Taryn Simon dazzles and disturbs at the Corcoran Gallery

December 6, 2012

The Corcoran Gallery of Art is filled to the brim with colorful, eye-catching works of visual mastery, but you have to wade through that sea of technical skill to get to photographer Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, a massive, six-room exhibit that initially overwhelms its viewer with monotony. The walls are hung with gigantic, uniform, brown frames grouped into sets, all following the same formula—one or more with headshot photographs of somber-faced individuals, a slender one with small black writing, and another with photographs, legal documents, or other archives, all mounted with the most boring shade of tan you’ve ever seen.

It would be easy to be turned off by this monochromatic display, to turn around and withdraw into exhibits easier on the eyes and the mind. But to do so would be a mistake—A Living Man Declared Dead is ingenious, devastating, thought-provoking, informative, and unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in an art museum.

The concept behind the exhibit originated with a journey. Simon spent four years travelling the world, finding families from different cultures with stories that both compel and disturb. She took a photograph of each individual in the family, representing the deceased and those who could not be identified or declined to participate with photos of their clothing, teeth, bones, or a blank photo. The text is a genealogy and description of the family’s story, and the final panel displays artifacts related to that story, the three components combining the historical, cultural, and human elements of a familial line.

And while Simon is considered a “photographer,” what makes this exhibit so phenomenal is not her use of the lens, but her storytelling and knack for tapping into basic human emotions, namely empathy, outrage, and moral indignation.

The individuals Simon chose for her works are anything but commonplace or familiar by Western standards. In matter-of-fact language free from judgment or commentary, Simon effectively and powerfully outlines stories that are heartbreaking (a Scottish family plagued by birth defects from fetal absorption of thalidomide, including a woman with severely deformed arms and hands), horrifying (two Brazilian families in a feud that has lasted several decades and claimed dozens of lives), and deeply unsettling (a Palestinian woman whose description begins, “Leila Kaled hijacked her first plane at 13”).

The exhibit’s multicultural aspect often serves to highlight the singularities of cultures outside of the West, as exemplified by the massive family of a polygamous African doctor, who has nine wives, 32 children, and 63 grandchildren. While this is a harmless idiosyncrasy, other cultures are cast in a much more negative, terrifying light. In these cases, the additional artifacts on the final panels prove the most effective, particularly because of Simon’s apparent desire to shock and disturb her audience.

An African family dotted with albino individuals faces hardship from human poachers, who believe their skin and hair hold magical properties, and Simon includes a large photograph of a dead albino infant, armless and lying in a pool of blood. Although the photographer’s language never betrays any value judgment, the image is meant to distress on a basic moral level, and it is one of many impressions that will stay with the viewer long after leaving the gallery.

Interestingly, the photographs of individuals, which take up most of the exhibit’s space, are the least striking part. The one exception is a family of 32 Australian rabbits, all pictured in clear boxes on wooden pedestals, sniffing their surroundings or staring at the camera. While this seems cute and quirky at first, a glance at the final panel brings the crash morbid reality—the rabbits are being killed en masse due to overpopulation, and an overhead photograph of a single grave filled with 32 rabbit corpses provides a jarring contrast to the animated, lively bunnies.

Because of its sheer size as well as subject matter, A Living Man Declared Dead is mentally and emotionally exhausting. After experiencing the final chapter, the viewer would be wise to seek therapy with the Damien Hirst exhibit down the hall—the patterns of repeating dots won’t erase Simon’s message, but at the very least they include some color.

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