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

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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