Douglas Emery, who assisted Simon on all the expeditions for the current show, also endured the sleepless rigors of “Contraband.” “Mentally, she’s the toughest person I have ever encountered,” he says. “You realize you are participating in something unique, with a rare person who has more energy than anyone you will ever meet in your life.” Obrist understands: “The endurance component of her work is, in a way, performance art—one doesn’t see it, but it is still inside the work.”
Back at the Tate, Simon and I came to “Chapter XIV,” which centers on Ribal Btaddini, a Druze from Lebanon. The Druze believe in reincarnation, and Btaddini, whose portrait recurs 15 times in the 120 pictures tracing his bloodline, is the reincarnation of his own grandfather. Accordingly, each time he is listed it is with two birth dates: December 22, 1897, and March 16, 1986. The sequence of faces becomes like a math problem, and that delights Simon. “I’m trying to find things that keep twisting and disorienting, as disorientation feels like the closest thing to confronting a possible truth,” she said.
“A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters” is itself currently living two lives: It will continue at Tate Modern even while it is on display in Berlin. Udo Kittelmann built new walls inside the Mies van der Rohe–designed Nationalgalerie to accommodate the huge panels of pictures and text. “Taryn documents the soul of the world. The only work I can compare it to is ‘The Family of Man,’” Kittelmann says.
“The Family of Man” was a show at MoMA in 1955 (and later a best-selling book) that defined midcentury romantic humanism. The curator, photographer Edward Steichen, put together 503 images of life around the world taken by 273 photographers. The exhibition was reassuring—full of awe and wonder at the way humanity was moving forward. It addressed the heart more than the head.
A half century later, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters” offers only the misery of one impossible situation after another. The show sows dislocation and doubt; it offers no closure, only more questions. “Steichen had a determined answer to his project—an agenda,” Simon tells me. “My project is the opposite, or the antidote. I try to avoid answers or an agenda. I prefer a position of not knowing.”