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5 July 2011

The ambiguous art of Taryn Simon

Can photography help us to understand human conflict?

By Sean Gittins

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.

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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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