A cataloguer of both the sensational and the banal, a completist with a postmodernist’s skepticism toward completion, Taryn Simon tarries with a range of contradictory discourses and desires. In her newest exhibition she turns men and women into artifacts in her ever-expanding order of things.
“A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII” (2008-11) is an expansive project documenting bloodlines and the histories they engender and illustrate. From a family whose members have had their official records altered in a disinheritance scheme, as referenced in the project’s title, to the ever-growing dynasty of a polygamist doctor in Kenya, some of whose wives were offered to him as payment for his services, each of the 18 lineages—nine of which were on view—exemplifies in its own way the immanently fraught intersection of the genealogical and the social.
Individual chapters are presented in tripartite arrangements comprising portraits of the members of each bloodline, short narrative texts and what Simon refers to as “visual footnotes”—miscellaneous images of people, places and artifacts related to the lives of those depicted. With their manila-colored backdrops and drab wooden frames, the works might easily be mistaken for documents of strictly historical value, and, indeed, the subtle fascination of the work owes much to the esthetics of the archive.
Inundated by a concerted monotony, one is drawn to those tiny, arresting details that thwart expectations of order. Take the sudden glimmer of emotion among an otherwise impassive cast of subjects. One struggles to dissociate the tearful eyes of the young girl in Chapter VII from the tragedy endured by her family: two sons lost to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Chapter XVII, which documents a group of children from a Ukrainian orphanage, a knowing grin amid a sea of blank faces provokes a double take—how else, one wonders, might this child prove an exception to the rule?
The texts and footnotes privilege incidental correspondences over totalizing narratives. Again, it is the minutiae that are most affecting. In a chapter documenting the first female airplane hijacker, Leila Khaled, one stumbles upon the factoid that President Nixon’s anti-hijacking program was instituted in 1970 on no less ironic a date than September 11. In a chapter on the descendants of Hans Frank, governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, we learn that Frank was an admirer of old-master painting.
As we are reminded by the presence, in a different show in an adjoining gallery, of the Atlas Group’s My Neck is Thinner than a Hair: Engines—a work purportedly documenting car-bomb explosions during the Lebanese Civil War—Simon is just one of a number of artists who have used the ambiguities of the archive to subvert testimony and advance discursive possibilities. What distinguishes this work is its ostensible manipulation of the more seductive aspects of the irreducible and overdetermined, its almost manneristic deployment of an esthetic of open-ended insinuation.
Photo: Detail of Chapter XVII, 2011, from Taryn Simon’s project “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,” pigmented inkjet prints, 84 by 2417⁄8 inches overall; at MoMA.