Art Exhibitions

Review: Taryn Simon at Tate Modern

Jo Chard reviews Taryn Simon's ambitious London exhibition. Our contributor brings an insightful look at the work of the artist-photographer everybody is talking about now.

By Joanna Chard | 09 Sept 2011


The work of American born Taryn Simon has become hot property in recent years. Collected by MOMA, Tate and the Gugenheim, it seems that the work of this 36-year-old photographer has exploded as of late.

Simon represents the vanguard of a relatively new kind of photography that evades easy categorisation and often blurs the boundaries between reportage, conceptualism and portraiture. Alongside the likes of Jim Goldberg and Paul Graham, her work straddles the worlds of documentary photography and fine art. Simon, whose projects have included shots of contraband at JFK airport and portraits of people wrongly convicted of violent crime, is interested in the untoward – in human debris and detritus. 

A portrait of the artist Taryn Simon, in front of her curren exhibition at Tate Modern


Her latest exhibition, currently held at Tate Modern, is her most ambitious work yet. 'A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters' attempts to order the narratives and relations of 18 individuals. "I was looking for patterns and codes in the stories," explains the artist, who has travelled the world seeking out families whose lives are less orderly than most. The work documents- in the distant objectivity of a scientist- polygamy in Kenya, clan war in Brazil, orphanages in the Ukraine and the torture and escape of Uday Husein’s (Sadam Husein’s son) body double.

 "A Living Man Declared Dead is a really important work because it draws on various, often exclusive traditions" says Tate curator Simon Baker. "It has the tenacity we associate with photojournalism and the practices and presentation of art photography. In a way, it's bringing the real world – politics in the broadest sense – into galleries and museums”. 

Installation view of  'A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters' 


That may well be so, but I also suspect that for the casual or curious viewer, it may prove a demanding, even frustrating experience, due to the ambitious political and social scope that the exhibition attempts to cover. At times, this broad reach has the potential of becoming incoherent, but it’s saved by its rigid format and stripped-down style. Presented in a way that is reminiscent, aesthetically, of an encyclopaedia, our eyes are tempted to skim over the images. The mathematically divided rows of the family tree are contrasted against the individual, often violent scenes in the right hand panel: the tightly packed, florally decorated rooms of Ukrainian orphanages; a skull of a family member in a Brazilian clan war; open graves from the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia.

The sameness of each chapter almost dulls the eye: the portraits evaporate from the memory. The homogeneity of the family bloodlines in particular emphasises the fact that individuality is unimportant when it comes to victims of fate. Simon documents the collision of power, circumstance, war and religion on internal psychologies and physical inheritance. And it is when thought of from this perspective that Simon’s objective distant, like fate, seems to be all the more poignant.

For more information on Simon’s exhibition, take a look at this video from Tate's media channel

Taryn Simon’s exhibition runs until the 2nd of January 2012 at Tate Modern

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