The Excessive Beauty of Taryn Simon's An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

by on Jun.26, 2011

In a recent post, Johannes excerpted a provocative quote from Daniel Tiffany:

“… kitsch involves not merely the purification of beauty (i.e. the suppression of all qualities other than beauty), but exaggerated and even delusional regard for beauty. The banality of kitsch must therefore be reconciled with excessive beauty…”

This reconciliation between banality and overflowing beauty is interesting to consider in Taryn Simon’s series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar:



Pictured above in a hyper-realist suffusion of light are a hymenoplasty in Florida, in which a young Palestinian woman is having her ruptured hymen surgically reconstructed; the Fine Arts Commission of the CIA, which deploys works of art in public cultural diplomacy efforts that spread pro-American sentiment; and Kenny the white tiger, in Arkansas, whose mental retardation and physical handicaps are the result of selective inbreeding.  In the case of Kenny, especially, the photograph’s subject complicates and layers the seductiveness of its style, or what Salman Rushdie, in the foreword to a publication of Simon’s series, calls each subject’s “occult glamour.”  As inbreeding is the only way for zoos to produce white tigers such as Kenny, the process causes defects such as club feet, cleft palates, spinal deformities and defective organs.  Because the same gene that produces the white coat causes the optic nerve to be wired to the wrong side of the brain, the offspring of such incest are born cross-eyed.  Here is a photo of Kenny up close:

The ‘exaggerated and even delusional regard for beauty’ Tiffany describes in fact finds a victim in Kenny, whose body is itself all excess as the product of a misguided pursuit of aesthetic pleasure.  If we mirror Kenny’s cross-eyed gaze, it is because we love to look at his white coat despite the repercussions.  We love his whiteness so much we must produce more bodies like his, each one a flawed copy of an imaginary original.  While the alteration of the hymen in the first photo similarly suggests beauty’s pernicious reconstruction and fabrication through the body (hymenoplasty being a form of cosmetic surgery), the Fine Arts Commission of the CIA reinforces the “kitsch-ifying” role of museums Johannes has pointed out. Stylized to replenish the beauty of the art and curated space it depicts regardless of nationalist appropriation, the photograph, like others in the series, proliferates the possibilities of kitsch by both representing and re-enacting the latter.  In their excessive beautification of subjects that already come regulated, aesthetically categorized, and over-aestheticized, Simon’s photos thus imitate as much as they index the hidden and unfamiliar’s mundane yet viral status.  Through a glowing hyper-realism that blurs the line between mimesis and spectacle, the images materialize as yet another vector for the exaggeration of art/ifice.

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