Documentary shows/Taryn Simon, Tate Modern, London

Spring has brought a pleasing efflorescence of photography to Tate Modern, which shows that curator Simon Baker is getting into his stride and the whole institution is happy to stride along with him. There is – certainly by design – a photographic display on each floor of the building at the moment; those by Simon Norfolk and Diane Arbus have already been reviewed on these pages. It all feels like a demonstration that photography has a natural and comfortable home in an institution that came to it very late.

Perhaps the most interesting of the many displays is on the fifth floor, a thought-provoking look at recent developments in documentary, composed entirely of new additions to the Tate collection. Documentary is not by any means simply a matter of being there and telling the truth, and a relatively under-promoted exhibition amply deserves notice. It includes a series of images by the Lebanese artist, video-maker and cultural historian Akram Zaatari, one of the founders of the Arab Image Foundation.

This peculiar collective, which includes or has included such diverse artists as Yto Barrada and Walid Raad, has devoted itself to inspecting the recent history of Lebanon through the documents that purport to tell that history. Zaatari’s recovered studio portraits from the Lebanon of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s on show here present a gallery of the hopes and dreams of the population in a divided country that, unable to satisfy the dreams of all, failed for so long to satisfy the hopes of any.

In the same stimulating examination of some of the many strands of documentary, a single picture by the French photographer Luc Delahaye is worth a visit to Tate on its own. A plunging view of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, the headquarters of the international media there, it shows the terrace of the hotel swarming with TV reporters preparing pieces to camera while a bomb or an air strike smokes unobserved behind them. The details are witty (the last “e” of “Palestine” is falling off the hotel sign in quiet satire), but the overall inquiry is serious. Do the international media report the story or do they report the reporting?

The centrepiece of the whole is a major new exhibition under the title A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters by the American artist Taryn Simon. It is a monumental piece of work, and also a troubling one. Simon could surely be called a documentary artist, too. She is a cataloguer, who has in the past listed such items as contraband seized entering the US or miscarriages of justice. Her habit has been to photograph in a deadpan way, and to publish the pictures accompanied by a similarly cold, almost official-sounding text.

In the present show, her system has become more complicated. Each work is a textual account of a story told about a single person, accompanied on its left by formulaic seated portraits of the surviving people directly linked by blood to that person, and on its right by a scattering of pictures illustrative of the story itself. In every piece, each of those types of information is in its own separate frame. Only the portraits expand as needed by their number to occupy two, three or more frames within each separate piece. So, in every piece there is a frame or frames for persons, a frame for fact, and a frame for emotion.

This complicated presentation, like a new sonata form, is key to the whole project. It has been carried out in a virtuoso way. The dozens of little portraits on a standard creamy neutral ground make a repeating beat, while the text panels and captions and the pictorial examples make a different, less regular rhythm. The framed works are huge but their individual components are not.

The whole project deals with pattern: the patterns of genetic connection and the staccato cruelty of fate. The stories show a range of hideous burdens that each group has to live with. They include the man of the title, declared dead by corrupt officials in India in order that somebody else might claim his valuable land. Another “chapter” is about a truly Homeric blood feud in northern Brazil, another about South Koreans kidnapped and taken to North Korea.

There are 18 chapters in all, and the practical achievement is remarkable. This is a real humdinger of an exhibition in almost every sense. It is quite impossible to read these stories without a profound conviction of the hideous banality of evil. It generates an overwhelming sense of each person involved being just incredibly unlucky to be on that list.

The problem? It is not a visual art at all. If Taryn Simon had been a writer, those searing stories would have made a strong catalogue of man’s inhumanity. This is a show in which you read a lot, and then your stomach turns. Without the texts, the photographs would be empty of meaning. Yet without the photographs, there would be no product for the artist to sell.

I am left with an uncomfortable sense of a brilliantly executed creation of an artistic commodity. Typology in a grid? Check. Massive size? Check. Visceral subject matter, tidily and neatly presented? Check. Clear branding by style? Check. It adds up to an ad campaign, with a strong message carried by strong graphics, for a lobbying group. If that was all they were, they would be a great graphic achievement. But they are artworks, produced over four years, now validated by Tate before being offered in the art market. And that makes Simon’s position uncomfortable. It’s an old conundrum, but none the easier for that – the artist stands to gain enormously from precisely the horrors that she brings so coolly to our attention.

Taryn Simon show ends November 6,

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