A Letter from London: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII by Taryn Simon at the Tate Modern


A Letter from London


The extent of information in Taryn Simon’s new solo show at Tate Modern is nothing less than staggering. As soon as you step into the gallery you are confronted by portrait after portrait, devoid of context and photographed in a manner so monotonous that each image begins to mold into the next leaving only a distant idea of what each person may look like. Typically in an exhibition of photography this is the opposite effect one would want to give, however in this show it seems to add to Simon’s overall ambition. (more)

Photographed and researched over a four-year period, Simon travelled the world photographing family bloodlines and their related stories. Often conforming to territorial, government, power or religious issues, the stories Simon chooses to explore are often highly contemporary and representational of much larger concerns.

In A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII three panels represent each story; a panel of portraits, a text panel, and a panel known as the ‘annotation panel’, these three panels sit together on the wall to complete each narrative.

Similar in part to an ethnographic study, Simon seems to question among other things the anthropological techniques of photography. Displayed using an archive aesthetic with neutral beige backgrounds, nondescript font and a highly contrived and organised mode of display -the artist describes this as “a periodic table of fact”- Simon attempts to juxtapose the presentation of the project against the issue at the heart of each individual chapter, the aesthetic and subject then begin to contrast and form a body of work that is at once considered and structured in style but chaotic and nonsensical in content.


From controlling rabbit populations in Australia, recent legislation on polygamy in Kenya to the effects of thalidomide in Scotland, each individual narrative adds to the density of this exhibition as a whole. Every chapter’s separate concern follows an intricate web of bloodlines, each portrait has a different story to tell and each object tells a story, all these facets combine to make a profusion of information for the viewer to take in. To make this abundance of information coherent, Simon has arranged each project into chapters, and like a work of literature, brings them together under the pretence of an anthology of narratives.

Taryn Simon is perhaps one of the most interesting and important artists working today. Her work is continually rooted in the documentary tradition and the conceptual rigour that she applies when constructing her projects has all the faculties of scientific research. But perhaps most importantly, as demonstrated by this exhibition, Simon is challenging conventions of display in art and photography. Similar to Paul Graham’s Shimmer of Possibility, Simon is working in chapters; she constructs expansive, multifaceted works in sections and then arranges them sequentially in exhibition form to create an entirely engrossing body of work.

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII is both intellectually stimulating and formally sophisticated; it manages to address profound issues of concern whilst retaining an advanced understanding of the difficulties of displaying documentary photography as art. Conforming to neither the principles of documentary photography nor the boundaries of art photography, combined with its avant-garde display method, Simon’s work seems closer to a great work of literature than a work of photography, an absorbing book that one returns to time and again.

- Christopher Thomas (cmlthomas88@yahoo.co.uk)

Taryn Simon - A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII 2011, is on view at the Tate Modern in London until 6th November 2011.

(images courtesy Taryn Simon’s studio - thank you! click for larger versions)