Taryn Simon at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

by Madeline Sparer, November 2011

The line between photojournalism and art is often blurred. Artists work as newspaper photographers, while museums and galleries present journalistic photos in art exhibitions. This line seems especially muddled in Taryn Simon’s exhibition A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, currently on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The exhibition is an examination of codes and patterns within distinct bloodlines, focusing on the intersection between external forces such as territory or religion, and internal forces including the psychological or physical realm. After four years of traveling and researching the roots of her subjects’ bloodlines, Simon mapped their family relationships and stories in an incredibly organized, beautiful and thought-provoking exhibition.

The show is comprised of eighteen “chapters,” each presenting a story about a person or a family and their descendants. Some of the subjects are well known in history, for example, Leila Khaled, the first woman to hi-jack an airplane, or Arthur Ruppin, one of the Zionists responsible for the Israeli settlement in Palestine. Others remain relatively unknown, but represent a common issue or problem in their society.

Each chapter consists of three panels. The first is a series of portraits taken of the living family members, beginning with the oldest and arranged in descending order. Each portrait is taken on the same, neutral oatmeal-colored background, and shows the subject with a blank expression. Those family members who are not included (either because they refused to participate, perhaps for religious reasons, or were otherwise unavailable) are represented by a empty panel, or in some cases, clothing that family members have sent in their place. Taken together, the pictures in this panel do not include the necessary context that is often a critical factor in a newspaper article. People from all over the globe are photographed as if they were sitting in the same room.

The second panel includes two sections of text: the top part lists the family members’ names, birth dates and the cities or countries in which they currently live.  If a family member is not represented, the panel provides an explanation. These are very brief descriptions, and often leave the viewer to figure out who is the son, daughter, granddaughter, etc., by looking at the birth year. The second portion of the text panel offers an overview of the chapter—either the person of interest, the family or the theme (Chapter XVII, for example, shows children living in a Ukrainian orphanage, with no focus on a particular person). This text, written by Simon, is descriptive and seemingly unbiased.

The third panel is where Simon’s voice is the most apparent: the footnote panel. She has curated a selection of items, including photos, texts, trinkets and newspaper clippings that add to the story and suggest her point of view.

In the Berlin exhibition, the presentation is complemented by its location, the glass pavilion of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. The chapters are presented in rows of “stacks” similar to what you would find in a library. They’re placed in two rows in the pavilion, creating small and personal spaces in which the viewer confronts the work, much like an archive.

While the exhibition is ostensibly organized, Simon notes that the library-like stacks do not offer a simple and rational theme.  In an interview video presented by Tate Modern, Simon notes that the chapters collectively do not form anything distinctive and tangible; instead the exhibition explores the theme of chaos. She has created an archive, which, as she states, is “usually created because something can’t be articulated.”

Here is the point at which the presentation of the exhibition trumps the artist’s voice. While Simon suggests that the archival form is about the search for meaning within this group of narratives, the lack of an overall theme is a weakness in the exhibition. Simon appears to be more of a documentarian or journalist, even though the presentation aspires to produce an artistic effect.

Archives are meant for someone to explore, research and draw his or her own conclusions. Here, however, while the archival setting frames the exhibition, Simon’s voice is lost in the collection. She is exploring the patterns and codes in these stories, but in trying to relate them, she isn’t able to articulate something specific. Ironically, Simon is well aware of this problem, and perhaps that is what brought her to the design of the exhibition. Her voice gets pushed aside by the presentation and the narratives she displays.

However, if one disregards titles and avoids classifications, the exhibition is an incredible work. Perhaps Simon’s voice is purposefully absent. She has presented a new way of looking at history, focusing on the bloodlines, the past, present and future, and has juxtaposed an extremely varied set of stories in a way that no one has ever done before.

Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII
22 September 2011—1 January 2012
Neue Nationalgalerie
Potsdamer Straße 50, Berlin