Uncrossing my arms: Lorna Simpson’s Five Day Forecast at Tate Liverpool
American artist Lorna Simpson (1960) is one of the first black female artists to achieve critical, institutional and art market success. But none of that counts much when you’re standing in front of a piece of art – the work has to speak for itself. For years I’ve preferred looking at paintings to conceptual art, mostly because I often found the latter an unrewarding viewing experience. But Lorna Simpson’s Five Day Forecast (1991), currently on view at Tate Liverpool as part of its ‘Constellations’ series, opened my mind to the beauty of image-and-text art.
Five Day Forecast is a sequence of black-and-white photographs hung side by side and separated by wooden struts, almost like a film strip. The subject is the same in all five: a young, dark-skinned woman wears a loose-fitting, white shift dress and faces the viewer. Except that ‘faces’ is the wrong word: we see only the subject’s torso. The intention in denying us any more photographic information than that, Simpson says, is “related to the idea that the one thing that people gravitate to in photography is the face and reading the expression and what that says about the person pictured, an emotional state, who they are, what they look like, deciphering and measuring. Who is being pictured, what is actually the subject?”
In this ‘anti-selfie’, traditional cues have been replaced by plaques engraved with a no-nonsense font: five are above the photos stating the days of the working week, while 10 plaques underneath contain words beginning with ‘mis’ — such as misdiagnose, mistranslate, misremember, misidentify. They categorise the many ways someone, specifically a ‘Miss’, can be misunderstood.
This piece is typical of Simpson’s early work, made at a time when the artist was doing a lot of temporary secretarial jobs. As Simpson says, “the experience of being in different work environments influenced the work”. While Five Day Forecast is not directly autobiographical, it’s easy to imagine how repeatedly watching work colleagues have the same initial response to you might become predictable. Simpson’s reply feels universal, expressed here in the work’s line of large photographs of female torsos with their arms crossed. It’s an ambiguous pose, simultaneously self-restraining, defensive and assertive. The artist has said that she is exploring “what could happen in one week”, and the openness of this posture means that those explorations are limitless. Simpson isn’t telling us what to think.
Critic and scholar Kellie Jones, writing in 2002, observed that Simpson ‘creates mysterious and quietly intriguing works that reflect the silence of a portion of society — African-American women — that is rarely if ever represented in art. She raises profound questions about how we represent, see and communicate with each other and ourselves.’
But it’s not only professional and interracial communication that are found wanting. These photos are stylistically similar to 19th century ethnographic photos, reminding us that photography is unable to give us a true representation of the human condition.
Simpson would know, having started her career as a documentary photographer. It was after studying art at the School of Visual Arts, New York and the University of California that she began combining text and images to explore preconceptions about identity and gender. It became her signature, and has led to her work being associated with American female conceptual photographers Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. However, Simpson’s themes, her documentary elements and narrative content distance her from the previous generation of conceptual art photography.
Not that Simpson has worked exclusively with photography. In the nearly 30 years since making Five Day Forecast, she has produced in very varied media including paintings, video, silkscreens and sculptures. Her work is spread across many of the most important contemporary art museums in the world, and aside from its economy of expression, it is the quiet hope implicit in it that has helped me uncross my arms to conceptual art.
Image: Lorna Simpson, Five Day Forecast, 1991. Tate. © Lorna Simpson, courtesy Salon 94, New York