Photographing the Catastrophe
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
October 21, 2012–January 7, 2013
Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.
—Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida1
Taryn Simon’s monumental text and photo installation A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII is an extraordinary work: intellectually sophisticated, meticulously plotted, beautifully produced, poignant and excruciating in its details, and overwhelming in its cumulative effect. It is relentless in its pursuit of what we might call the presenting power of art. By that I mean art’s ability to make its stories present as aspects of a lived, historical world unbounded in its spatial and temporal extension, as well as carefully crafted features of a framed and bounded artifice.2 In that sense, the installation itself, as an entire enterprise, is nothing other than a serial instantiation of its own paradoxical (and literal) title. It is the expansive image of a living man declared dead (through art, by law, as history), whose death may yet be recuperated (also through art, by law, as history) and whose life, if not entirely restored, may at least be given a kind of provisional yet hauntingly powerful artistic presentness.
In many of its chapters, A Living Man Declared Dead is concerned with the issue of identity and the myriad ways through which it can be lost or effaced. It presents the stories, inter alia, of an Indian farmer declared legally dead thanks to judicial corruption; an Iranian man coerced to become the body double of Uday Hussein; “anonymous” victims of the Srebrenica Massacre identified by forensic science; a woman disguised by plastic surgery to facilitate her role as an airplane hijacker; an indigenous Filipino induced to appear as an anthropological exhibit at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair; and a South Korean sailor kidnapped and “disappeared” by agents from the North. Likewise, we see any number of strategies through which lost or effaced identities can be restored or, depending on circumstance, forged anew.
Yet for all of its complexity, A Living Man Declared Dead is also in many ways a problematic work, deeply implicated in any number of contentious and contested issues related to the theorization of photography. In the worst possible case, it can be argued that the work intends to make itself visible as history in a way that is denied to photography simply by virtue of being what it is. Alternatively, it might be possible to read these historicizing claims more positively as pointing toward an important interpretive “pressure point,” a way of opening up a reading through applying stress to the structure of the work at a point of apparent weakness. Nevertheless, before engaging some of these theoretical and interpretive issues directly, it seems appropriate to work our way through one of Simon’s eighteen Chapters, as a way of teasing out exactly how meaning unfolds within the individual sections of the work.
What better place to begin than with Chapter I, the case of Shivdutt Yadav, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh, India, and the living man of the work’s title, literally declared dead, thanks to a well-placed bribe, in the course of a dispute over the title to some ancestral farmland.3 Shivdutt is hardly alone in his ticklish existential situation. Not only are fraudulent declarations of death apparently common in Uttar Pradesh, where rising population and a complex system of inheritance have made intrafamilial competition for available land especially intense, but also two other Yadav brothers and a cousin have also seen their existences erased in the unfolding of this case that, thanks to bureaucratic and judicial incompetence and dishonesty, may well drag on for years.
Yet the “dead” Shivdutt is especially important, since, as the oldest of the three Yadav brothers, he forms the linchpin from which the all-important photographic “bloodline” descends as we move from a rather elliptical text to the rigorous grid of isolated photographic portraits.4 This ruthless pruning of the traditional family tree provides Simon with a perfect set of relationships to constitute the linear grid, the predominant formal ordering principle for the piece and the literal “picture of history” that we might imagine as its intended object.
In his introduction to the catalog presentation of the work, the Harvard professor and post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha describes this bloodline as the embodiment of an “ineluctable order” endowed with a “blind authority,” itself challenged by the “random and contingent events, accidents and violence” of everyday life here represented in Simon’s so-called footnote photographs, which appear in the exhibition to the right of the narrative texts that separate them from the bloodline photos.5 With all due respect, this does not seem to me to be a sustainable analysis. The “sanguine seriality” of the bloodline does indeed give the appearance of a rigid linear order, but that order is clearly an artifact of the photographer’s decision to provide precisely that appearance.
As presented by Simon in the catalog,6 Shivdutt’s story is first given a brief narrative form in the introductory text, which provides an overview of the case as well as a modicum of contextual material. The text is information rich,7 but open ended (perhaps necessarily so since the case was unresolved at the time of its composition) and in some important ways incomplete—for example, it fails to provide much information about the “other living heirs”8 of Yadav’s father, whose machinations are the cause of the brothers’ difficulties. On the other hand, the bloodline photographs to which the text introduces us are information poor, and making any specific narrative sense of them depends finally on the identifying information provided in their captions. But they do perform one quite specific job, at least in relation to the introductory text. They confirm our suspicion that the aggressors in the inheritance case are at once heirs of Shivdutt’s father and yet not members of Shivdutt’s bloodline; in short, that they are relations from the maternal side of his family.9 This insight into laws or customs governing inheritance in Uttar Pradesh does not solve all our interpretive problems with respect to the text, but it does importantly enrich our understanding of the familial dynamics that underlie it.
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), 96.↵
- Whether photography in fact possesses this presenting power is itself a contested theoretical issue to which we will return.↵
- Taryn Simon (with introductory and critical essays by Homi Bhabha and Geoffrey Batchen), A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (Berlin: Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2011), 25ff. This catalog, which reproduces essentially the entire show, including text and images, as well as providing considerable supporting material, is an absolutely necessary adjunct to a firsthand experience of the installation, which, even on repeated viewings, remains almost too unwieldy to be encompassed within the space of the museum.↵
- For an explanation of this ordering principle at work, see Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead, 755–62.↵
- Homi Bhabha, “Beyond Photography,” in Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead, 19.↵
- The installation presents the photos first, but they are in effect meaningless until you read the following narrative or didactic texts to which they are effectively anchored.↵
- The terms “information rich,” and its inverse, “information poor,” are borrowed from information theory. For background, see James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (New York: Random House, 2011). The possibilities for criticism implicit in his analysis would be worth following up on in the future.↵
- As they are referred to in the text panel.↵
- They are further identified as cousins, in the caption to footnote photo c. on 45 and compare 42 (the “other” cousin).↵