Oct 15, 2013 - Jan 5, 2014

Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is proud to present “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,” a major body of work by the American artist Taryn Simon (b. 1975, New York). For four years (2008-2011), the artist crossed the globe researching bloodlines and their related stories. In each of the work’s eighteen chapters, the external forces of territory, power, circumstance, or religion collide with the internal forces of psychological and physical inheritance. Simon’s subjects span a wide range of topics and social relations: the titular Indian man whose relatives had him declared dead in official records to inherit his father’s land; victims of the Bosnian Genocide, represented by the bones used to identify them; a group of Ukrainian orphans, united by their lack of discernible bloodline; and laboratory-bred rabbits in Australia used to test the efficacy of a virus designed to eliminate their invasive presence.

Each of the work’s chapters contains three parts: on the left, a portrait panel, an ordered set of portraits of every living relative of the “point person” central to each chapter; in the center, an annotation panel, a written description of the events that inspired Simon’s research into the bloodline; and on the right, a footnote panel, documentary images related to the narrative events.

The unique format offers three distinct modes of engaging with the often dramatic events depicted in each chapter. In the portrait panel, the unsmiling figures in front of identical white backgrounds compose a strictly ordered archive, the artist restricting her creative input to the unsparing application of this clinical format across a range of contexts. The annotation panel provides a straightforward textual description, elaborating on the socio-historical background of each narrative. By contrast, the footnote panel offers a more intuitive, visual foothold into the issues surrounding the central dynamic of each bloodline.

Worth noting is the rigorous and demanding preparation that goes into each of Taryn Simon’s works. As the artist herself has said, “90 percent of my photographic process is, in fact, not photographic. It involves a campaign of letter-writing, research, and phone calls to access my subjects, which can range from Hamas leaders in Gaza to a hibernating black bear in its cave in West Virginia.” A sense of tenacity and performance pervades much of her practice, whether in the extensive correspondence to gain access to restricted spaces for An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar or in the near-sleepless five-day photography session to capture the stream of over 1,000 seized goods entering JFK International Airport for Contraband.

Taryn Simon’s process itself reflects an interest in how individuals relate to and interact with institutions and systems, be they governmental, corporate, religious, or ideological. For “A Living Man Declared Dead,” Simon spent four years exhaustively researching different bloodlines and tracking down their every living member. Absent members are even represented by blank portraits with captions listing the reason for their absence, ranging from fear of abduction to imprisonment to Dengue Fever.

The cumulative effect of the installations leads to one overarching question: what do these intertwined systems of individual and bloodline, of chance and fate, of order and chaos, add up to? The viewer is witness to literal, abstract juxtapositions of history and bloodline, yet the lived experience of these inherited histories is left to the viewer’s imagination.  The sum of these objects is only the collection itself—inviting further speculation while denying certainty or finality. Is there a pattern to these events, something by which we might change the course of our existence, or are we, in Simon’s words, merely on repeat, enacting the same histories over and over again?


This exhibition comes to UCCA and to China after a series of shows in major institutions around the globe, including MoMA, MOCA Los Angeles, Tate Modern, and Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin. While Simon has been shown previously in China—notably at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre as part of the 2010 Caochangdi-Arles Photo Festival—this is the most extensive exhibition of Taryn Simon’s work in China to date.

“We are excited to present the work of such a conceptually rigorous and intensely cosmopolitan artist to our global Beijing public,” said UCCA Director Philip Tinari. “We believe that Taryn Simon’s unique ability to combine photographic image, journalistic research, and writerly narrative will find a receptive audience here.”

Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Taryn Simon,Excerpt from Chapter XV, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII

1. Su, Qijian, 19 Nov. 1926. Administrator (retired), Ministry of Railways. Beijing, China.

17. Zhang, Jing, 27 July 1975. Homemaker. Qingdao, China.

18. Ma, Yucheng, 06 Sept. 2009. Qingdao, China.

19. Zhang, Qun, 27 Mar. 1979. Advertising designer, Beijing Gotwin Culture Communicate Limit Company. Beijing, China.


Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Taryn Simon,Excerpt from Chapter VI, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII

b. Gift bag from the State Council Information Office (SCIO). Product of the SCIO, Beijing.

a. China Central Television Tower, selected by the State Council Information Office to be photographed for this work. Beijing.


Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

China’s State Council Information Office (SCIO) was solicited in 2009 to select a multi-generational bloodline that would “represent China” for this project. The SCIO selected the family of Su Qijian from Beijing, for its large size. The office declined to provide further reasoning for its choice.

Previously known as the Office of Foreign Propaganda, the SCIO researches, develops, and manages China’s external publicity activities. It directs government departments, including those that oversee customs, finance, security, sport, and trade. Additionally, the SCIO instructs Chinese media on all potentially controversial issues, including Tibet, Xinjiang, ethnic minorities, human rights, religion, democracy movements, and terrorism. Its supervisory role includes monitoring foreign journalists in China, foreign research about China, and the Internet.

Only the Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China, is granted authority to cover issues of national importance. When disseminated, its reports must be used in their original form. The Xinhua News Service supplies free content to Chinese-language news media outside China.

China disseminates information to the Chinese community abroad through Chinese-language radio, television stations, the Internet, and newspapers. These distributions have undergone several reforms, including avoidance of the term propaganda in foreign-language publications that discuss China’s media management. Instead, words and phrases such as cross cultural communication, information, publicity, public relations, and public diplomacy are used to describe activities still referred to in Chinese-language publications as propaganda.

Taryn Simon, Excerpt from Chapter VI, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII VI, B

15. No. 337, 28 Mar. 2009. Inglewood, Queensland, Australia.

16. No. 338, 28 Mar. 2009. Inglewood, Queensland, Australia.


Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Twenty-four European rabbits were introduced to Australia in 1859 for hunting purposes on an estate in Victoria. Within one hundred years the rabbit population exploded to half a billion. As a consequence of early sexual maturity, short gestation, and large litters, a single female rabbit can produce between thirty and forty young per year.

Since the 1950s Australia has introduced lethal diseases into the wild rabbit population to control growth. This includes the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), which was introduced in 1995. Rabbits in certain regions have shown moderate resistance to the original strain of RHDV, but not to field strains that subsequently emerged.

In a controlled test, the Robert Wicks Pest Animal Research Centre (RWPARC), a division of Biosecurity Queensland, bred three bloodlines of test rabbits (A, B, C) from wild rabbits (A.1, B.1, C.1) trapped at Turretfield near Adelaide, a region that has shown resistance to RHDV. Scientists at the RWPARC infected the test rabbits with samples of RHDV field strains collected in 2006, 2007, and 2009. These newer field strains killed most of the rabbits in the course of the trial, revealing that these strains maintained greater virulence than the strain of RHDV introduced in 1995. Rabbits not infected were euthanized.

European rabbits have no natural predators in Australia. They compete with native wildlife, degrade land, and damage native plants and vegetation. Earlier population control methods involved shooting, trapping, destruction of warrens, fumigation, and the construction of 3,256 kilometers of fencing. Severe environmental and agricultural damage attributed to rabbits incurs annual costs in Australia of between 600 million and 1 billion AUD.

Taryn Simon,Excerpt from Chapter VI, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII

c. Official Adolf Hitler postage stamp and Hans Frank imitation stamp. The Hitler stamp was printed in 1941 for the second anniversary of the founding of the Generalgouvernement and was in circulation until the end of the Second World War. A replica of the Hitler stamp, with Frank’s image, was produced by British intelligence and released in Poland to provoke friction between Frank and Hitler. Henry Gitner Philatelists, Inc., New York.

e. Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, taken by German troops from the Czartoryski collection during the Second World War. It hung in the Wawel apartment of Hans Frank and was later brought to his family home, Schoberhof. After Frank’s arrest, the painting was returned to the Czartoryski Museum, where it now hangs across from the empty frame for Raphael’s missing Portrait of a Youth. Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.

f. Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan, taken by German troops from the Czartoryski collection during the Second World War. One of only eight oil landscapes painted by the artist, it was returned to the Czartoryski Museum upon Frank’s arrest. Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.

7. Frank, Norman, 06 Mar. 1928. Bavarian television facilities director (retired). Schliersee, Germany.

8. MJK, 24 May 1958. (Information withheld). [Sent clothing as representation]


Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Hans Frank was Adolf Hitler’s personal legal advisor and governor-general of occupied Poland. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and was executed on October 16, 1946.

During Hitler’s rise to power, Frank represented the interests of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in over 2,000 cases. He was appointed minister of justice for Bavaria, chairman of the National Socialist Jurists Association, and president of the Academy of German Law, which he founded. Frank crafted and enacted laws and legal doctrines serving the Third Reich’s ideological and territorial ambitions, including mobilization for war. At the end of 1934 Hitler appointed him Reich minister without portfolio.

Under Frank’s rule as governor-general of occupied Poland and Heinrich Himmler’s command of the SS, the General- gouvernement conscripted Polish nationals into forced labor in Germany; closed Poland’s schools and colleges; arrested Polish academics and intellectuals; increased food contributions to Germany while the Polish population was starved; implemented forcible resettlement projects, including the development of Jewish quarters; required Jews and other minorities to wear identifying symbols; and initiated a program to exterminate Jews.

Frank was captured by American troops in southern Bavaria on May 4, 1945. Upon his arrest, Frank attempted suicide. During his imprisonment and trial, he renewed his Catholic faith. In his testimony at Nuremberg, Frank claimed he submitted fourteen resignation requests to Hitler, but all were rejected.

Taryn Simon,Excerpt from Chapter VII, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII

1. Nukic, Nezir, 1928 (exact birth date unknown). Forester and road builder. Zivinice, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2. Mehic, Zumra, 09 Dec. 1950. Homemaker. Kladanj, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

3. Mehic, Bajazit, 16 Sept. 1972 – 11 July 1995. Mortal remains, International Commission on Missing Persons, Podrinje Identification Project. Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

4. Mehic, Ahmedin, 16 Feb. 1974 – 12 July 1995. Tooth sample used for DNA matching, International Commission on Missing Persons. Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery, Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

In five days in July 1995, Bosnian Serb soldiers systematically executed approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. Under the command of General Ratko Mladic ́, units from the Army of Republika Srpska attacked a United Nations- designated safe area. Dutch troops charged with protecting the UN camp were outnumbered and not equipped to fight back. Muslim men and boys from the camp and surrounding areas were rounded up, beaten, and killed. They were buried in mass graves, some still alive. Disarticulated body parts were found in secondary grave sites, indicating that human remains had been scattered in an effort to conceal the event.

Tooth and bone samples of Ahmedin Mehic ́ (4), Hazim Mehic ́ (5), Enis Mehic ́ (6), Mustafa Muminovic ́ (8), and Ibro Nukic ́ (14) were discovered in mass graves in Podrinje, eastern Bosnia. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) identified them by matching their DNA with blood samples from family members. The mortal remains of Bajazit Mehic ́ (3) were assembled at the ICMP’s Podrinje Identification Project in Tuzla and buried at the Srebrenica-Potocˇari Memorial and Cemetery on the fifteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. The ICMP has identified over 6,000 of the estimated 8,000 persons killed at Srebrenica. All remains are archived in a photographic database at the Identification Coordination Division of ICMP.

The Srebrenica massacre is the largest mass murder in Europe since the Second World War. Ongoing trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have led to convictions of genocide. Mladic ́, charged with genocide, complicity in genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war, remains a fugitive. The Bosnian war left over 100,000 dead. Approximately 20,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslims, were killed in and around UN-designated safe areas.

Taryn Simon,Excerpt from Chapter VI, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII

7. Bakari, Mzawa Iddi, 25 Sept. 1966. Women’s division chairperson, Tanzania Albino Society/personal secretary, General Military Hospital. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

8. Omari, Wahida Abdillah, 08 May 1990. Student. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

9. Omari, Tahiya Abdillah, 21 May 1997. Student. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

10. Omari, Abdulrahim Abdillah, 23 Feb. 2002. Student. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.


Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Albinos in Tanzania are under constant threat of attack from human poachers seeking their skin, hair, body parts, blood, and organs for traditional healers who maintain and promote the belief that albinos have magical powers. There are miners who believe buried albino bones will turn into diamonds, fishermen on Lake Victoria who weave albino hair into nets to catch more fish, and people suffering from various ailments who ingest potions made from albino organs and blood as possible cures. Victims of albino killings are often discovered without limbs, which can be sold for significant sums of money. Violence against albinos is most prevalent in rural areas where there is limited access to education, a small and compromised police force, and widespread superstition.

Albinism is a genetic condition characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes. This leads to an increased sensitivity to the sun, which often results in skin cancer and early death. Lack of pigment in the eyes impacts visual development and function, which can result in nearsightedness, extreme sensitivity to light, and blindness. Discrimination against albinos throughout sub-Saharan Africa affects both schooling and employment opportunities.

The Tanzanian government has responded to violence directed against the albino population by seeking death sentences for convicted albino killers, creating an albino census, and establishing police escort services for albino children. Nonetheless, the demand for albino body parts continues, providing incentives and profits for both killers and traditional healers.

Abdillah Omari (A.7) is the treasurer of the Tanzania Albino Society, a Dar es Salaam-based organization that works to protect and advocate for the albino population. His wife, Mzawa Iddi Bakari (B.7), runs the women’s division of the society, which focuses on the specific concerns of albino women. In addition to meeting the emergency needs of albinos, the society seeks to address their more basic needs such as sunglasses, hats, sunscreen, umbrellas, medication, and magnifying glasses.

Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Installation View, Photo: Peter Lo
Credits: Story

Support for this exhibition comes from     —

the United States Embassy, Beijing.    

Credits: All media
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