A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, Taryn Simon — Tate Modern 25th May – 6th November 2011
Review by Alison Green
I went to a lecture a few months ago in London by the historian Ian Boal. A member of the Bay-Area activist-writer group, Retort, Boal spoke of the unprecedented intensification of capital in the 2000s, such that (he was quoting someone else) ‘we can more easily imagine the end of the world than we can the end of capitalism’. Using images from 9/11 to the Fukushima power plant explosions to demonstrate the way images participate in promoting an overwhelming ‘catastophism’, by the end of his talk Boal spoke of reinvigorating the ‘commons’ – in other words, commonly held spaces and the kind of face-to-face interactions that take place there. He emphasised this as not the same as a democratic process – where discussion leads to new laws – rather, as ongoing dialogue for its own sake, as an empowering activity against capitalism’s spectacle.
These things were on my mind as I looked through the exhibition of Taryn Simon’s new, monumental work, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters (2011), a series of eighteen studies of people from around the world caught up in current events or who figure in other remarkable situations. Simon pursues the ‘bloodlines’ of these individuals, and in the ‘chapters’ presented at Tate Modern one saw: the German descendents of Hitler’s lawyer; the man chosen to be Uday Hussein’s body double; the only case of triplet thalidomide babies; a family of Bosnian Muslims who lost six men and boys to the massacre at Srebrenica; a Kenyan polygamist faith healer many of whose wives were given him as payment for his services. If we can think of these works as counter-spectacle, in the service of Boal’s goal (working across the grain of Debord’s assertion that spectacle is the ‘ruling order’s... self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life’), then they are so in the way they present the backstory, the victim and the ideologically or economically suppressed. Simon’s work enables her subjects a modicum of agency in their negotiation with the legacy of their past. Portraiture here represents the face-to-face encounter, and it rarely fails to engage viewers in (however mediated) a meeting with another individual across time and space.
The works, however, are not just portraits, but highly aesthetic presentations of images and information. Simon comes out of a tradition of photojournalism – her first two major projects were commissions by The New York Times – but for this body of work she adopts a text-image strategy forged in the 60s and lately deployed by such conceptualist artists as Roni Horn. The format is exactly the same for each chapter: portraits are on the left, a text panel is in the centre, and a ‘context’ panel is on the right. There is a lot of empty space around the images since the frames are the same size no matter how much information they hold (where more room is needed for the portraits, another frame is added and the information runs across the two). Straddling, as I’ve suggested, their identity as photojournalism and conceptual art, Simon trucks in both a documentary rhetoric of objectivity and transparency and something more obscure and inchoate. So, we have on one hand the pairing of image and text which recalls the observation Susan Sontag made in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, that photographic messages are imprecise and need texts to direct our understanding of them. Commenting on her earlier series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), Simon concurred: ‘My reliance on text is where I try to reign in the ambiguity [of photographs]. It is in this relationship that I can control and steer interpretation in my intended direction’. Simon’s writing adopts the voice of the ‘neutral’ reporter, and this draws the audience’s sympathy for the individuals upon whom fundamentally political events have borne down.
On the other hand, there are aspects of Simon’s work that are idiosyncratic, places where she gives herself licence, when reality fails method. There are empty portraits when someone could not or would not participate in her project. There are the portrait images that show a proxy – in one chapter several sets of folded clothing, in another exhumed bone fragments. There is the alternate spatiality of the context panels, which suggests intuitive connections between images and the main story, or perhaps a different concept of time. And even within that archetype of transparency, the grid, there are places it is unexpectedly non-linear, as in the case of a Lebanese family that believes that some members are reincarnations of others and thus the logic of the bloodline is circular and repetitious. In another chapter, which implicitly takes on both American imperialism and the sordid practice of ethnography, Simon tracked down the descendents of a member of the Igorot tribe from the Philippines who appeared in a ‘live display’ at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and who, being able to speak English, opted to settle there. Yet Simon’s work is not geneaology, nor sociology, nor journalism, nor research, but a construction of an archive (in the sense Hal Foster writes about), in thrall to the impulse to probe beyond common knowledge, sceptical of forms of representation, fearful of disconnection and information overload, happily pedagogic.
Somewhere I read that Simon admits to spending 99% of her time on Google, which is either a testament to its power as a research tool or suggests she is not the best exemplar for Boal’s notion of dialogue. (Boal’s metric is whether social relations change, but this is not so easy to account for.) Simon’s work is powerful in the vein of the independent photojournalist, like Phillip Jones-Griffiths with his self-published book, Vietnam, Inc. She might court more ambiguity, paradoxically, to confront the dead seriousness of her subject.