Taryn Simon’s Artpace exhibition, a photo-sculptural installation titled Sepia Officinalis, is a departure from the artist’s previous bodies of work, introducing a more intuitive atmosphere of trial and error based on natural phenomena. It features four aquariums that house a species of marine life called cuttlefish. The skin of this mollusk almost instantly adapts to its surroundings, taking on distinct tonalities of the surface over which it swims; it is this unique defense mechanism that has given the creature the nickname “chameleon of the sea.” Through maintenance of four distinct environments, the artist tests the cuttlefish’s survival strategy of adaptive invisibility.
Sepia Officinalis is an investigation of the influence of the image on the body–using control and experimental groups. The control group is represented by the three tanks lined with images of sand, the natural environment of the mollusk. The use of images rather than actual sand exposes the artist’s penchant for pairing the artificial with the organic. Through her careful construction of these environments, Simon blurs the lines between natural and man-made, emphasizing the influence of illusion even in the biological world.
The experimental tank features a checkerboard image, which was selected after a series of tests gauging the dermatological reaction of the cuttlefish. The artist analyzed myriad patterns, including squares, stripes, and spots, in order to find the most viable pattern for transference to the cuttlefish. The artist’s selection of the checkerboard pattern–because of its strong influence on the coloration of the mollusk–ultimately raises issues surrounding the investigation of visibility through camouflage in nature. The artist also raises questions about passive versus active forms of disguise and the way humans have adopted the camouflage phenomenon for their own use. Ironically, Cuttlefish are colorblind, expanding on the idea of conversion and influence and pointing out that adaptation does not always follow a logical formula.
The inconspicuous presentation of the tanks in Simon’s installation visually parallels the camouflage tactics of the mollusks. Cuttlefish, which are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment, are easily frightened. When alarmed, they emit a toxic ink that completely clouds the tank and ultimately can cause their death. They must be housed in a temperature- and pH-controlled environment that includes complex filtration systems and daily maintenance. The animal only eats live shrimp and cannot be placed in shared tanks due to the possibility of cannibalism. The stringent requirements of the cuttlefish’s living environment emphasizes the fragility of the experiment: even the slightest elemental change could result in failure. The symbolic implications of this risk reference a common theme found throughout the artist’s work–the influence of environmental factors on the development of visual identity.