In 1968, representatives from Eastern Bloc countries signed the Bratislava Declaration reaffirming their commitment to Marxism-Leninism. Nonetheless, 16 days later the USSR would invade Czechoslovakia after realizing that democratic reforms were taking place.
At the conference, representatives were stationed at a table dressed with a bouquet of humble carnations. What might seem like a bit of historical trivia became an avenue to delve into global politics and economics for New York–based artist Taryn Simon, whose exhibition, Paperwork and the Will of Capital, is an in-depth study and creative meditation on the floral arrangements that accompanied major political meetings–from treaty signings to trade agreements–throughout history.
Simon’s fascination with botanicals began after she discovered a book that included dried specimens by George Sinclair, the 19th-century horticulturist who influenced Charles Darwin’s research. “I was interested in using tactile material in this world of disposable, digital data,” Simon says.
She also came across a photograph of Hitler and Mussolini sitting around a table adorned with a bouquet at the 1938 Munich Agreement. “I started thinking about the flowers as silent witnesses listening to man’s determination to control the economic, geographic, and political fate of the world,” she says.
Simon began researching more important political meetings, from a 2006 agreement establishing the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation, to a meeting concerning refugees between the Australian and Cambodian governments, to a 1944 meeting that would lead to the establishment of the International Monetary Fund.
She took notes of the precise floral arrangements that appeared in archival snapshots, and then painstakingly recreated them—36 in all—by importing over 4,000 plants from the Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands. With a sales rate of 20 million flowers per day, Aalsmeer is the largest botanical marketplace in the world, where flowers are imported from other countries and then exported again after their sale, a global economic phenomenon that mirrored Simon’s interest in geopolitics.
Simon’s painstaking historical recreations were photographed and made into seven-foot-tall prints. “I wanted the photographs to reflect the bombast of official ceremony and monumental painting—the larger-than-life scale of the floral arrangements; the bold abstract color-block treatment of the backgrounds; and the custom-made mahogany frames that signal bureaucratic architectural style,” she says.
After completing the images, Simon then dried and pressed the blossoms and mounted them within paper booklets encased within sculptural totems–a nod to the horticultural beginnings of the project. “A photo takes a moment out of time’s progression, preserving the vitality and perfection of the bouquet, whereas the flower specimens continue to turn and age,” Simon says. “Putting both up against each other highlights the precarious nature of survival.”
“Say it with flowers” may be a tired marketing slogan for florists, but the truth of the matter is blossoms truly do communicate far more than aesthetic beauty. For Simon, the project was about “dissecting the stagecraft of power—how it is conveyed, marketed, and maintained,” she says.
One needn’t look any further than today’s election cycle to understand the theatrical shenanigans at play in modern politics. How about a Corpse flower to accompany Trump’s next publicity stunt?
You can see Paperwork and the Will of Capital at the Gagosian Gallery until March 26, 2016.
Image Credits: (c) Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery