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.

Show Hide image

Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain