Sepia Officinalis

Taryn Simon

Exhibition: Nov 6, 2008 – Jan 11, 2009

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.


Taryn Simon

New York, New York, USA

Taryn Simon’s calculated, formal photographs are both direct and mysterious. The artist’s practice has traditionally centered on making the invisible visible. Her large-format images explore the ways that photography can alter our awareness of perception and the distribution of visual information. Inherent to her approach is a marriage of text and image. By merging visual and written material, the artist underscores the ambiguity of photography and the influence of context on what we see.
Taryn Simon was born in New York. She received her BA from Brown University in 1997. She has had solo exhibitions at Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany (2008); Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, CA (2008), and London, England (2004); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (2007); High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA (2006); P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, NY (2003); and Kunst-Werke Berlin, Germany (2003). Her work has been included in many group exhibitions including Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (2008-09); Manifesto Marathon: Manifestos for the 21st Century, Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London, England (2008); Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2008); Geschlossene Gesellschaft, Kunst-Werke Berlin, Germany (2008); and ClickDoubleClick: The Documentary Factor, Haus Der Kunst, Munich, Germany (2006). In 2001 Simon was awarded the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Photography.

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Hans Ulrich Obrist

London, England

Hans Ulrich-Obrist is the Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London, positions created for Ulrich-Obrist in April 2006. As a curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France since 2000, among many other exhibitions he organized solo shows with Jonas Mekas (2003), Anri Sala (2004), and Cerith Wyn Evans (2006). Before this position Ulrich-Obrist was an independent curator for a decade, organizing the group show Take Me I’m Yours at the Serpentine (1995) and Retrace Your Steps: Remember at the John Soane Museum (1999), also in London, England. Ulrich-Obrist was a panelist in 1998 for the 1999-2000 year of artists, and was invited to be a speaker at the 2003 symposium, but was unable to come due to illness.
Photo by Dominik Gigler

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