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Installation view, Chapter XVII, Black Square. Garage Museum of Contemporary Art
Words by Lily McFly

Case Study:



This is a cubic void in the wall of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. And it’s not a work of art. It’s a space for the work of art, which will arrive in…999 years.  Black Square XVII, Taryn Simon’s latest piece of art made from nuclear material, is currently being stored at Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM). A glassy black cube of vitrified nuclear waste was fabricated in May 21, 2015, in collaboration with ROSATOM during the centenary year of the debut exhibition of Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square. It will remain there, encased in steel and concrete, until May 21, 3015, when its radioactive properties have diminished safe for human exposure and exhibition. Cast within the black square is a two-ply cylindrical steel capsule holding a letter to the future that Simon wrote. Her Black Square follows, in 3D, the dimensions of Malevich’s Black Square (a 80 x 80 x 80 cm cube). It is an active homage to Malevich’s 1915 Suprematist masterpiece, expressing the same idea of “the great nothing designed out of quite something.” This thousand-year project is a part of her ongoing Black Square series in which the artist works within the confines of the measurements of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Black Square to look at the psychological abstractions resulting from man’s inventions. As Simon says, “the simple composition represented both an end and a beginning in art history: an attempt to create a new abstraction devoid of overt social or political meaning.”


Black Square by Kazimir Malevich,1915, State Russian Museum,

via Wikimedia Commons

“I wanted to make a work not for my generation, nor my children’s generation, but for a distant future to which I have no tangible relationship. The process of vitrification converts radioactive waste from a volatile liquid to a stable solid mass, which resembles polished black glass. It is both beautiful and fatal…”

Taryn Simon is known for her sequential and research-based art. Using photography, text, sculpture and performance, Simon’s artworks reflect both the desire to digs deep into large social themes and an impulse to express her artistic romanticism. But Simon’s latest Black Square XVII takes this creative process to the next level, as the object and installation may never fully materialise. Furthermore, as a foreign citizen, Simon hasn’t been allowed onto Russia’s state-controlled Rosatom nuclear agency, so for both safety and security reasons she has never physically touched or seen her own work of art. Instead, she has communicated with a team of Russian nuclear physicists. And while Black Square is hidden within the soil, it represents the ambivalent state of distance and closeness. It exists in the present moment, but none of us will ever see it. Still, though the concept of Simon’s Black Square XVII seems futuristic and very abstract, it reverberates one of the basic purposes of art – a search for immortality and a tangible connection to the future. As the whole history of humankind bears witness, we need eternity; but the eternity of art is, probably, the only way we can achieve it.

Taryn Simon (b. 1975) is an artist who lives and works in New York, USA. Recent exhibitions include: ‘Taryn Simon: Rear Views, A Star-forming Nebula, and the Office of Foreign Propaganda’, Jeu de Paume, Paris (2015); ‘A Polite Fiction’, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris (2014); ‘There Are Some Who Are in Darkness’, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany (2013); ‘A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII’, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012); ‘A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters’, Tate Modern, London and Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2011).