Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-VXII
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
May 2 – September 3, 2012
The conviction that an archetypal portrait of man can be captured through photography is not a new notion, but rather one deeply rooted within the medium’s established history and traditions. In People of the Twentieth Century, August Sander sought to present an archival and typological study of the German citizen, rooted in the ideology that each person held a well-ordered place within the structure of society. He declared: “We know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from their appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled.” Amidst the New Objectivity atmosphere of Weimar Germany, Sander photographed people from all ranks of life in order to locate truth through an objective and practical engagement with the world.
Taryn Simon’s 2003 project, The Innocents, illuminates photography’s power to do just the opposite. Through an exploration of the American justice system in which the artist documented individuals wrongfully convicted for crimes for which they were later declared not guilty, Simon identified photography as a “tool that transformed innocent citizens into criminals, assisted officers in obtaining erroneous eyewitness identifications, and aided prosecutors in securing convictions. The criminal justice system had failed to recognize the limitation of relying on photographic images.” In her most recent work, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, now showing at The Museum of Modern Art, Simon subverts the structure of Sander’s constructive objectivity to illuminate photography’s ability to reveal fact as fiction, and fiction as fact.
For this project, rather than focusing on a single individual or small group as representative of the whole, Simon has chosen to document and record eighteen bloodlines from around the world, their living ascendants, descendents, and their related stories. Among others, we encounter “the living dead” in India, the first woman to hijack an airplane in Palestine, and the victims of genocide in Bosnia. Each story, or chapter, is represented by a large tri-panel installation, beginning with an ordered grid of formal portraits on the left, followed by a textual annotation panel in the center, and concluding with a footnote panel to the right that features found images and photographic artifacts. For this exhibition, Curator Roxana Marcoci has selected nine of the eighteen chapters previously on view at Tate Modern in London, and at the Neue National Galerie in Berlin. A collection of those not shown can be seen in the near nine hundred-page monograph accompanying the project, also on display in the MoMA’s Menschel galleries.
Upon first glance, the pictures in the portrait panel simulate Sander’s guise: formal, bust-length portraits with the sitter at a three-quarter turn or facing the camera directly. Despite this structural parallel, however, Simon has extracted her subjects from their quotidian surroundings, photographing each against the same non-descript background and monotonous lighting. With the exception of one smiling boy from an orphanage in Ukraine seen in Chapter XVII, her subjects lack any expression of identity, resting motionless as if specimens in a highly controlled laboratory setting. The order in which the portraits are sequenced is also fixed, as the linear format of each grid series adheres to some pattern of genealogy, chance or fate that unites each group of people. The individual is lost within a systematic matrix of faces, each highly seductive in its simple formality. Most intriguing are the portraits containing no sitters at all: mere blank frames indicating a person’s absence for various reasons, such as sickness, military service, the refusal to be photographed, or for social or religious restrictions. Others are incomplete, with pieces of clothing used as the individual’s surrogate, or in other cases, the bones and teeth of those now dead.
Represented through whatever means, each person’s name, age, location, and, if applicable, occupation, is listed accordingly in the central annotation panel. Below this archival register is an objective summary of each bloodline and its present situation at the time of Simon’s visit. This narrative component initiates, as Marcoci remarks, a blend between photography, portraiture, literature, and design. Chapter I, from which this exhibition takes its title, tells the story of four men who were legally declared dead by their family members as a means to illegitimately claim right to their land. Chapter III follows Joseph Nyamwanda Jura Ondijo, a polygamous witch doctor in Kenya who claims the ability to cure HIV/AIDS if repaid in livestock and wives. In Chapter XVII we meet the young members of an overcrowded Ukrainian orphanage, who are often targeted for human trafficking or prostitution upon leaving at the age of sixteen.
Though neutral in tone, Simon’s archival chronicles retain subversive force. Moving beyond the finite restrictions of fact, the artist seeks to grasp the psychological components that have fallen through the cracks. Featuring more disordered and abstract collages of images, the footnote panels explore what mere systematic documentation has omitted. In Chapter I, for example, we are presented with a photograph of the one of the very same men absent from the portrait panel on the left. Juxtaposed with a letter to the chief judicial magistrate demanding official recognition that he, his brothers and cousin are, in fact, alive and maintain legal right to their land, this irrefutable piece of photographic proof blurs fiction into fact. More subtle, but no less emotionally pronounced, are quiet images of bedrooms in the Ukrainian orphanage in Chapter XVII, which clearly lacks enough beds for all of the children for whom there are portraits. Here, the tidy arrangement of furnishings accented by sweet floral motifs are no longer palatable when referring back to the over-sexualized girls in portraits 5, 18 and 19, whose rough hands, ill-fitting clothes, and drifting eyes make us wonder what innocence is left to be lost. While photography triumphs in its ability to capture the “dead,” it fails to bring salvation to others who are bound disappear due to fate and circumstance.
Each triptych represents an emotional and cognitive journey, constantly transformed through Simon’s varied modes of conveyance. Beginning with the raw material, the individuals themselves, we fall down a rabbit hole in which the fusion of registered fact and psychological nuance make it difficult for us to find our feet. In the artist’s own words: “Translation and interpretation come into play. Any judgment or fantasy that you may have is repositioned and fragmented in the corresponding panel…amongst all of this order, all we achieve is chaos.” In an effort to find some overarching code or pattern, neither image nor text has the power to fully harness truth or fiction within the lost stories here uncovered. They are too complex, too varied, and too far entrenched in mystery and corruption. We meet them simply at a stopping point from which they have already continued. In our present spectatorship of each story, we contemplate what has already become the past. It is this disorder of information and time, this constant ebb and flow between what is real and what is perceived as real, that brings us back to the individuals themselves. We search through their postures and expressions for some answer to the ambiguity we wrestle with as each chapter comes to a close.
While archival in nature and content, Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII reaches beyond the bounds of some typological encyclopedia, as Sander sought to achieve through the photographic portrait. Through an amalgamation of the archival and the abstract, the textual and the lyrical, the visual and the psychological, and the physical and the ephemeral, Simon declares photography’s force upon a conceptual stage within the arena of contemporary art. Truth and history become subsidiary to the power of mystery and psychology, to the fragility of individuality, and to the congenital allure of the visual.
Emily Kloppenburg is an artist and writer living in New York City.view all articles from this author