LIFE AND LIFE ONLY
Taryn Simon's new installation at the Museum of Modern Art, "A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII," is the most depressing and hopeless exhibition I have ever beheld, which is not to say that it is powerless, far from it.
Simon, a travelling registrar of world misery, emerges as the only participant empowered by her surveyor's lens: "innocently" she thrives and survives on despair. Taryn is enamored by documents, whether they be official endorsements of polygamy in Kenya or official endorsements of her project by the Chinese government, whose Xinhua news agency created an official genealogy for her creative purposes.
Simon willfully rejects esthetics: were I to praise the strange beauty of her picture of a dead leper floating in the Ganges, she would (as she has on Artnet TV) tell me to look at the wall text. I have been long puzzled by Simon's strange faith in texts as the justification for her practice, but this show argues that text is all that survives, if only for a while.
Taryn has very specific antennae for cruelty which would crush a less detached soul. She is like a one woman Donner Party, cannibalizing everything around her into art, be it rabbits, suicide bombers, orphans turned into whores or living people officially declared dead.
Indeed, generalizing her suffering census is paradoxically the best escape from the consequences of what Simon says. If all is despair, then why even try to "improve" anything? Might as well be in dreamland. Indeed, this is precisely why Simon insists that she makes no moral judgments and that, if we do so, in the presence of this installation at MoMA, we are engaging in false consciousness, much as her subjects have no hope of improving their lot, no matter how they try.
Like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, Taryn Simon mocks the search for meaning and redemption. We, and she, might as well have never been born.
“Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,” May 2-Sept. 3, 2012, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).