The ambiguous art of Taryn Simon

Can photography help us to understand human conflict?

Of the 18 pieces comprising "A Living Man Declared Dead and other Chapters", the Tate Modern's recent photography exhibit by Taryn Simon, most take human conflict and politics as their subject. Simon Baker, curator of photography and international art at the London gallery, says that Simon's exhibit is "bringing the real world - politics in the broadest sense - into galleries and museums."

The content of Simon's show is certainly political, but as I walked around the gallery it struck me that her presentation of such issues is at odds with the requirements of truly political art. At the most basic level, it neither is nor represents the partisan or pragmatic nature of politics and its human consequences.

Rigidly structured, each of the 18 chapters comprises three panels arranged from left to right in several rooms. One, a panel of portraits, two, a panel of texts and, three, a panel of photographs that illustrate the relationship between panel one and two.

Each portrait in the first panel forms a bloodline and the set of all portraits maps a genealogy. With few exceptions, the photographs are stylistically homogenous. Stripping each portrait of any individuality in this way makes for a cleansed photography - unambiguous and lacking any apparent meaning. Every figure sits in the same posture and similarly stares into the lens. A blank beige background disassociates anyone from a context or visual clue to help viewers interpret the subject's lives or their story.

The deeper meaning of the exhibit comes not from photographs but texts. Emphasising the importance of this multi-disciplinary approach, Simon says she is interested in "the invisible space between text and image". How we view her images before and after reading the text should, by her own aims, be different. In my case there was no alteration. The similarity of the images, their relentless uniformity and Simon's eschewing of artistic flourishes, meant I saw little in the pictures even after knowing the story that bound them. Some photographs can be looked at again and again, in this exhibit case you will struggle to remember a single photo. You will, however, remember the stories.

The cumulative effect of engaging texts and passive photography led me to become more interested in the words and less in the images. This was something I noticed not just in myself but also in other visitors to the show. Like me, they increasingly walked straight to the next text.
Politics and science operate on different levels and Simon's work struggles to bridge the divide. The presentation of "A Dead Man Living and Other Chapters", with its context-free photographs gives us an unemotional and deeply reduced view of the political and human stories it depicts.

The political process, in contrast, is messy, distorted and all about compromise. It is difficult to grasp. Reading the stories at the exhibit I wondered what caused many of the topics depicted here to happen? Why are such barbarous events still occurring in the twenty-first century? The photography does not even attempt, let alone provide, an answer.

Simon, in fact, has said she doesn't consider herself a political artist. It's true in one sense, but the fact she chooses such political subjects belies this. I do not believe that Simon believes the answer to the political questions she raises lies in the genealogical relations of the subjects. What, then, is the reason the author has presented us with such a contradiction in method?

Perhaps it is to hint at the limits of photography? Certainly, if the text is telling me all I need to know about an exhibit, if the "invisible space between image and text" lacks a caual relationship, why do I even need to look at the photographs - for mere proof perhaps? But maybe this exhibit, startling for its ambition if nothing else, is too big and all encompassing to give a coherent answer to such questions.

"A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters" runs until 6 November. www.tate.org.uk

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war