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
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam