As a New York gravedigger once succinctly put it to me: “We all have dead.” No person is isolated from loss. That global grief is the core of An Occupation of Loss by Taryn Simon at the Park Avenue Armory, where 30 professional mourners from around the world vocalize their laments within 11 concrete silos.
Commissioned by the Armory with Artangel, which will present the piece in London next year, An Occupation of Loss had its premiere last night. Simon’s art has mainly been photography and text, often examining the bureaucracy and anthropology of globalization through collections like floral bouquets that adorned diplomatic events, or objects seized by customs at JFK airport. As her first foray into directing a performance, Simon’s An Occupation of Loss is a powerful, moving experience that places the audience in intimate proximity with the songs and wails from an Ecuadorian accordion player, a duo of women from Azerbaijan slapping their legs in time with their winding words, or dueling Tibetan horns played by Buddhist monks.
However, the experience is complicated by a curation that creates a sort of living cabinet of curiosities. By only having people express sadness in words much of the audience cannot understand, there’s a heavy amount of exoticization of professional mourning. Perhaps it would have been significant to have, say, New Orleans jazz funeral musicians or a Pentecostal minister, or a more local act of mourning, to assert a truly global message.
Nevertheless, that crossing of borders is also integral to the piece; Simon stated on WNYC’s All Things Considered that “it’s a performance that is in many ways curated by the US government.” On exiting the installation, you’re presented with a booklet detailing accepted and rejected visa applications (showing, for instance, no one from Kenya approved), with sparse supporting documents on the cultural practices. To get an idea of the history behind these traditions, where some are hired to mourn and others to guide the dead into the afterlife, you must link the mourners’ faces to these supporting documents. I believe the two women sobbing in an incredibly affecting way were from Venezuela, but their faces happened to be covered with veils, so that interaction remains detached from its context. Meanwhile, I only know about the persecution of the Cambodian mourners by the Khmer Rouge from reading the New York Times. And the uniting of all these traditions as “performance” is also tricky, as they are overall actions more spiritual than staged.
Yet that experience is incredibly gorgeous. First, the architecture of the towers, created in collaboration with Shohei Shigematsu of OMA, is monumental. The 11 hollow structures are said to be inspired by Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, where remains are offered to the birds, although they appear more like a Brutalist Stonehenge, and are designed to echo the noise within. The 50 audience members for each brief half-hour performance can duck inside the towers’ low doors (for the two Azerbaijan performers, only women may enter) to hear individual musicians, singers, and wailers up close. Or you can sit outside near the low ramps leading up to each pipe, and listen to the great reverberation of noise.
I was transfixed by the masked performer from Burkina Faso, whose body was invisible beneath heavy fibers, from which shivers of bells sounded, as well as the polyphonic laments of a Greek trio. Due to the 30 minutes ticking by, there is a pressure to speed through each of the 11 stations, leaving barely enough time to step back and listen to the cacophony sounded through the cavernous Drill Hall, or spend any meaningful time with one person.
Curious what the installation was like in the daytime, when visitors are invited to “activate the sculpture of inverted wells with their own sounds,” I returned the following afternoon. The Drill Hall was as quiet as a weekday church. What I at first took for the drone of the city outside was actually a low murmur recorded from the performances the night before. Stepping inside a tower and looking up at its curving sides, illuminated by one long LED light, I felt silenced by the emptiness of the space. While poignant — as what is there in loss but a profound void — I’m not sure it asks much of the audience but to be witnesses, then step back out into the blare of the living on the Manhattan streets. Still, the two weeks of An Occupation of Loss at the Armory are a stunning gathering of sorrow, one that emphasizes the human need to form meaning around death, and give a voice to what has been lost.
Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 25.