Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters

Fate is the answer to most of the questions of why things happen to us happen. For some, it is a phenomenon subject to the inner and outer forces in life that we desperately need to unveil.

One of those is the American visual artist Taryn Simon, known for her deliberate and thought-provoking works. Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters is a photographic series which Taryn Simon produced over four years between 2008 and 2011. The young American artist follows eighteen bloodlines worldwide to research and record their related stories to compose an archival narrative. Exhibited in various places from New York City to London, Berlin, Beijing, and Dubai, it was published in 2011.

Post-Modern Triptychs

Simon composes each bloodline in three segments. The first is the portrait panel showing photographic portraits of the given bloodline. The second is the text panel that includes a written narrative surrounding the bloodline. The last panel, the footnote panel, provides photographic evidence and visual aid supporting the narrative. Postmodern triptychs are organized and exhibited in a subtle archive-like setup to reveal or expose the intriguing and intertwined relations between blood, fortune, fate, power, and politics. 

Portraits of the Dead Who Live

The first chapter gives the project its name. It follows an Indian bloodline in which some family members bribed authorities to register others as dead to cut them off the hereditary transfer of land. Shivdutt Yadav and his two brothers were listed as dead in their local registries and therefore lost their homes. Simon photographed Shidvutt’s brothers and their descendants, while the footnote panel includes an image of him laying rest in the Ganges. The portraits of those living “dead” create a direct contrast with the portraits in another chapter. Chapter VII follows a family who lost multiple members to the Srebrenica massacre. Here, Simon visually represents the dead members of the bloodline, but only those killed during the massacre. They are represented with “portraits” of their remains, tooth and bone samples. 

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, Chapter XI

An Archive of Blood

Simon’s subjects vary from victims of Bosnian genocide to first female aircraft hijacker, to test rabbits in Australia to feuding families of Northeast Brazil. Simon traveled the world to interview and photograph every available member of the given bloodline. In addition to this, numerous empty portraits represent the living members who could not be present for reasons ranging from illness, army service, imprisonment, to religious restrictions forbidding women to be photographed. In Chapter XI, which follows the bloodline of Hitler’s legal advisor Hans Frank, some members are represented not with empty portraits but with pieces of clothing as they refused to be identified with this particular ascendant or the horrendous past. 

The Rabbit vs. the Bilby

Simon’s bloodlines transcend the human species. In Chapter VI, she follows a bloodline of rabbits in Australia. The European rabbit, unknown to the Australian habitat until the mid-19th century, has been rapidly reproducing and endangering the local wildlife as they have no predators. The Australian authorities have a controversial and questionable solution; to inject lethal diseases into rabbits to control the population. Simon records a group of rabbits experimented on and soon would die or be killed, which shows a mass grave for rabbits in the footnote panel. 

The most sonorous element of this chapter is in the footnote too. Simons puts a photograph of an Easter bunny chocolate not in a rabbit shape but an Australian native bilby. One of Australia’s leading chocolate companies started producing those Easter bilby chocolates after stopping all productions of the Easter bunny chocolate. Simon’s footnote panel unveils the limits of cultural alterations to ease society, that an Easter bilby can replace an Easter bunny in order for the public to be more comfortable with the killing of rabbits.

The Ghosts of the Past and the Haze of the Future

Simon metamorphoses the bloodline concept into a more conceptual notion in Chapter XVII when she follows the absence of a bloodline, that is, a past instead. She photographs children in a Ukrainian orphanage. (F.9) Those children living with ghosts of their past have no bright future ahead either. Statistics show that many will be victims of various dreadful crimes and live a life in terror. (F.10)Simon’s work compiles hundreds of images that show the past and continuous fates of its participants and hint at what the future holds. She states those narratives as coded as the blood itself.

The machinery of occurrences we call life is dictated by the external forces of governance, religion, and power; and the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance. In the end, it is not the pile of images or texts but the gaps among them that reveal the never-ending flowage of blood, that is, birth and death, and everything happening in-between.

Sources

Bhabha, H., 2011. Beyond Photography. [online] Available at: <tarynsimon.com> [Accessed 26 January 2021].

Simon, T., 2015. Storylines. Available at: <youtube.com> [Accessed 26 January 2021].

Simon, T., A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII. [online] Available at: <tarynsimon.com> [Accessed 27 January 2021].

Simon, T., 2011. The Stories Behind Bloodlines. Available at: <ted.com> [Accessed 26 January 2021].

Tinari, P., 2011. Taryn Simon in China. [online] Available at: <tarynsimon.com> [Accessed 26 January 2021].

Images

 A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, Chapter XI moma.org

Installation view, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2011 tarynsimon.com

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, Chapter I moma.org

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, Chapter VII moma.org

Excerpt from Chapter VII moma.org

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, Chapter XI moma.org

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, Chapter VI ucca.org.cn

Excerpt from Chapter VI tarynsimon.com

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII, Chapter XVII ucca.org.cn

Excerpt from Chapter XVII moma.org

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