Three rooms into Taryn Simon’s current exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, viewers may begin to worry that they’re victims of a big, tasteless joke.
In a show that confronts visitors with frontal, clinical photos and terse written stories of thalidomide babies, Ukrainian orphans doomed to sexual slavery, and Tanzanians who poach human albinos for their skin, limbs, and organs, one piece reliably gives them pause: six large framed sheets of paper documenting a bunny-rabbit holocaust.
Fifty-four rabbits from three distinct bloodlines have been photographed individually in front of the same dingy, buff-colored backdrop; the resulting nearly identical images have been sorted into four grids. Accompanying text tells us what they all have in common: They’re test subjects from the Robert Wicks Pest Animal Control Center in Australia, and they’ve all been injected with a disease that’s slowly killing them. The Center’s goal is to find a strain of virus that could wipe out the country’s non-native wild rabbit population.
Next to the text, a final panel contains a few not-necessarily helpful contextual details, including vials of the myxoma virus, images of a pile of rabbits shot dead on private farmland, and perhaps most disconcerting, a chocolate candy that looks sort of like an Easter Bunny, albeit with an elongated, tapered nose. It’s an “Easter Bilby,” an alternative Easter treat named after a native nocturnal marsupial. In the 1990s, the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia persuaded candy-makers to stop celebrating rabbits and embrace the endangered bilby instead. Australians are trying to train themselves to no longer think of fuzzy bunny rabbits as cute—and to not mind killing an awful lot of them.
Together, these six panels compose “Chapter VI” of Simon’s “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, I–XVIII.” The show comes to the Corcoran from the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it debuted at the Tate Modern in London last year. All of the 18 separate “chapters” in the show systematically document living family trees—conventional chains of grandparents, parents, and children, mostly, but also unrelated orphans, albinos, and, yes, bunnies. In every case, the families depicted have weathered threats of oblivion at the hands of state institutions, religious customs, or armed conflicts.
Through words and images floating in seas of blank cream-colored paper, Simon asks big questions about nature, nurture, and human bodies tossed by the currents of history. The spare aesthetics of the work and the cool, disinterested pose of the artist mirror how scientists and statesmen in the modern era have tried—and failed—to see their world and its cultures with an empirical eye. And while the artist’s identical consideration of an Australian war on the Easter Bunny and, say, the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men might suggest extremely black comedy, make no mistake: “A Living Man Declared Dead” is a serious, deeply affecting show, even when it veers into the absurd.
Throughout her four-year globetrotting project, lugging her large-format camera across 25 countries, Simon wore her poker face, cultivating ambivalent, impersonal relationships with the people she photographed. The result is an archive of stiff, formulaic, unflattering portraits with few smiles and lots of awkward body language.
Take, for example, her photos of Ukrainian orphans. In image after image, the orphans gawk at the lens or at some point beyond it, looking bored, surprised, or emotionally vacant. Instead of glimpsing the humanity of these children, the viewer is more likely to notice troubling details: the repeat appearances of the same ill-fitting secondhand outfits and terrible haircuts; the way so many of them clutch their rough, oversized hands; the younger children’s smallness as they fill only the bottom half of the frame. It produces not empathy, but a general sense of hopelessness: Many of these kids will end up suicides, prostitutes, or prisoners.
There are precedents for this sort of systematic portrait collection—and not just mugshots or drivers’ licenses. Simon’s idea can be traced at least as far back as German photographer August Sander’s 1929 book, Face of Our Time, in which he attempted to compare types and social classes in German society. Sander was a champion of New Objectivity, a belief that photography should be used to examine modern life with clear-eyed realism. “We must be able to accept seeing the truth,” Sander wrote in regard to his portraits. “Above all, we should transmit that truth to our fellow humans and to posterity, whether or not it is favorable to us.”
Yet it’s hard to say that Simon’s ultimate goal is realism. Sander included details in the settings of his portraits that hinted at the subject’s identity; Simon does not, opting for an artificially empty set. Her totalizing aesthetic puts all of her stories and images on the same footing: A human tooth from a mass grave and a lab rabbit’s eyeball in solution are basically the same thing.
Further, Simon occasionally employs self-conscious references to the history of her medium: When the artist photographs a baby or toddler, for example, the mother is typically crouching behind the chair, hiding her face while holding her child in place. It recalls the odd phenomenon of the “hidden mother” in Victorian tintypes and daguerreotypes. The long exposure times for those images required that babies be held still by mothers who concealed themselves under drapes or cloth, turning themselves into living furniture. Simon uses the same device, but without the fabric, leaving the mother plainly visible. The result is a dance between transparency and arcane artifice.
You’d think the accompanying text would give the viewer more emotional access. Instead, Simon’s words make the photos seem more remote. “Ondijo claims he selected two wives for love, paying their families a total of 16 cows,” writes Simon in her chapter describing polygamy in Kenya. “One of his wives deserted him, and another passed away during treatment for evil spirits.” The passage goes on to dryly note arguments for and against polygamy in Kenya, and concludes by presenting without comment the family patriarch’s stated reasons for practicing plural marriage.
Simon herself acknowledges that her combination of text and words is less than the sum of its parts, stating in her catalog: “There is no end result. There is only disorientation or the unknown…X + Y does not equal something. It doesn’t equal infinity either. It just mutates into another question.”
This is what makes “A Living Man Declared Dead” a little terrifying: Simon restates and reframes big questions about our humanity with dogged persistence, piercing intelligence, and occasional flashes of off-kilter dark humor—but the only answers she sees are “the inevitability of solitude and the impossibility of true understanding.”
Our belief in photography’s capacity to deliver objectivity or truth is, to Simon, a persistent anachronism. In this show, she confronts that belief with an encompassing monument to entropy and failure.