Without An Agenda? Taryn Simon at Tate

4 Aug

This afternoon, in a bid to escape the grey and rainy day, and keep my feet dry, I decided to shelter in Tate Modern for a couple of hours.

Taryn Simon’s latest exhibition, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is a body of work produced from 2008-11.  Here, Simon’s photography explores blood lines and their stories through an eighteen ‘chapter’ series that examines issues of territory, power, religion, family feuds, genocide, inheritance and psychology in what are, at times, deeply unsettling
and strange works.

The exhibition title comes from the story of Shivdutt Yadav of India who discovered that he and other members of his family had been listed as dead and their land transferred to other relations.  This is one of the most palatable stories.

Taryn Simon, Chapter I – Shivdutt Yadav’ story. Image via http://tarynsimon.com.

All the chapters are presented in the same format – large grids of photographs show individuals on a flat beige/white background.  All those photographed (with the odd exception) appear uncomfortable and unsettled.  Blank images represent those who refused to participate, are missing, have been abducted, are dead, and so on.  To the right of the grids is a text panel and then a group of other related photographs that are explained in the text.

Taryn Simon at Tate Modern. Image via http://tarynsimon.com.

The text panels highlight the horrors of these images, bringing the stories to life.  Until you read the panels it is easy to glance quickly at the grids but, after knowing more, a gruesome fascination draws you back.  The text, in a way, is more interesting than the photography and it is the text that reveals the photographs.

Without the text, I don’t feel the works stand by themselves and I have appreciated the exhibition far more since returning home and researching the ideas behind the piece more thoroughly.

Taryn Simon, Chapter IV. Image via http://tarynsimon.com.

Beautifully presented in this uniform way, playing on traditional modes of representation, these works are fraught with difficulty.   The exhibition is a study of genealogy and the consequences associated with it.  Simon has carried out some amazing (and equally strange) projects in the past but this is the most challenging and time-intensive to date.  The research involved in her work is immense and the logistics of tracking down these people and checking facts is far more time-consuming than the act of capturing the photo.

The people photographed are drawn together by these stories and stuck together, bound in these positions, in these frames.  Of course, the works activate political feelings within viewers (and these are different for everyone) but Simon claims she did not have an agenda.  The works bring politics into the gallery without being too aggressive.

Taryn Simon at Tate Modern. Image via http://tarynsimon.com.

An £80 catalogue accompanies the show – heavy in more than one sense of the word.

For a photographer to have such a large exhibition at Tate Modern aged only 36 is a huge achievement but Simon (who is married to Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother) is well-connected and well-known.

Taryn Simon with her work at Tate Modern. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Unusually for the 4th floor at Tate Modern, there is no entry charge for this exhibition.  Did Tate not think people would pay to see this?  The exhibition is on loan from Jane and Michael Wilson (the UK’s most important photography collectors) and maybe this explains the gratuitous entry.   Also slightly strange is the duration of the exhibition which runs until January – Tate must be losing one hell of a lot of revenue from ticket sales having this on for just over 7 months.  The original articles about the exhibition referred to an end-date of September or November (no-one really seemed to be sure) but it’s been since been extended, possibly due to a cancellation (I’m not sure, so this is pure conjecture).

From the moment you walk in, the exhibition is demanding and difficult.  The works are simple but the ideas behind them are often overpowering, deserving thought and study.  The grey bleakness that was visible from Tate’s windows certainly reflected the feelings elicited by many of the works.  Although fascinating (and strange), this was probably not the show to lift a girl’s spirits on a rainy afternoon.

Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is at Tate Modern until 2nd January 2012, www.tate.org.uk

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