Pacts and Petals: The Silent Observers of Historical Moments

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In 2012, Taryn Simon discovered a photograph from the Munich conference of Hitler and Mussolini. “They were sitting around this bouquet of flowers,” she says. “They were striking in the photograph and I was interested in how nature was this sort of castrated, silent observer of this decisive moment in history.”

The artist examined other signings, digging through presidential library directories, image databases and archival sources, from Pakistani newspapers to Chinese periodicals. Each had one thing in common: be it a combination of Dutch daffodils, Thai hybrids, Costa Rican palms, Portuguese gladioli or American ferns, an exquisite botanic ensemble blossomed on the tables of meetings between world leaders enacting treaties. But what can these silent bystanders tell us? What does their presence signify, if anything?

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs David Welch (L), and Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmad Fitouri (R) shake hands after the signing of a compensation agreement between their two countries pertaining to the victims of past Libyan-US conflict in Tripoli on Aug. 14, 2008. See slide 5 above for Taryn Simon's interpretation.Mahmud Turkia—AFP/Getty Images

It’s the focus of Simon’s latest exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Paperwork and the Will of Capital examines what she calls the “stagecraft of power,” how it’s created, performed, marketed and maintained. A brilliant array of three dozen pop-art-like still photographs surrounding glass-cased concrete pillars, the show examines the backstory of bouquets present at diplomatic accords made between 1968 and 2014.

Simon’s work is multidisciplinary, encompassing photography, text, sculpture, film, performance and, sometimes, botany. Her work ranges from photo essays on Birds of the West Indies to Bosnian genocide victims, images of innocents who served time in prison to locations kept secret from the public. All is an attempt to organize the chaos of authority and the unknown—what she calls “the things that keep you up at night.”

“I’m interested in looking at the ways in which we organize to limit vulnerability. whether it be through authority, governance or economics, and looking at the vulnerability in that,” she says.

For her latest exhibit, Simon imported four thousand flowers from the world’s largest flower market. She worked with Bronx Botanical Gardens botanist Daniel Atha to identify the plant, then matched each with background and foreground colors that signal ideas of nationalism.

“There was an overwhelming mass of flowers,” she says. “We were working on tight clocks because of their short lifespan, steaming some that wouldn’t open and delaying others that were dying.”

The flowers were pressed and placed in concrete presses, along with photographs and text that annotates the agreement. “They are up against each other in a race against time for what will last as a record,” says Simon. “The English language, the photograph or the actual ovarian specimen itself.”

Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Budapest Memorandum), Budapest, Hungary, December 5, 1994; Lilium 'Stargazer', Stargazer Lily, Netherlands. Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015.Taryn Simon—Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Many of the flowers had been modified through altered color and shape or with delayed bloom designed to make them more commercially successful. Such themes, says Simon, are reflected in the signings themselves. “The flower industry operates in many of the manipulative ways that governance and power can operate, with alterations and decisions made for economic reasons,” she says.

The exhibition, titled “Paperwork, and the Will of Capital,” opens on February 18th at the Gagosian gallery in New York.

Taryn Simon is a New York-based multidisciplinary artist who works in photography, text, sculpture, film and performance.

Rachel Lowry is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @rachelllowry.

Nuclear fuel agreement. Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, Bushehr, Iran, February 27, 2005, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015Taryn Simon—Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Agreement for cooperation on China's Beidou Navigation Satellite System in Pakistan. Aiwan-e-Sadr, Islamabad, Pakistan, May 22, 2013, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015Taryn Simon—Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Marrakesh, Morocco, April 15, 1994, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015Taryn Simon—Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Memorandum of Understanding between the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Government of Australia Relating to the Settlement of Refugees in Cambodia. Ministry of Interior, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 26, 2014, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015Taryn Simon—Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Comprehensive claims settlement between Libya and the United States. Tripoli, Libya, August 14, 2008, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015Taryn Simon—Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Gdańsk Agreement. Gdańsk Shipyards, Gdańsk, Poland, August 31, 1980, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015Taryn Simon—Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery
Decision of general principle to ban third-party ownership of players' economic rights. Zurich, Switzerland, September, 26, 2014, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015. Taryn Simon—Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

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