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Art Review: Taryn Simon “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters” @ The Corcoran
November 9, 2012 | 11:30AM

review by: Rachel Pafe

Affixed to the stark white walls, there is a weighty presence: thousands of eyes stare ahead. They have been patiently ordered, categorized and tamed by the miracles of minimal design and framing. Breaking the distance between the photographs immediately ruptures this initial impression of order; up close are faces of humans at the whims of powers beyond their control. External forces of territory, God and geography as well as internal forces of blood and psychology collide to shape lives that have been eased into a semblance of order through photography.

(image: Taryn Simon. Excerpt from Chapter XVII, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII. Wilson Centre for Photography. © Taryn Simon 2012)

Taryn Simon’s show at the Corcoran “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters” (which opens THIS WEEKEND) represents a massive undertaking in which the artist spent four years traveling the world. She documented a variety of subjects/families/absences: orphans living in Ukraine, genocide victims in Bosnia, albinos in Tanzania, laboratory rabbits in Australia, which in total comprise eighteen chapters of bloodlines. They are all organized by the same criteria: on the far left are grid-like photos that pose each family member (or lack of one) against a neutral background, in the middle are text panels that feature the artists’ interpretation of the situation and on the right are “footnotes”, images that illustrate additional pieces of the story. The show unfolds over the course of many rooms, each relatively uniform in size and space, eventually ending with a display of the book that compresses all of the information into 864 pages.

For Simon, blood is absolute and determined, whereas the stories created by the bloodlines are the opposite. She uses the tension between these forces to contemplate more abstract ideas about the nature of societal evolution and find orderly archetypal patterns within the structures of chaos. This duality is exemplified by the first work and namesake of the show: Chapter 1, India. In Uttar Pradesh, India, land is the main means of support and sustenance for the local population. Thus, the land registry officials are often bribed to inscribe living people as legally dead in order to manipulate the land’s inheritance. Shivdutt Yadav’s family is “dead”, but here they sit, eternalized by photography. They are stuck in a state of limbo due to caseload backup in the court system; no house, no legal status, reduced to living ghosts. Identity is also contested in Chapter 6, Ireland, which features Latif Yahia, who claims to be the body double of Saddam Hussein’s son. He recalls multiple plastic surgeries, mannerism training, special clothing and eventually torture.

Where does the truth really lie in these stories? Simon contemplates the space between the comfort of blood’s, essential, traceable means of binding people together and fate’s uncanny ability of tearing them apart; she vacillates between glimpsing into the individual psyche of the subject and adding them as another body piled among countless others. The exhibition serves to document her and humanity’s constant struggle to find meaning and order amidst the countless factors that shape our lives. Are we actually evolving or are our bodies just piling up?

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