this originary fiction of self evidence took place in 1845 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of virtuosic ratiocination, ‘The Purloined Letter’. In this story, the incriminating letter is simply folded over by the blackmailer, readdressed and placed in plain view into his own letter rack. Hidden thus in plain sight, the stolen epistle eludes recovery by all the Queen’s men, until the inimitable Chevalier Auguste Dupin matches wits with the blackmailer and retrieves the letter. What brings these two rhetorical examples—the political and the literary—together is their shared reliance on the power of such illusions of transparency to hoodwink and seduce. Moreover, from Poe’s tale onwards, we can locate a preoccupation with this mode of non-disclosure throughout American writing of the nineteenth century. To name Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno or Henry James’s In the Cage is to cite but a few of the literary instantiations of this form of the secret. This longstanding literary concern with failures of transparency at all levels of public life (the protagonists of these texts are, tellingly, a minister, a merchant and a telegraph operator) testifies to an American impulse to work through the at best problematic, and at worst sinister, implications of truths held to be ‘self-evident’.

The way this fiction of transparency operates in Simon’s work is via the ostensible lucidity of her photographs. Not only are they sharply focussed, detailed and realist, they are accompanied by dense and comprehensive captions that apparently explain exactly what we are seeing in the image. This mode of excessive disclosure seduces the viewer into a sense that there is nothing more to be said about or gleaned from these images, that they have only one particular fixed and stable meaning. Yet to be taken in by this excess of information, to be convinced by this cosy fiction of transparency, is to miss the multiplicity of stories these photographs tell. To take Simon’s captions at face value is to be implicated in a passive politics of the uncritical reception and acceptance of information. The very fact that these texts appear to render the hidden and unfamiliar accessible and recognisable should set our alarm bells ringing. If the richness of these photographs, their elaborately precise staging, the echoes and resonances of events outside their own parameters that they transmit is not evidence enough of the bad faith of their captions, we might ask: to what does an index of the hidden and unfamiliar point if not to the subterranean layers of meaning that make up each image?

Consider, for example, the photograph of the NASA beach house in Cape Canaveral whose caption tells us that this clapboard cottage plays host to the families of astronauts in the last hours before they disappear in shuttles into the outer reaches of space. If, as Barthes tells us, every photograph entails ‘the return of the dead’ (Camera Lucida, 9) how much more so does this particular image contain within itself the dead of the two shuttle disasters: the astronauts on board the Challenger and Columbia? The manner of their death—specifically, the resulting irrecoverability of their bodies—transforms this structure, where last they saw and were seen by loved ones, into a tomb.

Similarly evoking the death of its subject is the image of a tiled wall against which the outline of an intravenous drip and that of a human body, legs splayed into stirrups, can be made out. UFO-shaped lights illuminate the strategically placed white sheet that covers the body’s genitalia. The body is faceless and would be genderless but for the tell-tale stirrups. The presence of the drip suggests that the body is a live one, but in the absence of a face it takes on the anonymity of a corpse. Turning to the accompanying caption, we are offered an opportunity for relief: we are not here witnesses to an autopsy. Rather, the patient etherised upon this table is ‘a 21 year old Arab woman living in the United States. In order to adhere to cultural and familial expectations regarding her virginity, she had her hymen reconstructed’. She is faceless through her own agency, we surmise; to reveal her identity would be to undermine utterly the reason the hymenoplasty is taking or has taken place. Yet the image is structured in such a way as to reproduce the configuration of a Rorschach blot, and as such, we are drawn back into its story in the way that patterns of ink solicit the projection of our own desires to make sense of their mercurial contours. This image, thus, for one viewer, ‘verges on the pornographic’ (Christy Lange in Frieze, 133), while for another it is merely a pair of quirkily disembodied legs accentuated by large overhead lamps in a scene simply described as ‘incongruous’ (Geoffrey Batchen in Aperture, 82). In my own encounter with this photograph, I was struck by the uncanny resemblance the bifurcated body in the image bore to the infamous police photographs of the body of Elizabeth Short, known in popular true-crime parlance as the Black Dahlia. Short’s bisected body was discovered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, a far cry from the clinic in Fort Lauderdale where the photographic subject undergoes her surgery. However, the mirroring of her cleft body in Simon’s image seems to point to a secret that has less to do with the subterfuge involved in hymenoplasty—a practice carried out by Others in the service of an alien patriarchy—than a far more ubiquitous open secret to do with the violence done to women’s bodies within the boundaries of the United States.

One might argue that my insistence upon esoteric connections between events and their representations, my dismissal of the Occam’s Razor-like quality of Simon’s explications, reproduces the logic of a conspiracy theory. But what I have sought to suggest here, is that these photographs, accompanied as they are by such disingenuously transparent expositions and arranged in a self-consciously random distribution around the walls of the gallery, invite our conspiratorial participation in the production of meaning within and between images. The advantage of conspiracy, of course, is that its iterations are limited only by our imaginations—the more occult, arcane and outrageous our imaginings the more convincing the theory. Indeed, it is this very logic of conspiracy between artwork and viewer that ensures that we return to the work of art time and time again. 

Taryn Simon, Hymenoplasty, Cosmetic Surgery, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, Florida

The patient in this photograph is a 21-year-old woman of Palestinian descent, living in the United States. In order to adhere to cultural and familial expectations regarding her virginity and marriage, she underwent hymenoplasty. Without it she feared she would be rejected by her future husband and bring shame upon her family. She flew in secret to Florida where the operation was performed by Dr. Bernard Stern, a plastic surgeon she located on the internet. 

The purpose of hymenoplasty is to reconstruct a ruptured hymen, the membrane which partially covers the opening of the vagina. It is an outpatient procedure which takes approximately 30 minutes and can be done under local or intravenous anesthesia. Dr. Stern charges $3,500 for hymenoplasty. He also performs labiaplasty and vaginal rejuvenation.

Chromogenic colour print, 94.6 x 113cm framed. Edition of 7. © 2010 Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery/Steidl. 

Taryn Simon, Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, Decomposing Corpse, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee

The decomposing corpse of a young boy is studied by researchers who have recreated a crime scene.

The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, popularly known as The Body Farm, is the world’s chief research center for the study of corpse decomposition. Its six-acre plot hosts approximately 75 cadavers in various stages of decomposition. The Farm uses physical anthropology (skeletal analysis of human remains) to help solve criminal cases, especially murder cases. Forensic anthropologists work to establish profiles for deceased persons. These profiles can include sex, age, ethnic ancestry, stature, time elapsed since death, and sometimes, the nature of trauma on the bones.

Corpses were first brought to the facility in 1980 as donations from the state (unclaimed bodies) or from families donating on behalf of the deceased. 

Chromogenic colour print, 94.6 x 113cm framed. Edition of 7. © 2010 Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery/Steidl. 

Taryn Simon, The Central Intelligence Agency, Art, CIA Original Headquarters Building, Langley, Virginia

The Fine Arts Commission of the CIA is responsible for acquiring art to display in the Agency’s buildings. Among the Commission’s curated art are two pieces (pictured) by Thomas Downing, on long-term loan from the Vincent Melzac Collection. Downing was a member of the Washington Color School, a group of post-World War II painters whose influence helped to establish the city as a center for arts and culture. Vincent Melzac was a private collector of abstract art and the Administrative Director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.’s premier art museum. 

Since its founding in 1947, the Agency has participated in both covert and public cultural diplomacy efforts throughout the world. It is speculated that some of the CIA’s involvement in the arts was designed to counter Soviet Communism by helping to popularize what it considered pro-American thought and aesthetic sensibilities. Such involvement has raised historical questions about certain art forms or styles that may have elicited the interest of the Agency, including Abstract Expressionism.

Chromogenic colour print, 94.6 x 113cm framed. Edition of 7. © 2010 Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery/Steidl. 

Dr Hilary Emmett is a lecturer in American Literature at the School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

For more on the work of Taryn Simon click here.