Art in Berlin: Taryn Simon at Neue Nationalgalerie

Still, taken from the official exhibition film on
Still, taken from the official exhibition film on

Last week I went out to the Neue Nationalgalerie to see Taryn Simon‘s exhibition “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII”. (The first hurray goes out to a woman under 40 being granted a solo exhibition at one of Berlin’s most prestigious museums!) Her work presented here basically evolves from the phenomenon of India’s “living dead”, meaning people who are still alive, but declared dead when their family (or someone else) wants or has to inherit their properties. Based on this idea, Simon investigated family genealogies around the world and recorded their stories, focussing on subjects like feuding Brazil families, victims of the genocide in Srebrenica, and the Kumari girl-goddesses of Nepal.
What is on show in Mies van der Rohe’s famous glass pavilion are a number of huge anthracite-coloured displays, each of which contains three glass plates framed in dark, almost-metallic wood. They showcase from left to right: the portrait photographs of all blood relatives of the specific person the exhibit focusses on, a list of names and a text written by Simon, and finally a loosely arranged selection of “footnote pictures”, associated with the story. Simon’s aesthetic draws from several sources, reminding me of Aby Warburg’s renowned Mnemosyne Atlas in its associative manner, of cultural history museums in its quasi-scientific approach, and of the display style of luxury fashion houses in its high-quality material and contrastive lightning. (Interestingly, before Simon decided to focus on her artistic career, she was photographing ads for Chloé. A fact that seems to have been thoughtfully edited out of Simon’s curriculum vitae. Thanks to Kirsten Herrmann for the hint!) And of course it’s a great approach on Mies van der Rohe’s architecture.

Still, taken from the official exhibition film on
Still, taken from the official exhibition film on

But all this various references left me puzzled about what to do with her work: it is kind of scholarly, emphasizing the “artist as researcher” who fills an archive, a wildly popular topic these days, visualized in the bulk of works looking like mind maps and atlases; it also addresses the subject of the portrait – the questionable term “bloodline” is mentioned several times in the accompanying texts, raising the issue whether people can inherit not only physiognomic characteristics but also fateful experiences – be they tragic, brutal or mythic – whether these too can be registered in the faces of one’s blood-related family members and thus, be evident in their photographs. Which, of course, evokes the positivist attempts of the late 19th century, when photographers like Francis Galton used “composite portraits” or Alphonse Bertillon “portraits parlés” to identify certain maladies inscribed in the shape of noses, ears, and necklines.
Simon’s photographic style provokes this connotation – everyone is pictured in front of a beige wall (not sure if this was done in post-production, it might at the very least be edited to ensure the exact same coloring in every photograph. It is indeed a pictorial style she has used before, e.g. in her work “Contraband” from 2009, currently on display at KW’s “Seeing is believing” exhibition), seated on a stool in a slight half profile (the neckline!), looking into the camera without the least trace of a smile (no matter what culture), positioned in the lower half of the picture, placing the face in the almost exact center of the frame. Some are visibly dressed up to have their picture taken, some aren’t. Of course, one is tempted to draw comparisons, between the family members (discovering the one feature that seems to travel through the generations) and between cultures, countries, histories (and even species!).
In its totality, it’s a laborious work, resulting from many hours of researching, traveling, talking, and convincing (several family members did not agree to participate and are thus represented by a blank sheet of paper), photographing, phrasing, mapping, wording, etc. But in the end, it’s not an academic work, it does not have to obey academic rules, and so there are no sources mentioned and no cues on how the displayed persons are related (if it’s a brother, a nephew, a grandson, etc.). And why am I to trust her? Taryn Simon is an artist and would have had every freedom to completely “fake” this work, all the pictured persons could be hired extras, all the stories could be completely fictional, all the bloodlines invented.
Has all this research then been done to show me that both everything and nothing can be found here? All the portraying to show that nothing can be shown in a photographic portrait? All this expense to show me, the viewer, that nothing can be shown? I already knew that.

Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII
22. September 2011 – 1. Januar 2012
Neue Nationalgalerie
Potsdamer Straße 50
10785 Berlin

Mono.Kultur reprinted their Taryn Simon issue on the occasion of this exhibition. See it here.

ps, This is the first review of an art show published on StilinBerlin, any comments on the usefulness of this “new addition” to the content is, as always, highly appreciated.
Thanks to Florian!


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  1. ß on


    in bocca al lupo per il corso in Abruzzo.

    Silvia (Babylonia)

    1. Mary on

      No, she’s Swedish/Finnish

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