This fall, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design
presents the first complete East Coast exhibition of Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, a photographic project by the artist Taryn Simon (American, b. 1975). Simon produced the work over a four-year period (2008–11), during which she traveled around the world researching and recording the living ascendants and descendants of a single individual, or “bloodlines,” and their related stories. “In each of the 18 chapters,” the artist has explained, “you see the external forces of territory, governance, power, and religion, colliding with the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance.” The subjects Simon documents include feuding families in Brazil, victims of genocide in Bosnia, the body double of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, and the so-called living dead in India. The exhibition is organized by Philip Brookman, chief curator and head of research at the Corcoran.
A Living Man Declared Dead is divided into 18 chapters, with each chapter comprised of three segments. The first segment is a portrait series systematically presented in grids depicting individuals directly related by blood, including the living ascendants and descendants of a single individual. In some cases, Simon shows empty portraits, representing those who could not be photographed. The portraits are followed by a text panel, in which the artist constructs narratives and recalls details about the bloodline and related story. Here she also notes the reasons for the absences in the portrait panel, which include imprisonment, dengue fever, and women not granted permission to be photographed. The last segment is Simon’s “footnote” panel, comprising images that serve as photographic evidence of the narrative.
Simon’s detailed archive of images and text is methodically organized to reveal social changes driven by science, culture, and chance. This collection is at once cohesive and arbitrary, mapping the relationships among order, chaos, genetics, and other components of fate. In contrast to the sequential ordering of bloodlines, the central themes of the stories—violence, resilience, corruption, and survival—counter the highly structured appearance of the work. A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII highlights the space between text and image, absence and presence, and order and anarchy.
“Taryn’s work represents a new kind of documentary photography,” says Brookman. “By creating this conceptual framework—an archive, both scientific and chaotic in its order—she is developing new methods with which to talk about ideas in contemporary culture. She is seeking to peel back the layers of myth and colonial thinking that form the foundation of how we understand different cultures. Her innovative style, coupled with the Corcoran’s longstanding interest in all forms of photography, makes this project incredibly compelling to our program.”
Taryn Simon was born in New York in 1975. A Living Man Declared Dead builds upon the themes and techniques of her previous work. Contraband (2010) is an archive of global desires and perceived threats, presenting 1,075 images of items that were detained or seized from passengers and mail entering the United States from abroad. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) reveals objects, sites, and spaces that are integral to America's foundation, mythology, or daily functioning but remain inaccessible or unknown to a public audience. These unseen subjects range from radioactive capsules at a nuclear waste storage facility to a black bear in hibernation to the art collection of the CIA. The Innocents (2003) documents cases of wrongful conviction in the U.S., calling into question photography’s function as a credible witness and arbiter of justice.
Simon’s photographs and writing have been the subject of monographic exhibitions at institutions including The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2012), Tate Modern, London (2011); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2011); Milwaukee Art Museum (2011), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2007); Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2008); Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2004); and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York (2003). Her work is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, Whitney Museum, Centre Pompidou, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and more. In 2011 her work was presented at the Danish Pavilion in the 54th Venice Biennale.