In refeference to the image: Excerpt from Chapter I, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters
b. Letter to the chief judicial magistrate of Azamgarh demanding official recognition that Shivdutt,
Chandrabhan, Phoolchand, and Ram Surat Yadav are living and maintain legal title to their land. The letter also requests that legal action be taken against all officers and family members who filed false information. Family file, Azamgarh.
d. Corpse of a person with leprosy floating in the Ganges River. The dead are cremated on the banks of the river or tied to heavy stones and sunk in the water. Dhanaiy Yadav, Shivdutt Yadav’s father, was cremated along the banks and his ashes were scattered in the river. Ganges River, Varanasi.
review by Max Liu
Taryn Simon documents people so deftly that it feels like they’re presenting themselves. In ‘A Living Man Declared Dead,’ eighteen works constituting three panels each - photo portraits of family members, text, footnote images - explore connections of time, landscape, genealogy. Presence and absence are considered with a striking lack of self-reverence that lets the exhibition talk for and to itself.
History is systematically brought to bear on subjects who have been forced to meet the world. Thrust into its bloody vicissitudes, what time and territory have these disfigured inheritors for self-involvement’ Palestinian hijacker Leila Kahled diverted a plane over her former-home of Haifa, an emotional journey within a flight of terror, and perhaps the subjects have, in part, been brought here to contemplate themselves as we view them.
The German television director, born 1928 (dates are helpful as it can be hard to determine the age of the scarred), looks like he would resist such suggestions. He must remember his relative Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of Poland, and his lined-face, contrasted with a young waitress’s, inevitably hints at alternative responses to Germany’s past. Occasionally, clothes stand in for absent subjects but the footnotes contain one of the show’s most enigmatic images. ‘Makeshift bar in Hans Frank’s study at Schobershot (1936-45),’ writes Simon. Is the study now a bar’ Or was it left like this by Frank’ Neither. Empty, upended Red Bull and Becks Lager bottles are strewn over the floor amongst dust and debris like something has ripped through, leaving the room for dead.
Atrocity runs like a bloodline through this show but it’s impossible to anticipate the impact of Simon’s pictures of Bosnian Muslims. A neatly arranged, incomplete skeleton awaits reassembly while a mother squints through dark glasses, beneath a blue headscarf, and the recovered, yellowed teeth of the slaughtered stand alone. A young woman ducks, holding her baby in place for the camera with a moving sense of necessity and playfulness. A video still - 19:33, 25.06.95 - showing an Orthodox priest blessing freshly crew-cut Serbian soldiers, supplemented by shots of their murdered victims, lands a sucker-punch to the soul. ‘General Ratko Mladic is still at large,’ writes Simon and the only comfort is that this is no longer the case.
‘Those who don’t know their past are not worthy of their future,’ reads the inscription on a classroom wall at a Ukrainian orphanage. Simon delivers on a deep obligation to the past but nowhere is this more at stake than in her photographs of these children who stare into uncertain futures; the younger defiant, the elder anxious, at the encroachment, not of the institution, but of the world. Or perhaps, as Simon suggests throughout, outside is inside. Visitors to this excellent show could, in theory, follow her example and help the orphans. They are, after all, only a short plane ride away, which cannot be said of the boys who fell face down in a ditch at Srebrenica sixteen years ago this month.