Contraband comprises 1,075 photographs taken at both 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, and functioning as liminal spaces between the U.S. and other nations. For one full working week, 24 hours per day, Simon remained on site, photographing items detained or seized from passengers and express mail entering the U.S. from abroad.
The resulting project catalogues the expansive inventory of objects, presenting the collected items alphabetically and underscoring random patterns and connections among them. Using a forensic photographic procedure to document the seized items, and a presentation strategy drawing upon scientific and museological methodologies, Simon removes the confiscated items from all context, and instead positions them as symbols of illicit desire, illegal trade, and government control. Each item is labelled according to official classifications including ‘abandoned’, ‘illegal’, ‘unlicensed’, and ‘counterfeit’. Simon’s inventory includes pirated movies; counterfeit cashier’s checks; 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 drug); and a dead bird intended for use in witchcraft rituals. This glut of repetitive goods yields a view of the social whole, characterised by its reflex to produce, accumulate, consume, and transport without limits. Simon’s photographs thus 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.
With debates around border security and trade agreements occupying a central role in current political discourse, Contraband 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. Tapping into the diffuse anxiety of the present moment, wherein mundane objects like bananas, bulbs and nesting dolls can be seen as threats, the seized objects in Contraband function as surrogate portraits of their owners, depersonalised and processed by ‘the machine’.
Contraband is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue – now in its second edition – with a text by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director, Serpentine Galleries, London.