At the opposite end of the Tate Modern foyer from the slow moving single file queue snaking out of the Gerhard Richter exhibition is Taryn Simon’s current work, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters. Luckily there was no such queue sonorously working its way through Simon’s work, at each piece people huddled close to the centre panel, reading the narrative and names of those in the portraits beside.
Created over four years, A Living Man… documents narratives in triptychs containing text, images of supporting evidence and the family of each protagonist. Setting out the living family of the protagonist in a strict structure, blanks are left where family members couldn’t be found or refused to participate. The emotionless portraits on white backgrounds, broken with the occasional humour of a hiding adult holding a small baby in a seated position, maintain consistency across the work but make it hard to identify with the subjects. The portraits only become powerful after reading the narrative, but even then I found myself reading the narrative and looking at the supporting evidence but barely paying attention to the portraits. In fact it was the blank squares, pixelated squares or frames with clothing provided as a representative which drew more attention in the portrait frame.
Covering issues as broad as the living dead in India to overcrowded orphanages in Ukraine, A Living Man… draws on some challenging stories, but brings into focus the reality of these stories by portraying those affected.
A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is at the Tate Modern until 02 January 2012.