Taryn Simon’s gotcha pics guilt the art world
by Marsha McCreadie
One is always suspicious of an exhibit where you have to strain to “get it” by going to the wall text, then to the images, then back to the text, and so on. Such is the case with A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters 1-XVIII by artist celeb/deb Taryn Simon, at 36 the conqueror of the art world with this show at MoMA and a standalone at the Tate.
The artist instructs us how to “read” the riveting photos of the descendants/antecedents of nine families (the full show has 18 bloodlines or chapters), including the related victims of genocide in Bosnia; a tooth represents one, taken from a makeshift grave, and the last living member is a student in Syracuse. Another line descends from Hans Frank, Hitler’s legal advisor (what a journalistic coup to convince some—if not all—to be photographed!)
Also shown are those without roots: Ukrainian orphans. A sign in the orphanage’s common room is highlighted: “Those who do not know their past are not worthy of the future”; the text says most end up in the hands of human traffickers.
The “living man” of the title is an East Indian officially listed as dead by distant relatives who lay claim to his property. Is the common thread stark human misery or doomed stoicism? (Yet the very extended family of the Kenyan healer Joseph Nyamwanda Jura Ondijo, his nine wives, 32 children and 63 grandchildren, seems at ease.) Nearly all of Simon’s subjects stare vacantly at the camera, clearly at her direction.
The Australian rabbits, an example of planned decimation, have it down. Only two of the hundreds of photos carry any other expression: #66 and his despite-the-grim-orphange goofy grin and #19, Arthur Ruppin, a smiling New Jersey real estate developer, namesake of the original Arthur Ruppin sent to Palestine in 1907 by a Zionist organization to investigate possibilities for Jewish settlers.
Is the show about chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, genetic predisposition? The viewer must fill in all the blanks. Simon’s photographic effort is daunting—four years traveling the globe to get just the right bloodlines and families on same-sized pigmented inkjet prints. But though she may have an eye, Simon doesn’t have a vision.
Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and other Chapters 1-XVIII
Through Sept. 3, MoMA, 11 W. 53rd St.,
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