Taryn Simon’s Black Mass

Published June 11, 2015

“I wanted to produce a work of art that was not for my generation, nor my children’s generation, nor my children’s children’s generation, but for the distant future that I couldn’t even imagine,” artist Taryn Simon says of her latest endeavor.

The project will debut tomorrow at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. Titled Black Square XVII, it is a continuation of Simon’s Black Square series, in which she has sourced and photographed unique subject matter to raise questions about cultural complexities, ambiguities, and even its deterioration, since 2006. Each square maintains the same dimensions as Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 suprematist painting of the same name, and her subjects have ranged from a 3-D printed gun to a parrot suffering from feather destructive disorder to the original letter rejecting George Orwell’s Animal Farm manuscript. For XVII, however, Simon breaks with her tradition. Rather than photographing an existing object, she is creating one—a mass of nuclear waste that will eventually resemble a square of black glass—and documenting the process.

A representational plaque and void will be unveiled on a wall at the Garage, where the piece will be placed upon its completion, specifically about 1,000 years from now, when it can be in a human’s proximity, in 3015. While process of vitrification (the beginning step to solidify radioactive nuclear waste) took place in May, the project itself has been underway for more than two years and will continue far beyond the artist’s lifespan.

“It’s extremely difficult to get somebody to agree to produce something like this, let alone in a distant country, and especially as a collaboration on nuclear material between Russia and the United States,” Simon explains. To produce Black Square XVII, the native New Yorker partnered with Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation and initially began working at Mayak, a former Soviet nuclear plant where the USSR produced its first atomic bomb. Soon thereafter, the site closed and the team moved to various locations, finally settling at an unnamed and unmapped plant northeast of Moscow.

“The waste is sourced from various places,” the artist continues. “They get a waste from all different industries, but ours was done through mostly pharmaceutical and other mid-level radiation sources.”

Until its completion, the piece of art will be stored in a holding chamber surrounded by clay-rich soil within a reinforced concrete container; Simon also included a two-ply steel capsule containing a letter to the future within the mass of nuclear waste. In a sense, the square acts a time capsule—to be discovered by a future generation, who might not understand, or even find, the letter. Early next year, an exhibition featuring Simon’s documentation—photographs, videos, text, and more—will reveal further details about XVII‘s creation. In anticipation, we spoke with Simon to learn more.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: You’ve been working on the Black Square series since 2006, but how did you decide to work with nuclear waste?

SIMON: [I wanted to] confront ideas of ownership and value, and create an abstraction of all the habits that we rely on in the production of creative material—that could mean art, or science, or medicine, or any sort of “new” material. The process by which nuclear waste is stored is called “vitrification,” which creates this black glass substance. It is considered the safest and most effective method for the long-term storage of radioactive waste and its neutralization, but it creates this thing that is extremely precise, sharp, beautiful, and seductive, yet is completely dangerous to a human for interaction. I was interested in that contradiction, the violence and danger within beauty. I wanted to make a Black Square out of that material, and it seemed appropriate to do it, then, in Russia.

Also, my own roots trace back to Russia. So it’s about creating something that would be touching the soil, and kept within the soil from which I supposedly stem but have very little relationship to, and consider these divides and cross-cultural communication—all these issues of translation and dealing with the actual agency by which I got the thing produced. And thinking about the very different future, meaning the year 3015, and then the very distant past.

MCDERMOTT: It’ll be interesting if, in 3015, this is still the way they store nuclear waste…

SIMON: [laughs] Or if we even exist…

MCDERMOTT: You’ve previously referenced “A Key to the English Language,” a section of a book inside a time capsule that was buried at the New York World’s Fair [in 1939], so what did you include in your letter to the future?

SIMON: One of the acknowledgments within it is the fact that this language may not even exist or be something that is understood at that time. So the letter itself might be void at the time of its reading—and to assume that they’re even humans! When people discuss evolution there’s one version where rats are next. There are all these unknowns. The Black Square itself—Malevich’s interpretation of his work—is this storage of universal energy and this “great nothing” with sharp edges by which we divide time, and black conveying both a secret and the pages of the future. It plays into all those ideas. The canister in which we put the letter to the future is embedded within the black glass square, and there’s no instruction on the actual physical square declaring that there’s anything within it.

MCDERMOTT: So the future might not even find it.

SIMON: It’s a record of how record plays into discovery. In creating a record of it through talking about it with you, and through writing about it—will those records last? Will they stay attached to the objects from which they were born? And will the intention survive, or will it just be this unknown thing that’s never cracked? And, is it too beautiful to crack? Or at that time too valuable to crack? So [it’s a] battle between accessing the letter and preserving the work of art…

MCDERMOTT: That also speaks to the fact that it is only supposed to be on view at The Garage—what if something happens to The Garage and it’s not there in 3015?

SIMON: Exactly. There’s all these reliances and acts of survival that will have to occur in order for it to unfold in its anticipated form, and of course that will be disrupted in various ways. Or maybe not, who knows…

MCDERMOTT: Can you tell me about the process?

SIMON: I didn’t do anything. [Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation] did it. I can’t work with that material—and that is the whole point. This is all occurring through letter writing, phone calls, and communication, through translation and interpretation, which is at its core.

MCDERMOTT: I want to go back to when you began the Black Square series. What originally drew you toward Malevich’s work?

SIMON: I was interested in this painting that has so many different interpretations and people projecting all these different ideas, whether it be an idea of nothingness or something extremely political and radical. So this void could become the recipient of so much, and [I began] using that as fixed dimensions and a color as a means by which I could explore different aspects of man’s invention, man’s hand, and the creation of things.

MCDERMOTT: How do you feel about the idea of permanence and the way people will project different ideas onto this square as time progresses?

SIMON: It’s ready to receive. [laughs] At the museum, it’s going to exist as a void, an empty space in which the work of art will be hung in the year 3015, so all you have now is projection and imagination. In March, when we start revealing more of the background material, there’ll be some sort of visual anchor, but at the moment it exists in this very abstract realm. It was extremely important to me that it not be a work of art that was solely in an abstract realm where there is no evidence of its actual creation.

When I start digging into [the project] and peeling it apart, it fractures at every turn, which for me, whose work is somewhat bound to certain calculations and facts and figures and projections, is such a surreal form. Every time you think you have a hold on it, it unrolls into another strange territory of unknowns.

MCDERMOTT: Have you ever typed “nuclear waste” into your Image Atlas?

SIMON: No. Have you?

MCDERMOTT: Yeah. It seems to be one of the few things that appears the same in all of the countries. It’s just a page of yellow containers with black nuclear hazard symbols. Your entirely black square is much different from the common perception of nuclear waste.

SIMON: The funny thing about how those signs come up everywhere is that that is the customary symbol. The reality is that they’re not glaring in that form—there’s no flashing light, there’s no warning. These things are kept quiet and hidden, and almost invisible. They take on the exact opposite form of the yellow whatever you want to call that sign. Like, the site where we did it all, this one worker told us that he’s seen maps where the actual storage site is written up as a poultry farm.

THE VOID FOR BLACK SQUARE XVII WILL GO ON VIEW TOMORROW, JUNE 12, AT THE GARAGE MUSEUM IN MOSCOW. FOR MORE ON SIMON, VISIT HER WEBSITE.