In Taryn Simon’s studio there is a printer that can handle 64-inch-wide paper, a map of the world with pushpins stuck into places no one goes, a photograph of Simon’s grandfather’s family in Belarus, and a collection of other people’s datebooks from the Seventies that her sister Shannon found in a junk shop. There is also an abundant supply of BioPure Protein powder, ProGreens “super food,” baby wipes, hand sanitizer, and Clif Bars—as dense and fruity as bear scat—along with Pepto-Bismol tablets, two of which, taken after every meal, can reduce the chances of getting a food-borne illness by 40 percent. The tablets are left over from Simon’s travels of the past four years, when she trekked to 18 countries with a 4x5 camera and 500 pounds of equipment to take the 922 portraits that went into her most recent show, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters.”
The exhibition, which opened at Tate Modern in London in May, confirms Simon’s reputation as a unique, complex, and somewhat overwhelming figure in contemporary art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York will display a partial version of the show beginning next May. Says MoMA photography curator Roxana Marcoci: “The work that she has done—I believe it is her most ambitious and successful to date.”
Although the show’s ostensible subject is bloodlines—the direct connection from parent to child through blood—Simon’s aggregations of small, formal portraits and precise, clinical text tell stories that raise questions about life, death, and fate. Udo Kittelmann, director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, where the work will be on view through January 1, 2012, explains: “First you see the image, then you start to imagine what the image tells you, and then you have to read the text. It’s the first time the words are as important as the pictures.”
At Tate Modern, the 18 “chapters” fill five enormous rooms, their gigantic frames displaying multiple portraits aligned in grids as strict as the periodic table. The first chapter, which gives the exhibition its title, shows a farmer in Uttar Pradesh, India, along with his children and grandchildren. The text reads: while visiting the local land registry office, shivdutt yadav discovered that official records listed him as dead. his land was no longer registered in his name.
Simon likes to record things that do not officially exist, did not happen, and cannot be seen. Others who possess this urge generally write fiction. Simon sets out to photograph the impossible and the forbidden: posing the unjustly convicted at the scene of crimes they never committed for “The Innocents,” her breakout show at MoMA PS1 in 2003; capturing the braille edition of Playboy magazine, the CIA’s art collection, and a repository of nuclear waste in “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,” her 2007 one-woman show at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and documenting every prohibited curiosity, counterfeit handbag, and drug confiscated from passenger luggage at JFK Airport in the space of five sleepless days and nights for “Contraband,” exhibited at Manhattan’s Lever House in 2010.