There’s always that sense of anxiety as one approaches the customs officials, hoping that the declaration form has been filled-out correctly, and that nothing has been overlooked, or inadvertently packed with items locally classed as contraband.

But still, travellers around the world constantly seek to wilfully smuggle illegal goods past customs officials, sometimes successfully, but most often caught and confiscated, with subsequent charges and fines.

Such is the subject of an exhibition of American artist Taryn Simon’s work at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne. Taryn is showing her series Contraband for the first time in Australia,

Bird corpse labelled as home decor*
Contraband comprises of 1,075 photographs taken at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Federal Inspection Site and the U.S. Postal Service International Mail Facility, both located at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. For one full working week, 24 hours per day, the artist remained on site, photographing items detained or seized from passengers and express mail entering the U.S. from abroad. And what a haul of booty she has recorded.

Using a forensic photographic approach to document the seized items, and a presentation strategy such as would be used by scientists or museum conservators, Taryn removes the confiscated items from the customs hall context, and instead presents them reflected as symbols of illicit desire, illegal trade, and government control. 

Handbags, Louis Vuitton (disguised) (counterfeit)** 
Each item is labelled according to official classifications including ‘abandoned’, ‘illegal’, ‘unlicensed’, and ‘counterfeit’. The inventory is diverse, including pirated movies, counterfeit cashier’s cheques, fat, sausages, deer blood and duck tongue, counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags and Patek Philippe watches, counterfeit Xanax and erectile dysfunction medication, GBL (a component of date rape drugs) and a dead bird intended for use in witchcraft rituals. Yep, plenty of images to conjure-up exclamations of “Why would anyone try to smuggle that!?!”

But the entire work opens questions beyond mere incredulity. Taryn’s photographs capture both the strict logistical control of the airport, which adheres to legal restrictions on certain categories of foreign objects, as well as the chaos and disorder that remain despite this control – scrutinising the bizarre, the forgotten, and the banal with a cold, administrative gaze. If it's illicit, there’s no compromise. It’s contraband.

Cigarettes, Shuangxi, China***
With debates around border security and trade agreements occupying a central role in current political discourse, the exhibition underscores the routine detention and denial of the passage of objects and people, as well as the deliberate obscuring of the innocent or unknown in a bureaucratic fog. It’s both an entertaining and sometimes confronting presentation, as well as thought provoking in the underlying but purposeful message.

2 APRIL - 18 MAY 2019


*“Bird corpse, labelled as home décor, Indonesia to Miami, Florida (prohibited)”
[Detail] Animal Corpses (Prohibited), Animal Parts (Prohibited), Animal Skeletons (Prohibited), Animal Specimens (Prohibited), Snails (Prohibited), Butterflies (Prohibited)
Contraband, 2010
Archival inkjet print
15.9 x 15.9 cm
© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

**“Handbags, Louis Vuitton (disguised) (counterfeit)”
[Detail] Handbags, Louis Vuitton (Counterfeit)
Contraband, 2010
Archival inkjet print
15.9 x 15.9 cm
© Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

***“Cigarettes, Shuangxi, China (prohibited)”
[Detail] Cigarettes & Tobacco (Abandoned/Illegal/Prohibited)
Contraband, 2010
Archival inkjet print
15.9 x 15.9 cm
©Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian and Anna Schwartz Gallery