Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, Tate Modern, London

A young star's perturbing show highlights the tenuous nature of individuality

Taryn Simon is only 36 but already she's a star of the New York art world, collected by MoMA, represented by Damien Hirst's dealer, Larry Gagosian, and laden with awards and superlatives.

Steven Spielberg has attended her openings, although that may be partly because she's married to Gwyneth Paltrow's younger brother. And her latest perturbing work – photography that holds an argument with itself about the relative merits of fine art and photojournalism – gets a stand-alone show at Tate Modern, an accolade that is arguably the UK equivalent of the blessing of the director of Jaws.

There is something keenly perverse about these serried rows of smallish photographic portraits, carefully arranged as 18 horizontal family trees. Even absences are recorded, with a square left blank and a note with the reason for that person's non-appearance: "jailed", or "flu", or simply "location unknown". These empty spaces tell us more about Simon than the portraits do about her subjects. She is a photographer who wants to order chaos and photograph absence.

Socially, and geographically, the show's scope is wide. Simon has gone to inordinate lengths to obtain accurate information about clan war in Brazil, polygamy in Kenya, or thalidomide victims in Scotland. Her lines of relatives have both the sinister regimentation of the eugenicist and the forward thrust of the optimist: the youngest subjects are a generation away from the massacre of Serb Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995. One day, we may reach the best of all possible worlds, although the bleak faces of Ukrainian orphans facing summary ejection from their cash-strapped institution on turning 16, and many with a future in crime or sexual exploitation to look forward to, suggest that day won't come soon.

The sets of images all follow the same format. The show's title comes from Uttar Pradesh, where land is both vital and scarce, and officials are bribed to declare people dead so their relatives can dispossess them. Photography, says Simon, is the greatest proof of life – an odd statement, since who, apart from these Indian victims of profound injustice, needs to prove that they're alive?

"I was looking for patterns and codes in the stories," explains the artist, who has travelled the world seeking out families whose lives are less orderly than most. The only indication of where she's been is the written description of each group of figures and the panel housing ancillary material. Otherwise, we have simply a bunch of people who resemble each other, more or less, and whose identical poses reinforce that resemblance. This sameness dulls the eye: the portraits evaporate from the memory, like ghosts, or dead people, or living people who have been declared dead. Their homogeneity is both boring and frightening, which is part of the point.

Individuality is tenuous. Hans Frank, who ran Poland for Hitler, or the Bosnian Serbs who committed the biggest massacre since the Second World War at Srebrenica, certainly didn't differentiate between victims. Actually, these last victims are some of the portraits that stick most in the mind, because they are not of whole people but of molars, dug up and DNA-tested to confirm their origins.

Simon, whose projects have included shots of contraband at JFK airport and portraits of people wrongly convicted of violent crime, is interested in the untoward – in human debris. Ultimately, this peculiar, unlovely but intriguing exhibition is no less than an attempt to photograph fate. You can take issue with Simon's methods, but there's no faulting her ambition.

To 6 Nov (020 7887 8888)

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders