We are so used to seeing photos — journalistic and personal — of people showing emotions that the portraits of expressionless individuals in contemporary artist Taryn Simon’s new show initially seem jarring. In “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,” now on view at the Corcoran, Simon’s portraits document hundreds of people — practically every one of them, even the babies, giving a blank stare straight at the camera.
“I didn’t want to engage with any of the habitual emotional triggers,” such as facial expressions, says the artist (who admits that an uncomfortable fold-up seat probably contributed to everybody’s looks). “It’s a purposeful refusal to go into that editorialized realm.”
Even though Simon created a distance between herself and her subjects, there’s a strong connection among the subjects themselves: They are related by blood. “A Living Man” is all about bloodlines, or sequences of direct ancestors. Each of her show’s 18 “chapters” covers a single lineage (or, in one case, the absence thereof).
The chapters are divided into three distinct segments: The first is a yearbook-like arrangement of those deadpan portraits — the “point person’s” living descendents and ascendants, arranged from left to right, in order of age. The second segment is text-only, offering a brief family history. A third part consists of “footnotes”: photos of objects, scenes and individuals that add detail to the narrative.
Simon’s chapters revolve around intriguing figures, including the body double of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, a polygamist herbal healer in Kenya and a female Palestinian aircraft hijacker. One chapter even features nonhuman subjects: more than 100 Australian rabbits that received lethal injections in the government’s attempt to control the species.
The entire project took four years for Simon to complete. She was meticulous about representing every individual in each bloodline — to the point where she even included people who were unavailable or unwilling to be photographed. (For the most part, those people are represented by a photo of an empty beige space.)
Philip Brookman, the Corcoran’s chief curator, likens the show to “an atlas, or a photobook.” Simon’s systematic approach makes her work accessible to even those who aren’t familiar with contemporary art, he says. “She’s chosen subjects we will react to emotionally.”
Ordinary family reunions these are not.
The bloodline that inspired the show’s name is that of Shivdutt Yadav (two of the man’s relatives are shown above). Yadav is officially listed as dead in India; records officials are often bribed to declare living people dead to redirect the hereditary transfer of their land to others. Yadav’s land was given to his father’s other living heirs.
Chapter XI has many blank spots. The bloodline is that of Hans Frank, Adolf Hitler’s personal legal adviser and governor-general of occupied Poland, who was executed in 1946. Many of his family members were unwilling to show their faces for the project.
As a result, “that piece primarily rests in all of the absences,” Simon says. “We have a section of the bloodline that presented clothing as a substitution for their physical presence because they wanted to collaborate but didn’t want to be physically identified with the narrative. In another instance, one man sat for me but [I had to photograph him] from behind.” (Later, he rescinded his agreement to participate; Simon pixilated his photo.)
Simon’s Chapter XVII (pictured at top of page) is a notable exception to her bloodline rubric: Portraying 120 orphans at a Ukrainian orphanage, the chapter lacks any order determined by genetics; instead, the children’s portraits are arranged in order of their age.
“When you’re looking at the piece, you can see where it slips in and out of what appears to be a proper order, because several of the children don’t know their birthdates,” Simon explains.
Later, in the “footnote” section of the exhibit, a photo of a history classroom wall bearing the phrase “Those who do not know their past are not worthy of their future” accompanies the presentation.
“Something like that makes people gasp in the context of an orphanage, but in the context of a history classroom, it would be sort of a normal statement,” Simon says.
This sort of jolt is precisely what Simon was after with “A Living Man,” which ponders heady topics such as fate, inheritance, life, death and science. Simon says she hopes the audience will “question themselves, question the stories and question my position.”
But “to give a message,” she says, “would be the complete antithesis of what I’m aiming for.”Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; $8-$10, through Feb. 24; 202-639-1700. (Farragut West)