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.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear