Taryn Simon’s art has become as much about tightening a drawstring of internal rules and regulations as crossing red tape and returning with a startling picture. A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, which shows at Tate Modern until November 6, is the artist’s latest anthropological exploration and personal endurance test. Simon has previously documented America’s hidden sights, censured the photograph’s function as a credible eyewitness, and spent days without sleep recording seized items at John F Kennedy international airport. Her new exhibit goes even beyond these works in its scale and complexity and passes the borders of her native America. It is confrontational in its presentation but remains a powerful testament to survival against the odds.   

Occupying five rooms and crafted into a 773-page book that should come with its own lectern, the work is a systematic record of 18 bloodlines or Chapters and their related stories. As with An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), Simon has unearthed an arbitrary selection of curious or nightmarish scenarios and invites us to analyse each as meticulously as she has brought them to our attention.

Installation view, © Eleanor Farmer

Entering the close-to-sterile space, we are informed of the ‘Ordering Principle’. “Portraits are arranged in linear format. They are read in rows from left to right, top to bottom.” What strikes you first are the bright, chalky frames of Simon’s ‘non-place’: the ubiquitous backdrop for each subject, which conceals the ‘undisclosed’ context. Rows of people rest like sunken yolks within their shells, victims of fate, whose blank expressions suggest that they have ceased to regard their own environment. The cumulative effect of this line-up is terrifying; resonating with pictures of the missing or the dead. Even before reading the stories of lined-up corpses, corrupt officials, and troubling beliefs the outlook is dark.

Maximising the seduction of visual order, Simon sets out three framed components of each chapter: the portraits; a textual account of the subject or ‘point person’; the name, birth date, profession and current place of residence of each member of the bloodline; and a selection of pictures or ‘footnotes’ which relate to the chosen story. We encounter Jura Ondjio, a polygamous healer; Nexir Nukić and Zumra Mehić, parent’s of children killed in the Srebrenica massacre; Latif Yahia, who claims to have been the body double of Saddam Hussein’s son; and the man of the title, Shivdutt Yadev, who discovered he had been officially declared dead so that relatives could inherit his land. Unique histories determined by blood, chance, and geography, battle the repetitive, homogenizing presentation. Simon’s reflection of life’s ‘unending, machine-like churning out of stories’, shows us a bigger picture, and calls its parts into question.   

Inside view of A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters publication.

Two visually striking chapters benefit greatly from the neutral aggregations. The first tells the tale of 24 European rabbits introduced to Australia in 1859. Within one hundred years, the rabbit population grew to half a billion. We are looking at 108 rabbits, all destined for a premature death as the subjects of a test to determine the effectiveness of a virus used to control the explosive rabbit population. Some wide-eyed specimens look alert to their impending doom and others, innocently oblivious. In the footnotes, we find a rabbit eyeball in a test tube: the scientific dissection of cute. Even the pragmatic observer, when faced with man’s control and mis-control of nature may feel their nose twitch.         

A second startling visual is of a group of children from a Ukranian orphanage. These children have no known bloodline and are therefore grouped together, both on paper and in reality. They are smartly turned out, as though ever-ready for an adoption interview. The only smile in the entire exhibition comes from child number 66, another orphan whose name is withheld. This fragile smile and the information that only one child has been adopted in the last twelve months could make you weep, but this is not the kind of emotional impact for which it has been framed.

The work belongs in the context of the gallery, but there is certainly an advantage to additionally viewing the book – particularly for a lingering look at the ‘footnotes’ section, whose stunningly beautiful images would be worthy of their own exhibition. A picture of Tongyeong Port where Choe Janggeun was last seen before his reported abduction by North Korean agents, shows lights reflected on the water like a chromosome map. Other strangely enigmatic scenes include Said Bou Hamdan reenacting his watery death and the history classroom at the Ukranian orphanage, where a sign above the blackboard reads ‘Those who do not know their past are not worthy of their future…’    

Taryn Simon at Tate Modern © Eleanor Famer

History is already leaving red pen on Simon’s texts and gradually these photographs will all become records of the dead: a tidy memento of the witless promise of mortality. Flattening the lines of ‘chance, blood and other components of fate’, Simon creates a powerful illusion that we might be able to decode the laws of humankind or recognize the small print to which we have all unwittingly signed. But just as Simon has toiled for her art we too must work if we want to identify the patterns and puzzles.

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters by Taryn Simon is at the Tate Modern until 6 November, 2011

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters
published by MACK.