Taryn Simon at Tate Modern

Filed in Reviews by on May 27, 2011

Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters

Tate Modern

25 May 2011 to 2 January 2012


 Since exhibiting The Innocents in 2003, Taryn Simon has established herself as one of the most innovative photographers to emerge in the last decade, but it is the ambition and scope of her projects that makes the strict labeling of them as photography seem reductive and misguided.  In her latest exhibition, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, Simon presents us with a study that took her across the world photographing various subjects from rabbits contained in an Australian animal testing laboratory to families involved in a blood feud that has gone on for generations in Brazil.  In each of the eighteen studies that comprise the exhibit, Simon cultivates a relationship between text and image that draws as much from a pervasive sense of absence and silence as it does from the clinical presentation of her research.  Simon uses this tension between absence (i.e. the unknowable) and presence (i.e. the available information) to shatter the clean surface order of personal and historical narratives, revealing the conflicting influences of chaos, determinism, chance and inheritance that shape the lives of every individual.

In The Innocents, Simon photographed people wrongly convicted of violent crimes in places linked to their illegitimate arrest and this interest in men and women caught in the throes of situations beyond their control and comprehension was enlarged upon in 2007’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar which sought to document America’s relationship to myth and secrecy by exploring spaces within its borders that are off limits to the public.   What links these audacious studies with A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is Simon’s fundamental interest in how narratives are ultimately constructed in order to give form to a search for meaning and order in chaos.  This could easily make for a potentially alienating and obtuse exhibit but it is the clarity that Simon and her camera lens bring to her subjects that constantly renders their complexities poetic.

The sense of clarity and precision that Simon is able to balance the overwhelming scope of her projects with is central to A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters.  Each chapter is presented methodically through three panels.  The left hand panel shows a series of portraits that have been ordered chronologically to represent the genealogy of the person or people integral to the chapter’s narrative.  The central panel presents the text explaining the narrative as well as a list that names and gives the birth dates of the people in the portraits.  The central panel also includes a description and explanation of what is termed the “footnotes” which occupy the right-hand panel.  These footnotes are images of objects, places and – in some cases – documents that relate to and contextualise the narrative.

Simon’s methodical presentation of her chapters and the sharp, objective style of her texts gives the viewer the impression that what they are looking at is a documentation of both a creative act and some anthropological experiment.  This blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction underpins a subtext that is present throughout the exhibit which questions the role and limits of photography itself.  The portraits that comprise well over half the pieces on show are a great example of this challenge to the photograph’s power of factual legitimacy as they present the individual against a beige background that is almost the same colour as the gallery’s walls.  Stripping her subjects of any context allows Simon to present them objectively, but it also makes them seem detached and strangely unreal as we are all too aware that Simon’s refusal to present a setting makes the moment of the photograph itself a contrived one.  This exposure of photography’s inability to be completely objective is used to undermine the certainties of perspective in general as A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters also presents us with a barrage of perplexing juxtapositions that underlines this understanding of narratives as being structures steeped in the subjectivity of the person articulating them which is a central theme of the exhibit as a whole.

Chapter VII deals with the Srebrenica genocide where over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered in 1995.  In this chapter, Simon’s portraits are interspersed with the skeletal remains of members of a family who were victims of the massacre.  This challenging juxtaposition between life and death – and again, presence and absence – is compounded by the images of younger members of the family that have been born at least a decade after the atrocity.  One photograph in this series shows the round, smiling face of a baby held up to Simon’s camera.  This endearing and hopeful image stands out in the bleak context of its chapter and is immediately juxtaposed with the following photograph in the series which is of a damaged and decaying bone.  It is almost impossible to think of two images that represent the contrast between the hope of the future and the horror of the past better than those in Chapter VII and even a casual viewer, ignoring the small font of the central panel and unaware of the photographs’ context would undoubtedly be struck with the raw power of Simon’s orchestration of her images.

Sitting on one of the benches in the middle of the gallery space, trying to make sense of the ordering of the chapters – they are spread around the five rooms out of sequential order – it struck me that Simon is challenging her viewers to find coherency in the exhibit.  In presenting eighteen studies exploring subjects as varied as Albinism in Tanzania to North Korea’s systematic abduction of prominent South Koreans and by inviting us to think of these studies as chapters that comprise a larger, interconnected narrative, Simon presents A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters as a game that enables us to question the ways in which we invest things with meaning in an attempt to make sense of what is out of our control, be it the countries and historical moments we are born into or the genetics we inherit.

The organisation of its chapters and the various thematic links between them creates a sense that there is an underlying key or code that will ultimately render the exhibit’s centrifugal meaning completely intelligible.  Whether this is an illusion or not, I can’t honestly say, but what is a testament to the power of Simon’s art is that trying to order the cultures, tragedies and atrocities it presents is a relentlessly interesting and humbling experience, which is how I imagine Simon felt whilst creating it.

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Cioran McGrath

About the Author ()

Cioran once read a book by John Berger (inadvertently) and now believes this has given him the ability to write about art, although no one has really explained to him that it’s near impossible to make a living this way. It’s unclear whether he will lose interest in the misadventure any time soon. Many hope he will. Along with being a prodigious waster of time (his as well as others’), he also writes infrequently about other things, more of which can be found at www.callenine.com. You can follow him at @CalleNine, but we’re not sure why anyone would want to.

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