Painting in the Dark

This great video discusses the issue of creating art in a world of popularity and instant success. Who wants to make art in the dark?

The life of Vincent Van Gogh is used as a brilliant example of someone who dedicated to creating art, despite his seeming lack of success. Also titled, “The Long Game“, the video discusses the virtue of creation for its own sake.

Write on! paint on! create !

You can also view the video on Vimeo here.

Be An Artist Now

This wonderful TEDxSeoul talk [yes it’s got subtitles] reminds us of how we can over-complicate and overthink creativity.

Every child is born an artist and does not think to create for payment or accolade. We never lose this creativity but we learn to listen to the devils of doubt who would question “why” or “what for?”

But art is not for anything. Art is the ultimate goal. It saves our souls and makes us live happily. It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs.



[Transcript]: The theme of my talk today is, “Be an artist, right now.” Most people, when this subject is brought up, get tense and resist it: “Art doesn’t feed me, and right now I’m busy. I have to go to school, get a job, send my kids to lessons … “ You think, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for art.” There are hundreds of reasons why we can’t be artists right now. Don’t they just pop into your head?

00:39 There are so many reasons why we can’t be, indeed, we’re not sure why we should be. We don’t know why we should be artists, but we have many reasons why we can’t be. Why do people instantly resist the idea of associating themselves with art? Perhaps you think art is for the greatly gifted or for the thoroughly and professionally trained. And some of you may think you’ve strayed too far from art. Well you might have, but I don’t think so. This is the theme of my talk today. We are all born artists.


01:16 If you have kids, you know what I mean. Almost everything kids do is art. They draw with crayons on the wall. They dance to Son Dam Bi’s dance on TV, but you can’t even call it Son Dam Bi’s dance — it becomes the kids’ own dance. So they dance a strange dance and inflict their singing on everyone. Perhaps their art is something only their parents can bear, and because they practice such art all day long, people honestly get a little tired around kids.

01:51 Kids will sometimes perform monodramas — playing house is indeed a monodrama or a play. And some kids, when they get a bit older, start to lie. Usually parents remember the very first time their kid lies. They’re shocked. “Now you’re showing your true colors,” Mom says. She thinks, “Why does he take after his dad?” She questions him, “What kind of a person are you going to be?”


02:16 But you shouldn’t worry. The moment kids start to lie is the moment storytelling begins. They are talking about things they didn’t see. It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful moment. Parents should celebrate. “Hurray! My boy finally started to lie!” All right! It calls for celebration. For example, a kid says, “Mom, guess what? I met an alien on my way home.” Then a typical mom responds, “Stop that nonsense.” Now, an ideal parent is someone who responds like this: “Really? An alien, huh? What did it look like? Did it say anything? Where did you meet it?” “Um, in front of the supermarket.”

02:52 When you have a conversation like this, the kid has to come up with the next thing to say to be responsible for what he started. Soon, a story develops. Of course this is an infantile story, but thinking up one sentence after the next is the same thing a professional writer like me does. In essence, they are not different. Roland Barthes once said of Flaubert’s novels, “Flaubert did not write a novel. He merely connected one sentence after another. The eros between sentences, that is the essence of Flaubert’s novel.” That’s right — a novel, basically, is writing one sentence, then, without violating the scope of the first one, writing the next sentence. And you continue to make connections.


03:40 Take a look at this sentence: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” Yes, it’s the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Writing such an unjustifiable sentence and continuing in order to justify it, Kafka’s work became the masterpiece of contemporary literature. Kafka did not show his work to his father. He was not on good terms with his father. On his own, he wrote these sentences. Had he shown his father, “My boy has finally lost it,” he would’ve thought.

04:10 And that’s right. Art is about going a little nuts and justifying the next sentence, which is not much different from what a kid does. A kid who has just started to lie is taking the first step as a storyteller. Kids do art. They don’t get tired and they have fun doing it. I was in Jeju Island a few days ago. When kids are on the beach, most of them love playing in the water. But some of them spend a lot of time in the sand, making mountains and seas — well, not seas, but different things — people and dogs, etc. But parents tell them, “It will all be washed away by the waves.” In other words, it’s useless. There’s no need. But kids don’t mind. They have fun in the moment and they keep playing in the sand. Kids don’t do it because someone told them to. They aren’t told by their boss or anyone, they just do it.


05:00 When you were little, I bet you spent time enjoying the pleasure of primitive art. When I ask my students to write about their happiest moment, many write about an early artistic experience they had as a kid. Learning to play piano for the first time and playing four hands with a friend, or performing a ridiculous skit with friends looking like idiots — things like that. Or the moment you developed the first film you shot with an old camera. They talk about these kinds of experiences. You must have had such a moment. In that moment, art makes you happy because it’s not work. Work doesn’t make you happy, does it? Mostly it’s tough.

05:37 The French writer Michel Tournier has a famous saying. It’s a bit mischievous, actually. “Work is against human nature. The proof is that it makes us tired.” Right? Why would work tire us if it’s in our nature? Playing doesn’t tire us. We can play all night long. If we work overnight, we should be paid for overtime. Why? Because it’s tiring and we feel fatigue. But kids, usually they do art for fun. It’s playing. They don’t draw to sell the work to a client or play the piano to earn money for the family. Of course, there were kids who had to. You know this gentleman, right? He had to tour around Europe to support his family — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — but that was centuries ago, so we can make him an exception. Unfortunately, at some point our art — such a joyful pastime — ends. Kids have to go to lessons, to school, do homework and of course they take piano or ballet lessons, but they aren’t fun anymore. You’re told to do it and there’s competition. How can it be fun? If you’re in elementary school and you still draw on the wall, you’ll surely get in trouble with your mom. Besides, if you continue to act like an artist as you get older, you’ll increasingly feel pressure — people will question your actions and ask you to act properly.

andy warhol

07:02 Here’s my story: I was an eighth grader and I entered a drawing contest at school in Gyeongbokgung. I was trying my best, and my teacher came around and asked me, “What are you doing?” “I’m drawing diligently,” I said. “Why are you using only black?” Indeed, I was eagerly coloring the sketchbook in black. And I explained, “It’s a dark night and a crow is perching on a branch.” Then my teacher said, “Really? Well, Young-ha, you may not be good at drawing but you have a talent for storytelling.” Or so I wished. “Now you’ll get it, you rascal!” was the response. (Laughter) “You’ll get it!” he said. You were supposed to draw the palace, the Gyeonghoeru, etc., but I was coloring everything in black, so he dragged me out of the group. There were a lot of girls there as well, so I was utterly mortified.

07:51 None of my explanations or excuses were heard, and I really got it big time. If he was an ideal teacher, he would have responded like I said before, “Young-ha may not have a talent for drawing, but he has a gift for making up stories,” and he would have encouraged me. But such a teacher is seldom found. Later, I grew up and went to Europe’s galleries — I was a university student — and I thought this was really unfair. Look what I found. (Laughter)


08:23 Works like this were hung in Basel while I was punished and stood in front of the palace with my drawing in my mouth. Look at this. Doesn’t it look just like wallpaper? Contemporary art, I later discovered, isn’t explained by a lame story like mine. No crows are brought up. Most of the works have no title, Untitled. Anyways, contemporary art in the 20th century is about doing something weird and filling the void with explanation and interpretation — essentially the same as I did. Of course, my work was very amateur, but let’s turn to more famous examples.

09:01 This is Picasso’s. He stuck handlebars into a bike seat and called it “Bull’s Head.” Sounds convincing, right? Next, a urinal was placed on its side and called “Fountain”. That was Duchamp. So filling the gap between explanation and a weird act with stories — that’s indeed what contemporary art is all about. Picasso even made the statement, “I draw not what I see but what I think.” Yes, it means I didn’t have to draw Gyeonghoeru. I wish I knew what Picasso said back then. I could have argued better with my teacher. Unfortunately, the little artists within us are choked to death before we get to fight against the oppressors of art. They get locked in. That’s our tragedy.


09:48 So what happens when little artists get locked in, banished or even killed? Our artistic desire doesn’t go away. We want to express, to reveal ourselves, but with the artist dead, the artistic desire reveals itself in dark form. In karaoke bars, there are always people who sing “She’s Gone” or “Hotel California,” miming the guitar riffs. Usually they sound awful. Awful indeed. Some people turn into rockers like this. Or some people dance in clubs. People who would have enjoyed telling stories end up trolling on the Internet all night long. That’s how a writing talent reveals itself on the dark side.

10:27 Sometimes we see dads get more excited than their kids playing with Legos or putting together plastic robots. They go, “Don’t touch it. Daddy will do it for you.” The kid has already lost interest and is doing something else, but the dad alone builds castles. This shows the artistic impulses inside us are suppressed, not gone. But they can often reveal themselves negatively, in the form of jealousy. You know the song “I would love to be on TV”? Why would we love it? TV is full of people who do what we wished to do, but never got to. They dance, they act — and the more they do, they are praised. So we start to envy them. We become dictators with a remote and start to criticize the people on TV. “He just can’t act.” “You call that singing? She can’t hit the notes.” We easily say these sorts of things. We get jealous, not because we’re evil, but because we have little artists pent up inside us. That’s what I think.


11:34 What should we do then? Yes, that’s right. Right now, we need to start our own art. Right this minute, we can turn off TV, log off the Internet, get up and start to do something. Where I teach students in drama school, there’s a course called Dramatics. In this course, all students must put on a play. However, acting majors are not supposed to act. They can write the play, for example, and the writers may work on stage art. Likewise, stage art majors may become actors, and in this way you put on a show. Students at first wonder whether they can actually do it, but later they have so much fun. I rarely see anyone who is miserable doing a play. In school, the military or even in a mental institution, once you make people do it, they enjoy it. I saw this happen in the army — many people had fun doing plays.

12:23 I have another experience: In my writing class, I give students a special assignment. I have students like you in the class — many who don’t major in writing. Some major in art or music and think they can’t write. So I give them blank sheets of paper and a theme. It can be a simple theme: Write about the most unfortunate experience in your childhood. There’s one condition: You must write like crazy. Like crazy! I walk around and encourage them, “Come on, come on!” They have to write like crazy for an hour or two. They only get to think for the first five minutes.


13:01 The reason I make them write like crazy is because when you write slowly and lots of thoughts cross your mind, the artistic devil creeps in. This devil will tell you hundreds of reasons why you can’t write: “People will laugh at you. This is not good writing! What kind of sentence is this? Look at your handwriting!” It will say a lot of things. You have to run fast so the devil can’t catch up. The really good writing I’ve seen in my class was not from the assignments with a long deadline, but from the 40- to 60-minute crazy writing students did in front of me with a pencil. The students go into a kind of trance. After 30 or 40 minutes, they write without knowing what they’re writing. And in this moment, the nagging devil disappears.

13:48 So I can say this: It’s not the hundreds of reasons why one can’t be an artist, but rather, the one reason one must be that makes us artists. Why we cannot be something is not important. Most artists became artists because of the one reason. When we put the devil in our heart to sleep and start our own art, enemies appear on the outside. Mostly, they have the faces of our parents. (Laughter) Sometimes they look like our spouses, but they are not your parents or spouses. They are devils. Devils. They came to Earth briefly transformed to stop you from being artistic, from becoming artists. And they have a magic question. When we say, “I think I’ll try acting. There’s a drama school in the community center,” or “I’d like to learn Italian songs,” they ask, “Oh, yeah? A play? What for?” The magic question is, “What for?” But art is not for anything. Art is the ultimate goal. It saves our souls and makes us live happily. It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs. So in response to such a pragmatic question, we need to be bold. “Well, just for the fun of it. Sorry for having fun without you,” is what you should say. “I’ll just go ahead and do it anyway.” The ideal future I imagine is where we all have multiple identities, at least one of which is an artist.

king lear

15:21 Once I was in New York and got in a cab. I took the backseat, and in front of me I saw something related to a play. So I asked the driver, “What is this?” He said it was his profile. “Then what are you?” I asked. “An actor,” he said. He was a cabby and an actor. I asked, “What roles do you usually play?” He proudly said he played King Lear. King Lear. “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” — a great line from King Lear. That’s the world I dream of. Someone is a golfer by day and writer by night. Or a cabby and an actor, a banker and a painter, secretly or publicly performing their own arts.

15:58 In 1990, Martha Graham, the legend of modern dance, came to Korea. The great artist, then in her 90s, arrived at Gimpo Airport and a reporter asked her a typical question: “What do you have to do to become a great dancer? Any advice for aspiring Korean dancers?” Now, she was the master. This photo was taken in 1948 and she was already a celebrated artist. In 1990, she was asked this question. And here’s what she answered: “Just do it.” Wow. I was touched. Only those three words and she left the airport. That’s it. So what should we do now? Let’s be artists, right now. Right away. How? Just do it!

16:44 Thank you.



You can view the original TED talk here.

Why the French Love Comics

Since childhood I have been charmed by French and Japanese animation or anime. TV shows of my childhood included Astro Boy, Voltron, Ulysses 31, The Mysterious Cities of Gold and more. They held a charm that regular US animation lacked!

cities of goldvoltron


As a young adult I discovered the works of Tin Tin and Asterix, both French/ Belgian creations. What was curious to me  was that these works were largely directed at an adult, rather than child audience.

Perhaps this fact helped articulate the charm these works held? These artists took their work seriously. It wasn’t just for kids.

tin tin

A bit of research reveals the fact that the French have elevated comic strips or bandes dessinees, to the level of a national art form labelled The Ninth Art. Comic strips for adults thus portray historical and political events and political satire, philosophy and more.

french anime


Certain characters such as Asterix and Obelix have become a part of national consciousness, embodying the national spirit. Peter Davy [2011] in his article published in the June edition of France Today writes:

The indomitable little Gaul fighting off invaders quickly resonated with the [1950s]  French public…..


Even today, the character [Asterix] continues to represent the determinedly independent French spirit. It does illustrate the fact that comic strips, or bandes dessinées, play a real role in what historians term “the construction of Frenchness”. To put it simply, Astérix is part of the French national identity.

He continues:

 The country boasts the largest comic market in the world after the US and Japan, worth almost €330 million in 2009, and it sells some 40 million comic albums a year. The annual Festival International de la Bande Dessinée in Angoulême is the biggest in the world, say the organisers; San Diego’s Comic-Con doesn’t count, they argue, because it is an exhibition as opposed to an artistic festival.


The gallery dedicated to French comic strips, La Musee de la Bande Dessinee has been elevated to the category of Museum of France, equating it with the Louvre.  In fact,  the Louvre itself hosted an exhibition of comic strips in 2009.

french art

The secret seems to be to take an artform utterly seriously and allow it capture a national spirit. May there be many more de la bandes dessinees toujour !!

How not to be ‘bourgeoise’

In Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” [1848], the class struggle between proletariat, bourgeois and aristocrats is examined.

Marx, an economic determinist, explored the nature of society and politics, almost entirely in terms of class struggle. He observed that as the bourgeois [middle class] emerged, they gained economic and political power. However, instead of wielding this power, they found it more expedient to tolerate a despotic aristocracy which did not work against their interests. Instead of siding with the growing proletariat [working class] to overthrow the aristocracy, the bourgeois preferred to compromise with the dwindling aristocracy.

bourgeois 2


In doing this the bourgeois refuse to acknowledge the rising power of the proletariat. By establishing themselves as enemies of, rather than allies of the proletariat, the bourgeois frustrate true social progress. France post-revolution was a case in point. Marx observed that the bourgeoisie realised that they had been better off under the monarchy (1830-1848) than during the brief period when they wielded power themselves (1848-1851) since they now had to handle the subjugated classes without mediation or protection by the crown.

The term “bourgeois” has largely been dropped from vernacular now as Marx’s theories have fallen from grace in western nations. However, early 20th century modernist literature is peppered with the sentiment:

Don’t be so Bourgeois!

In literary use, the phrase means, “don’t be so crass or vulgar!” Or “don’t have aspirations to aristocracy,” or “don’t be a brown noser.” In cultural terms, the expression is wielded against artists or citizens who do not embrace their full humanity, who look up to power holders to grant them financial endowments or validate their existence. In economic terms, it caricatures the wealthy middle class always keeping up appearances – trying to seem richer than they are with materialist tastes and faux totems of grandeur.

bourgeoise 4

Marx has a point – that the middle class are surprisingly powerful as owners of means of production. They [we] hold the power to right injustices and fight for equality of resources and opportunities to be distributed to the working class.

If the middle class defer this responsibility by always looking the aristocracy, and indeed by seeking to mimic the aristocracy by guarding up privilege for the self in order to “look like blue-blood” or to seek alliances and privileges and to shore up position, the proletariat are only more seen as enemies and a problem.

bourgoise 4

The solution hasn’t been found in economic or social reforms as our current capitalist climate would attest. However, I believe the answer lies in reading more narrative, listening to more songs, looking at more paintings and art, in playing more sport.

Art and games are the great levelers – kings and queens look to art forms and celebrate the humanity made noble. In them the human voice is made strong, the nobility inherent in living is celebrated, no matter class, creed or colour.

banksybanksy 2

If the bourgeois loose their inclination to “look up” for validation, but instead “look down” to the humans around them, their inherent value and see the injustices they face as their own, the world would be a more equitable place.


Taryn Simon – Life in Details

This is the second guest post by fellow blogger Damien Shalley. AKA the cryptic-contributor, he introduces himself again in his own words:

Damien Shalley thinks Jolt Cola would be a better product if it contained more caffeine.  He failed statistics at Griffith University (twice) and doesn’t regret it.  If he went into hiding he would go to Paraguay, because everybody who went looking for him would probably go to Uruguay.  He believes that Ozzy Osbourne is a nice fellow, just misunderstood.  His favourite hobbies include surviving the weekend and shirking his responsibilities.

If you are a reader and follower and have your own piece to submit to Bear Skin, don’t hesitate to contact me directly


Taryn Simon – Life in Detail(s)

by Damien Shalley


Human beings seem naturally inclined to organise things; our families, our work, our surroundings, our governance.  We develop systems and processes that help us to live safely and productively.  In doing so, we produce “artefacts” – records, objects and structures (both physical and organisational) – that provide evidence of our daily existence.  Taryn Simon documents and catalogues these human artefacts (and human lives) in a very compelling way.  She demonstrates, through her technically superior and artistically beautiful photography, something of the “soul”.  She takes delight in detail, and in doing so, shines a light on the complex world in which we live.



Simon currently describes herself as a “cataloguing documentarian”, a description that succinctly captures the essence of her work.  She is also, however, an art photographer of the highest calibre and has been collected by the most famous galleries in the world, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Tate Modern and the Pompidou in France.  She is represented by the legendary US gallery owner Larry Gagosian (Damien Hirst’s New York agent), and in the U.K. she is championed by the enormously influential connoisseur Michael Wilson.  Wilson co-produces the James Bond film franchise and is regarded as Britain’s most significant private collector of photography.

Favoured by celebrities and feted by the media, Simon retains an almost tranquil humility.  She is modest and remains motivated by intellectual curiosity.  She is a wife and mother (she is married to film director Jake Paltrow) and regards her family as her bedrock.  Her most recent exhibit, “Birds of the West Indies” (2014) was critically acclaimed by the US art establishment and might well have been the closest thing to a blockbuster art opening since the days of Andy Warhol.(Steven Spielberg attended, as did current A-list celebrities like Jared Leto and Elle Fanning.  This gives some indication of her fame).

Her work is now more “spare”.  It is carefully arranged and photographed in a naturalistic way to highlight not just obvious features but also the inherent integrity of the subject, whether human, animal or object.

“Certainly the progression of my work has very much been a shedding of style and embellishment.”

[O’Hagan, S. (2011)  Taryn Simon: the woman in the picture, The Guardian].

Instead, she creates “visual inventories” – of people, of the things people create, of life itself.


Simon was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001 and in 2003 produced her first published work, “The Innocents” –photographs of people previously imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.  Now free, Simon’s subjects are photographed in places that reinforce that freedom; in their homes, in open spaces, in their favourite places. This work has been described by some commentators as redemption by photography.  Many of these wrongly convicted people were impacted by the misuse of photography by law enforcement officials using it to manufacture false or misleading evidence.  In this work, Taryn Simon turns the tables.




In 2007, Simon unveiled one of her best-known collections, “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.”

This insightful work combined an intriguing concept with the beginnings of a new and unfamiliar approach from Simon.  Eschewing the “art house” style she had previously favoured, Simon opted for unvarnished objectivity.  This collection represents the genesis of her “cataloguing style”, albeit undeveloped.  (She would soon take this concept much further).  The pictures are not stylised, they simply “are”.  Simon depicts with a certain detachment some of the hidden or lesser seen realities of our world.  She unearths the unseen, unknown spaces and unfamiliar aspects of our culture.  She becomes a “social archaeologist” uncovering and shedding light on our artefacts, reflecting our existence back at us through the lens of her camera.  (In doing so, she creates another “artefact”: an archival photographic record for future examination).


What does it look like when a person is cryogenically frozen? (See above)  What does nuclear waste in storage look like? (See below).  Simon is one of the only private citizens to have ever photographed the inner workings of an American nuclear waste facility.   Her amazing photograph of glowing plutonium rods in storage (forming a shape reminiscent of the outline of the USA on a map) is one of her most famous works.



She also invites us (safely) into a bio-containment laboratory with test animals in cages; she shows us a human cage in the form of an exercise cell for death row inmates; she shows us a bottle of live HIV virus; she allows us to view a predatory Great White shark in an expansive and ominously dark ocean; she gives us the opportunity to witness the forging of a Smith and Wesson handgun frame.  (Incidentally, despite a formal request, Disneyland would not allow Simon official photographic access to any part of their operation, behind-the-scenes or otherwise.  Some truths might be too much to bear).  Australian Fairfax journalist Dan Rule in The Age (Melbourne)  saw these photographs as

high-definition visuals… photographs [that] defy their gritty, documentarian sensibilities”

[Rule, D. “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar”,The Age, October 23, 2010].

This is Taryn Simon presenting raw, hyper-reality.  Anyone looking for the luminous photography of a Simon contemporary like Sally Mann should look elsewhere.  Regardless, this is a fascinating collection which provokes thoughtful examination of the lives we lead in western society.


death row

live HIV


 The “American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” exhibition was a major success and the genesis of Taryn Simon as “art photography superstar”.  Commentator Marcus Bunyan opined on November 9, 2010 in his Art Blart web journal [] that Simon’s “Index of the Hidden” photographs “excavate meaning by bringing the shadow into the light in order to index our existence, to make the hidden less frightening and more controllable.”  This seems to be a universal human desire: to understand our world and, to whatever degree possible, control it.  With “American Index”, Simon seems to show that she understands, and is responding to this desire through her photography.  However her subtext seems clear; one can catalogue life to the greatest extent possible but still never truly control it.


2010 saw the release of Simon’s “Contraband”, a collection of 1075 photographs of items seized at JFK airport, New York.  From drugs to fake cosmetics, prohibited foods and counterfeit BWM badges; everything that human beings consume, trade or desire is here. The mundane and obscure take their place amongst the uncommon and valuable.  (Just as in human society?)  The pictures are spare and speak for themselves.

 reality of truth






This work was presented at the lauded Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills and was described as a “visual inventory” or photographic catalogue. It was critically well-received in general, but there were “objectors”.  Some saw dull, lifeless photography that needed the accompanying (lengthy) text included with each piece to have any meaning.  Some questioned whether her photography was really art at all, or whether it was simply “technique”.  “Art” is commonly described as pure human expression and this is widely understood within the arts community.  One could easily dismiss these photographs – or photography in general – as a technical discipline quite removed from “art”.  One could also justifiably argue that Simon demonstrates artfulness by designing projects which examine specific themes (i.e. things hidden from view) and combines them with almost technically perfect photographic execution.  Art, like beauty, may well be in the eye of the beholder.

In 2011, Simon presented “A Living Man Declared Dead.”  This exhibition saw her examine bloodlines (she traced 18 family bloodlines across the globe), including those of people whose families had experienced disputes over inheritances.  Arguments over money, homes and land – “financial territory”, essentially – had caused one of the subjects she was observing, to be officially declared “dead” by a relative so that the relative in question could gain a greater share of their blood-relation’s deceased estate.  This is human behaviour that, although we would like to think does not occur, is actually all too common.  Those who did not wish to participate in the project for whatever reason (the “missing” and the “dead” figuratively and literally) are represented in the photographs as blank spaces.

For this exhibition, Simon presented what have been previously been described as “neutral portraits”.  These are photographs of individuals – human beings from across the globe – arranged in scientific grids against white backgrounds.  It almost represents a taxonomic key of human beings related by blood – a genetic “catalogue”.  Her emergence as a “cataloguing documentarian “was now fully realised.  Or was it?  More evolution was to follow.







Simon is most definitely a documentarian.  But she creates much more than visual inventories.  It has previously been argued (quite reasonably) that she is also a reporter, as well as a classic portrait artist.  Her work is most definitely rooted in the real world and much of it very well could be defined as portraiture.  More abstract commentators – cerebral types with a bent towards the ethereal – have described her as the living embodiment of conceptualism.  Her concepts, realised through a camera lens, deliver a powerful emotional effect on viewers.  Decide for yourself.

Taryn Simon cemented her place in the “photography as fine art” sphere when she was one of three guest editors selected to produce “Wallpaper” magazine’s October 2012 edition.  She chose as her theme “picture collections” and produced pieces including collations of celebrity photo magazine covers and compilations of photographs of highways and expressways.  Interestingly, the expressway photographs include stills indicating the impacts of freeways and motor transport on human and animal life.  This is Taryn Simon, after all – meaning seems to permeate all of her work, even for an “art culture bible” like “Wallpaper”.

wallpaper tsimon


 taryn simon_5


A significant dilemma for anyone identifying as an “artist” – particularly those delivering what might be regarded as “high-end” conceptual art photography – is whether or not casual viewers will be interested in looking at the work in question.  Will they want to patronise your exhibitions and will they understand your meaning, themes and subtext?  A common criticism of Taryn Simon’s work is that true depth of the themes she explores is sometimes lost on viewers.  The photographs she displays on gallery walls are generally accompanied by text, opening her up to criticism that the pictures do not speak for themselves.


Simon addressed this issue with her most recent exhibition, “Birds of the West Indies” (2014), a collection of photographs of props from James Bond films.  This exhibition introduced populist subject matter and successfully straddled the worlds of both documentary photography and fine art.  The props, appearing here out of context, take on a new life.  They offer insight into the human condition, they become objects of desire, theu become objects for examination in detail –not simply something which facilitates the action in a scene or enhances a plotline.  This exhibition met with wide acclaim from both the art establishment and the popular press.  For this exhibition, Simon viewed each James Bond film and extracted frames including images of birds. (All Bond films contain shots of birds as an acknowledgement to creator Ian Fleming; Fleming took the name of his famous secret agent from the ornithological book “Birds of the West Indies”- written by one real-life James Bond).


Switzerland (detail), Birds of the West Indies, 2014









 Taryn Simon, New York City, Path train subway, Tim Knox


GAGOSIAN GALLERY Opening of Taryn Simon: Birds of the West Indies


Life is important, a true gift.  We are told that a life of achievement is worthwhile, and that is generally true.  There is, however, enormous insight and power to be found in the quiet spaces in between our achievements.  Something essential to understanding our basic and universal humanity is contained within these spaces.  To know this is to truly relate to our human existence.  Simon truly “gets it” and delivers this through her images.

Taryn Simon elevates our existence.  She documents and and catalogues our world in an attempt to provide insight.  She truly is an artist – cataloguing in an attempt to create understanding, not in an attempt to control. There is something very hopeful in that.

Taryn Simon: Selected Major Exhibitions

  • Kunst-werke, Berlin, Germany, “Taryn Simon: The Innocents (and other works)” (2003)
  • Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, USA, “Taryn Simon: The Innocents” (2004)[29]
  • High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, “Taryn Simon: Nonfiction” (2006).
  • Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany, The Documentary Factor, (2006).
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2007).[31]
  • Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany, “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2007).
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, “Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography”, (2008).
  • Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France, (2009).
  • Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2010).
  • Lever House, New York, NY, “Contraband”, (2010).[32]
  • Helsinki Art Museum, “Taryn Simon: Photographs and Texts”, 2012.[36]
  • Moscow House of Photography, Moscow, Russia, “Taryn Simon”, 2011.[37]
  • Tate Modern, London, England, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2011.[38]
  • Taryn Simon, Venice Biennale, Danish Pavilion, Venice, Italy, 2011.
  • Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2011.[39]
  • Galerie Almine Rech, Paris, France, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2012.[41]
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2012.[42]
  •  Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles, “Birds of the West Indies”, 2014

Public Collections (Selected Major Works)


How Power Makes You Selfish

Power tends to corrupt and ultimate power corrupts ultimately.

So goes the famous quote of British historian, politican and writer Lord John Dalberg-Acton.

In this recent video, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner explains that the frontal cortex of the brain is the area in which we detect other people’s pain. He shows how damage to the frontal lobe, limits empathy which in turn incites impulsivity, anger and disconnectedness.

In short, one can acquire sociopathy.

power 3

The interesting twist is that giving people a little bit of power, creates the same affect on the brain as trauma. People doused with sudden power, lose touch, begin to act on whims and imulses and to fail to understand what others care and think.

It gives clarity to the story that a high proportion of CEOs show sociopathic tendencies.


So what do we do?

The story cuts close to home when similar group studies show that the power differential created by socio-economic status will will create negative behaviour – dominance, entitlement and disregard.

What is curious, is that similar groups may champion a story or film about a disabled, foreign or poor protagonist.

power 2

Why are we so schizophrenic?

Why do we marginalise those different to us at a party or in the workplace, but love and adore stories about mentally ill patients, artists suffering alzheimers, poor migrants and so forth?


Is it simply a matter of stories and art, building neural pathways for us that need acting on?

A recent post, Mean Tweets, observed how bullying phrases can be turned into comedy gold by the simple act of reframing. The act of retelling creates space for objectivity and in turn humour, which builds empathy. This is art.

So art is redemptive and healing ? Art therapist believe so. I concur.

power 5

If power negatively affects the frontal cortex in the same way that brain trauma does, stories and art can rebuild neural pathways and strengthen empathy.

I belive we all need more stories.

Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan

It’s an exciting day for Bear Skin Blog.  It’s the day of the first ever guest blog. Damien has been a reader and follower of Bear Skin for some months, offering feedback and suggestions which have led to this guest post. He introduces himself in his own words:

Damien Shalley is a highly caffeinated and totally overworked researcher for the Australian government. His artistic tastes lean toward the esoteric. His record collection includes Dean Martin and The Cramps. He is thinking about buying a sphynx cat and calling it “Geoff.” He lives near a store that sells three hundred varieties of cheese.

If you are a reader and follower and have your own article to share please submit to

Questions, comments and feedback always welcome.


 Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan – by Damien Shalley


Death: the ultimate negative.  No matter how magnificent one’s life was, death destroys it.  Prince or pauper, all men are equal when their memory fades.  Is it possible to salvage something from death?  Christian tradition tells us that faith in God will result in salvation.  But a sceptical, rational world isn’t always willing to accept this point of view.  That’s why the works of English taxidermist and art world sensation Polly Morgan are so intriguing.  Morgan creates unique pieces which seem to suggest that rebirth and resurrection are a true possibility, not simply the wish-fulfilment fantasy of deluded souls.

Many people possess preconceived notions about taxidermy, due in large part to traditional manifestations of the process as represented by three primary examples.

  1. The preservation of beloved pets;
  2. Hunting trophies;
  3. Anthropomorphic dioramas of animals engaged in human activities.

Morgan subverted the conventions of all three and delivered genuine artfulness in her pieces, due in part to her professional skill and in equal part to her thematic constructs or “point of view”.  Her vivid and groundbreaking work – apparently inspired initially by her inability to find a suitable piece of taxidermy to decorate her flat with – caused a genuine sensation in the art world, the effects of which continue to reverberate.

The rebirth of doomed creatures into something beautiful and elegant has many parallels with spiritual concepts of resurrection.


One such piece is “Morning”, a robin impacting a pane of glass but retaining its physical form and essence.   It has been noted by more than one observer that the scenario depicted by Morgan is not at all what happens when a robin crashes into a window pane.  That is exactly the point.  Morgan has presented something that suggests “breaking through” in a magnificent, glorious, ethereal way.  And in a nutshell, that may well be the precise point of Morgan’s work.

sunny side up

Morgan’s ability to bestow dignity upon creatures that have died in ugly circumstances is a hallmark of her work.  Evocative and uncanny, her artistry seemingly possesses the power to instil new life into empty shells.  Cynics argue that this is purely superficial, but Morgan is genuinely capable of recreating the essence of a creature in her work – and instilling a sense of wonder into audiences.

Fox and Chandelier

There is something very positive in her imagery.  Morgan’s “Fox and Chandelier “ bestows a quiet dignity and peaceful reverence upon a creature whose existence was unceremoniously obliterated.  A viewer of her work was quoted by as saying that the beauty of her “corpses” somehow transcends death to demonstrate the beauty of the animal…in life”.  This seems to be her motivation, so indeed she may be regarded as a success regardless of her “art world pop star” status and elevated public profile.

carrion callchicks emerging from coffon

Morgan famously created “Carrion Call” featuring chicks breaking free from a coffin.  Something universally associated with death becomes a vestibule or birthing place new life.  Morgan said of this piece “Coffins are fairly egg-shaped. It’s a symbol of life triumphing, emerging from death.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard].  Her reference to this work as an example of life emerging from death might be soundly criticised as counter intuitive.  Is she not in fact depicting death springing from death?  No, she is not.  She has spent her entire professional life drawing upon death to create something hopeful – transcendental – and her ultimate motivation is positive.  Life will ultimately triumph over all obstacles – even death.

Anthropologists often describe Western culture as death denying.  It is indeed quite uncommon for most people to see a deceased person in our society, or to engage with the often unpleasant realities of death.  Even departed loved ones are regularly farewelled without family members viewing the deceased.  We are interested in – some might say obsessed by – success, achievement, material wealth and the achievement of power.  But to some degree at least, these pursuits are ultimately hollow.  On an individual or personal level, they are all rendered void by our ultimate demise.  We “pass away” – die – and all is lost.


Morgan puts all this before us too.  She does not soft sell death, nor does she promote a sentimental approach to the stark reality of extinction.  Death is often ugly, and many of her works present this ugliness in a very confronting manner.


Prior to her studies at Queen Mary College, London, Morgan struggled with the death of one her best friends from an accidental heroin overdose.  She viewed the body – the lifeless shell of a previously vibrant young woman with whom she had recently holidayed, laughed and loved.   Does this represent the genesis of her fascination – some might say determination – to rescue something positive from death?  Not according to Morgan herself, who is a resolutely practical woman unimpressed with psychological interpretations of her work and disinterested in self-analysis.   “It was upsetting mainly because it didn’t look like her: that’s not her. It’s surreal. Very hard for a human being to get their head around.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard].  It is very possible that this sad event did subconsciously inspire her artistic endeavours at least in some way, and it is certainly a pointer to where much of her work would lead.  Morgan goes to great lengths to create beautifully realistic taxidermy which captures the quintessential beauty her subjects possessed in life.


Morgan has also previously spoken of her country upbringing in the Cotswolds, where she was regularly exposed to the realities of the natural world through her participation in agricultural life.  She observed the cycle of existence first-hand – both the confronting and the beautiful –.and developed a sensibility capable of recognising both the tragic and the redemptive.


Morgan herself represents “life” in all its fullness.  She is young, attractive, intelligent, articulate, accomplished.  The juxtaposition of her beauty with the morbid subject matter of her work may well be part of her appeal.  She fits the “acceptable” pop culture celebrity model.  She is very much a member of the current coterie of English art stars, alongside Damien Hirst, Peter Blake and Banksy. (Banksy invited her to exhibit in his Santa’s Ghetto gallery in 2006).  When the world’s most famous purveyor of street art thinks your work is worthy, you really have “arrived”.  She is unpretentious but self-assured, and her work possesses a strong ethical foundation.  She utilises only pre-deceased creatures – nothing is killed for her work.  She frequently uses donations from vets and pet owners as source material for her artworks.  Morgan has been quoted as saying that “…killing something and trying to make it look alive again is not a very natural thing to do.”  [Collinge, M. (2010)  Polly Morgan’s Wings of Desire, The Guardian].  Her underlying commitment to the ethical use of her animal subjects seems to inform her inherent confidence in her work, and also represents an effective repudiation of critics who might argue that her art is morbid or ghoulish.

   Morgan_BWMorgan P

In recent times, Morgan’s work has become more expansive.  Her pieces are larger and some of the intimacy of her earlier work is – perhaps – missing.  This could reflect an artist’s response to the challenges of career evolution.  One cannot stand still in the art world, nor be a “one-trick pony”.  A rise in the popularity of taxidermy after Morgan’s well-publicised career success may have something to with this as well – there is nothing more pressing than the need for differentiation when one is facing persistent competition.  Regardless, Morgan does not appear to have lost sight of the essence of art, and even if she is no longer subverting conventions to quite the same degree, her work retains the power to inspire.

Flying Machine 2flying machinemorgan


It is often said that where there’s life, there’s hope.  Polly Morgan’s amazingly evocative work suggests that – perhaps – where there’s hope, there’s life.

Polly Morgan Exhibitions

Morgan-Coffin ChicksPolly-Morgan-Wings-of-Desire_Maniamorgan-lives.

Mean Tweets

Celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves has been turned into a popular comedy spot on US talk show, Jimmy Kimmel Live.


The appeal of the slot comes from the ubiquity of social media. Famous faces reading the mean things written about them is cathartic. It’s a clever anti-bullying campaign.

The “mean tweets” feature also highlights how words are powerful. The author of the adage,

Sticks and stones may break my bones,

But words will never hurt me.

does not appreciate the power of words to bless or curse. Ancient cultures acknowledge the power of words, rendering sacred words taboo, eliding names into titles and coining euphemisms. Verbal pronouncements do carry weight and matter, like sticks and stones.

What reading mean tweets does is it takes the energy of a curse, and renders turns it into comedy. It essentially sucks the venom from words and spins them into gold.

This is the power of art, of story, song and poetry. The artist, the story teller, the song writer and poet, can take the venom of hatred, the agony of anger and loss and turn it into a thing that brings relief, joy and blessing.

May we have more art please?

To love and be loved

The reason for our being is “to love and be loved”. This is a universal human experience; no matter creed or colour, humans love and are loved.

Stories, songs, poetry and art help us to understand each other and so to love. They help us to empathise and so to love. They help us to forgive and so to love. They help us hope and so cling onto love.

So why do we need God? Isn’t love enough?

Unless God shows up in the greatest of stories, to show us the greatest of loves, which teaches us the greatest of understanding, empathy, forgiveness and hope.

greatest story ever told