Taryn Simon’s art doesn’t look like it was made by an individual. Her photographic displays are so orderly and spare that one might think they were assembled by a committee, perhaps human rights activists documenting some horrendous government crime, or lawyers laying out their case for a class-action suit. Row after row of relentlessly similar portraits have the limited expressive power of a high school yearbook, or a Most Wanted poster on a post office wall. Every portrait is carefully numbered, and every number refers to a minimalist caption on a text panel nearby. The aesthetic is cold, methodical and meticulous.
The tone of Simon’s monumental photographic project, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,” now on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is so at odds with its subject matter that one at first suspects a joke, a conceptual smirk hidden somewhere in its reams of material. For four years, Simon traveled the world documenting the impact of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the effects of thalidomide on a family in Scotland, polygamy, faith healing and AIDS in Kenya, and 15 other “chapters” that are almost equally serious and sobering. Every one of her chapters has the basic ingredients of a National Geographic cover story: a view through the lens of anthropology, environmental science or sociology into some essential conflict between ancient and modern values, some lingering historical trauma, some collision of religion and modernity.
But Simon’s work lies on the antipodal dark side of the planet from National Geographic. Her portraits show people decontextualized, not in their homes or going about their business, but sitting on a stool, against a generic background, and often wearing almost expressionless faces. People reduced to data points.
Simon assembles her own idiosyncratic archives, clinical troves of evidence rather than emotional, activist or inspirational narratives. As she lines up galleries of orphans in Ukraine and albinos in Tanzania (whose skin color leaves them under constant threat of violence from human “poachers”), the dispassionate documentary tone becomes confusing. What is at the heart of this project? Is it about human misery? Or about the way photographs are used to document that misery? Or is there something perversely “artistic” underneath the whole thing, a game, a bit of performance art, an artistic imitation and critique of the documentary impulse, as if Simon is a one-woman representative of the juridical wing of the Dada movement?
Even the catalogue of the exhibition, an enormous black volume, seems to wink at the very misery it contains. Its 773 pages are contained in a heavy, official-looking cover that looks as if it should be a collected library edition of an obscure medical or scientific journal.
Simon’s explanation of the project focuses on the contrast between the portraits, which are all in some way about bloodlines or lineal descents, and the chaos of life that leads people into the maw of fortune, into war, or exploitation, or crime, or in one case a deadly blood feud between two Brazilian families. But this explanation is almost as confounding as the project itself, as dry and unhelpful as the captions that form a central part of her display.