11 September 2011

Ordering Principles: Taryn Simon

Installation view. Courtesy my smartphone..

The following article appears in the August-September 2011 issue of Hotshoe magazine - available from all good bookstores/ newsagents! Apologies for the lack of illustration - more to come when my computer stops crashing..

I first encountered Taryn Simon’s work in 2007, when An American Index of The Hidden and Unfamiliar - later nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize - was presented at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Walking round that exhibition a friend declared that he enjoyed the work but found it too ‘magazine-y’; in other words, too editorial. While, admittedly, the images in that show – arresting, technically excellent photographs of unexpected subjects, including the art collection at C.I.A. headquarters and the results of exotic animal inbreeding at American ‘refuges’ -  did seem destined to appear in every Sunday supplement for months, implicit in this sort-of criticism of Simon’s work is the idea that her projects rely on human-interest storytelling, novelty value even, rather than technical and ideological rigour; that her use of the word ‘index’ to describe her photographic investigations is , at best, an ironic device and, at worst, lazy.

new exhibition at Tate Modern dispels these doubts. A Living Man Declared Dead And Other Chapters I-XIII is the result of four years (2008-11) research and travel, during which time Simon has compiled photographic, anecdotal and documentary evidence into a visual exploration of 18 ‘bloodlines’ and the internal and external forces that have shaped the collective destiny of these groups. In the meantime, of course, Simon has also exhibited Contraband (2009), for which she spent four days and nights at John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, continuously photographing all items seized before entering the country – a rigorous conceptual exploration of bureaucracy, illegality and the lives of dumb objects. A Living Man, however, simultaneously reaches further afield for its subject matter and delves deeper into themes that preoccupy Simon; the collision of physical, psychological and historical forces in determining our lives, the significance of those lives and the limits of any medium, photographic or otherwise, seeking to record or ‘index’ them.

Each ‘chapter’ of
A Living Man consists of three panels; the first (usually the largest) presents a grid of half-length portrait photographs, each taken in a deadpan style reminiscent of a mugshot or medical record photograph, ordered meticulously according to the age and position in the bloodline of each subject ; the second provides neatly ordered and scrupulously complete biographical captions to these images, in addition to textual information relating to a ‘post person’ or central figure in the line; and, in the third, ‘footnote’ panel, a more abstract collection of ephemera and photographic material is scattered across the ground, touching on contextual and peripheral matters. The sheer abundance of this material – bear in mind that each ‘chapter’ may deal with a bloodline of over 100 individuals – is overwhelming and it would be a hardened gallery-goer whose heart didn’t sink ever so slightly at the prospect of absorbing every scrap of research Simon has collated. Not only this, but the visual flair of An American Index is restrained here, with Simon self-consciously borrowing from scientific methodology to present work stripped of decorative or ‘editorial’ appeal. She has said herself that she became, at one point, ‘tired of photography’ and has begun to take photographs in a far more forensic vein.

The result, however, is complex and fascinating, if not always easy to assimilate. Even the grids of portraits display variety, personality and, very occasionally, direct evidence of family’s intersection with history. The most terrible case of this is in the chapter dealing with the
Srebrenica massacre in 1995 – six ‘portraits’ in this genealogy are composed of only the remains of the men who died in the atrocity.  Elsewhere, evidence of violence and trauma is affecting when juxtaposed with the apparently cool presentation of fact, as when Simon presents a grid of portraits showing a Tanzanian bloodline effected by albinism and, in the footnote panel, photographs of albino men, women and children affected by skin cancer. 

Of course there are questions to ask here: amid all this order, what organizing system generated Simon’s choice of her bloodlines?  It can feel, as you move into the fourth large room of this work, that you are on the look-out for the next ‘issue’ Simon is addressing, be it censorship and propaganda in China or, in the chapter from which this exhibition takes its title, a false declaration of death, used in order to cheat family members out of their land in rural India. Where these contextual ‘issues’ relate to racial identity, could you accuse Simon of restating the circumstance that conditions her subjects lives? 

These questions would be harder to dismiss were it not for the fact that Simon herself so insistently challenges any system used to document or organize human history, even her own. Her ‘chapters’ throw together straight photography, text and documentary evidence, including government records, newspapers and medical photography – all making competing claims to authenticity. Contradictions emerge between disparate sources – the portrait of a living man and the certificate that declares him dead – and occasionally they declare their own falsity, as with photographic ‘reconstructions’ in which members of the ‘Druze’ religious community (yet another subject) re-enact their deaths from past lives for Simon’s camera. The exhibition format itself stages a conflict between artistic and scientific approaches to documentation. In its use of ‘chapters’ and the juxtaposition of individual with genealogical, political and social external factors, the show is reminiscent of the novel form. At the same time, Simon’s deadpan portrait style recalls medical and scientific forms –
she even describes her grid-like arrangement as ‘like a periodic table’ and the exhibition itself as a kind of ‘experiment’ – as well as ethnographic portraiture.

There are blanks – absences – in
A Living Man and they draw attention to Taryn Simon’s continuing interest in what is invisible or hidden. Literally blank photographs take the place of those who cannot be photographed in the portrait series. There are formal ‘gaps’ in the work where we are encouraged to speculate about the meaning, the truth, of what we are seeing. It is these spaces that generate the mystery and complexity in an original and absorbing exhibition.

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is showing at Tate Modern, Bankside, London from 25th May – 6th November 2011. Sunday to Thursday, 10.00–18.00; Friday and Saturday, 10.00–22.00; Entrance Free. A catalogue is available from Mack Books/Neue NationalGalerie, Berlin for £80.