The artist’s most extensive exhibition in China to date displays the culmination of four years of extensive research into 18 bloodlines and their stories
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is proud to present “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,” a major body of work by the American artist Taryn Simon (b. 1975, New York). For four years (2008-2011), the artist crossed the globe researching bloodlines and their related stories. In each of the work’s eighteen chapters, the external forces of territory, power, circumstance, or religion collide with the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance. Simon’s subjects span a wide range of topics and social relations: the titular Indian man whose relatives had him declared dead in official records to inherit his father’s land; victims of the Bosnian Genocide, represented by the bones used to identify them; a group of Ukrainian orphans, united by their lack of discernible bloodline; and laboratory-bred rabbits in Australia used to test the efficacy of a virus designed to eliminate their invasive presence.
Each of the work’s chapters contains three parts: on the left, a portrait panel, an ordered set of portraits of every living relative of the “point person” central to each chapter; in the center, an annotation panel, a written description of the events that inspired Simon’s research into the bloodline; and on the right, a footnote panel, documentary images related to the narrative events.
The unique format offers three distinct modes of engaging with the often dramatic events depicted in each chapter. In the portrait panel, the unsmiling figures in front of identical white backgrounds compose a strictly ordered archive, the artist restricting her creative input to the unsparing application of this clinical format across a range of contexts. The annotation panel provides a straightforward textual description, elaborating on the socio-historical background of each narrative. By contrast, the footnote panel offers a more intuitive, visual foothold into the issues surrounding the central dynamic of each bloodline.
Worth noting is the rigorous and demanding preparation that goes into each of Taryn Simon’s works. As the artist herself has said, “90 percent of my photographic process is, in fact, not photographic. It involves a campaign of letter-writing, research, and phone calls to access my subjects, which can range from Hamas leaders in Gaza to a hibernating black bear in its cave in West Virginia.”A sense of tenacity and performance pervades much of her practice, whether in the extensive correspondence to gain access to restricted spaces for An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar or in the near-sleepless five-day photography session to capture the stream of over 1,000 seized goods entering JFK International Airport for Contraband.
Taryn Simon’s process itself reflects an interest in how individuals relate to and interact with institutions and systems, be they governmental, corporate, religious, or ideological. For “A Living Man Declared Dead,” Simon spent four years exhaustively researching different bloodlines and tracking down their every living member. Absent members are even represented by blank portraits with captions listing the reason for their absence, ranging from fear of abduction to imprisonment to Dengue Fever.
The cumulative effect of the installations leads to one overarching question: what do these intertwined systems of individual and bloodline, of chance and fate, of order and chaos, add up to? The viewer is witness to literal, abstract juxtapositions of history and bloodline, yet the lived experience of these inherited histories is left to the viewer’s imagination. The sum of these objects is only the collection itself—inviting further speculation while denying certainty or finality. Is there a pattern to these events, something by which we might change the course of our existence, or are we, in Simon’s words, merely on repeat, enacting the same histories over and over again?
This exhibition comes to UCCA and to China after a series of shows in major institutions around the globe, including MoMA, MOCA Los Angeles, Tate Modern, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. While Simon has been shown previously in China—notably at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre as part of the 2010 Caochangdi-Arles Photo Festival—this is the most extensive exhibition of Taryn Simon’s work in China to date and the first time a series of her work has been shown here in its entirety.
“We are excited to present the work of such a conceptually rigorous and intensely cosmopolitan artist to our global Beijing public,” said UCCA Director Philip Tinari. “We believe that Taryn Simon’s unique ability to combine photographic image, journalistic research, and writerly narrative will find a receptive audience here.”