Towards the end of his life, after amassing a personal library of more than 60,000 volumes, the wealthy German art historian Aby Warburg began work on his final project, the Mnemosyne Atlas (1928–9). Equally profound and perverse in its intricacy and obsession (he was intermittently hospitalized for bouts of schizophrenia), Warburg’s attempt to identify what he termed ‘the iconology of interval’ in Western art. Culled from more than 2,000 images, and grouped thematically across 79 black-clothed wooden panels, these visual constellations wove together disparate strands of cultural history in the hopes of illustrating a narrative of ‘gestural forms’.
Warburg’s dizzying taxonomic project, borne from methodologies of filtration and accretion, in many ways presaged the practices of Internet-based search-engines. And, if the German polymath’s project reflected early attempts to find elucidation via compilation, Taryn Simon’s recent photographic exhibition, ‘The Last Picture’, finds illumination through accumulation.
Notably, Simon did not have a vast personal library from which to draw, however she did have access to the world’s largest circulating picture library, located at the New York Public Library’s Midtown Manhattan location. Founded in 1915, the collection is a repository for more than a million clipped images, culled from books, magazines and other printed ephemera. Categorized under 12,000 separate headings, the 40 WPA artists hired between 1929 and 1968 to clip and classify the images achieved a level of imagistic hoarding of which Warburg could only feverishly dream.
Incorporating the collection’s preexisting system of classification within her compositions, Simon selected multiple images from a single heading, photographing various formal arrangements of clippings against a white background. The choice of categories, or ‘Folders’, range in subject matter from the whimsical to the banal. Spread over three interleaving rows, Folder: Costume-Veil (all works, 2012) depicts a menagerie of veiled figures, ranging from Edward Steichen’s photograph of Gloria Swanson to a Berber woman and a Northern Renaissance Flemish portrait. The large-scale diptych Folder: Beards and Mustaches includes several illustrations of Kublai Khan, a coterie of grizzled Victorians and a photograph of Salvador Dalí’s gravity-defying moustache. Meanwhile, the arrangement of images in Folder: Express Highway comprised exclusively aerial shots of motorway overpasses and cloverleaf interchanges.
To accompany more apparent groupings, Simon included photographic arrangements of images taken from the collection’s nebulously defined headings – ‘Death’ and ‘Pain’ among them. Simon’s photograph Folder: Accidents comes off as a storyboard about the vagaries of semantics, encompassing everything from grim news-clippings of automotive accidents to the horrors of spilt wine and the possibilities of pianos falling from above. Most tellingly, in her selection of images from such amorphous categories, Simon highlights the all too human desire – and subjectivity – underlying the need to classify.
Importantly, unlike Warburg, Simon seems less concerned with the results of such classification than with isolating the impulse to classify. As with her earlier projects, such as ‘Contraband’ (2009–10) and ‘A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–VXIII’ (2008–11), Simon looks to underscore the various ways in which ideology and technology (especially photography) are joined in the appellation and archiving of the human experience. And, as with images such as Folder: Accidents, Simon points to the limitations – as well the absurdity and futility – of such endeavours. Indeed, I cannot help but recall Jorge Luis Borges’s lines from the end of his essay ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ (1942): after ruminating on man’s varied attempts to confine and codify his existence, Borges mordantly concludes: ‘If there is a universe, its aim is not conjectured yet.’