Taryn Simon’s ‘An Occupation of Loss’: Professional Mourners in a Subterranean London Theatre

Laments for the dead are performed in a secret crypt beneath Islington Green

One recent evening, I joined a crowd gathered by the corner of London’s Islington Green. Right on cue, a shabby door opened, and we filed through into a sparse concrete atrium in the shadow of a new build housing complex. In silence, guides led us down a long, barely lit staircase, the air shifting from balmy to cool. And then, if our sense of space and time hadn’t already been shaken, we came to a vast circular arena, ringed by a series of balconies and illuminated by floor to ceiling white neon beams.

Apparitions floated by. First, pairs of women veiled in black, some clutching handbags, then an elderly man carrying a tambourine. A serene couple robed in white wandered through, before this international cast of professional mourners – employed to articulate grief by communities across the world, including Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Russia, Venezuela – momentarily disappeared into the darkness. The sonorous beat of wood against wood rang out (a Romanian toacă, I later learned), played by an invisible percussionist, followed by a crescendo of ritual wailing and lament.

012-venue_ool.jpg

The empty space of Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, 2018, under Islington Green and Essex Road, London. Courtesy Artangel; photograph: Hugo Glendinning

The empty space of Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, 2018, under Islington Green and Essex Road, London. Courtesy Artangel; photograph: Hugo Glendinning

For the original New York performance of An Occupation of Loss (2016) at the Armory’s Drill Hall, Taryn Simon commissioned Rem Koolhaas’s OMA firm to build a set of concrete columns, referencing both the architecture of organ pipes as well as Zoroastrian ‘Towers of Silence’ used for offering the dead to carrion. Arranged in a semicircle, the structure amplified the cries and song of the mourners through the cavernous space. The performances also took on another significance, falling on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

For the London edition of Simon’s piece, produced in collaboration with art agency Artangel, the artist instead created a subterranean theatrical space which focused on the experience of wandering and discovery. The audience instinctively dispersed, descending through the floors of the structure, roaming the carving light sculptures, and pausing to linger in alcoves, each containing clusters of mourners.

A Chinese performer prostrated herself on the floor, sobbing into a microphone; a murmuring Ghanaian couple wreathed in red sashes shed gentler tears; a blind accordionist from Ecuador struck up a tune; and a Greek troupe sung laments from ancient Epirus. But walking past into the central pit, these voices became lost in the cacophonous threnody, as the resonant frequencies of the space itself seemed to take over.

010-jafarova_ismayilova_ool.jpg

Haji Rahila Jafarova and Lala Ismayilova in Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, 2018. Courtesy: Artangel; photograph: Hugo Glendinning

Haji Rahila Jafarova and Lala Ismayilova in Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, 2018. Courtesy: Artangel; photograph: Hugo Glendinning

There were echoes in the flattening, archival impulse that has driven Simon’s previous work. In her photographic series Contraband (2010), Simon studied a week of banned objects, seized by customs officers at John F. Kennedy International Airport: fake Louis Vuitton handbags and pirated Hollywood films displaced in the airport’s non-place of global transit.

The artist first encountered traditions of professional mourning while researching her photographic project A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters (2008–11) which traced bloodlines across tumultuous political settings, from a son lost to the Srebrenica massacre to a bloody familial feud in northeast Brazil. But this subject matter required something else: ‘lament occupies this space that is not music and not speech. And it’s both spontaneous and scripted, in a way that is difficult to translate,’ Simon has said.

020-tamoyan_boudoyan_ool.jpg

Aziz Tamoyan and Kalash Tossouni Boudoyan in Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, 2018. Courtesy: Artangel; photograph: Hugo Glendinning   

Aziz Tamoyan and Kalash Tossouni Boudoyan in Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, 2018. Courtesy: Artangel; photograph: Hugo Glendinning   

If the voyeuristic set design of An Occupation of Loss evoked the idea of a panoptic gaze, in which the audience members used the architecture to silently observe, then Simon was keen to remind us of the state’s own curatorial hand. Each of us were handed a file of petitions and references supporting the ‘culturally unique’ performers’s visa applications to the UK: a reminder of who controls what we can and can’t hear.

The documentation provided a surreal glimpse into what happens when something as ineffable as bereavement meets bureaucracy. One expert detailed the vocal traditions of the Greek performers: ‘they collectively ‘tear up’ their voices, expressing a common pathos, lamenting for the dead, immigration, war, unfulfilled love, and nature’. Another explained the cosmic dimensions of Guajiro mourning: ‘the different tones of the crying are considered a sublime farewell concert and are received by the spirit as a deep eternal memory of its relatives.’

016-stations_ool.jpg

Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, London, 2018. Courtesy: Artangel; photograph: Hugo Glendinning  

Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, London, 2018. Courtesy: Artangel; photograph: Hugo Glendinning  

The mourners drifted away, and after a while so did the audience, leaving a teeming silence, and for me, a disturbing sensation of manipulation. After all, the professional mourner’s trade is premised on a kind of fraudulence – it’s all just an act – a disconnect that was heightened here, where the articulation of loss had no actual subject. But something beyond the question of authenticity was also triggered in An Occupation of Loss’s entwining of architectural design and melee of sound: a calling to historic and global expressions of emotion as a gesture of solidarity, in defiance, perhaps, of the times we live in.

Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss runs until 28 April 2018.

En Liang Khong is assistant digital editor at frieze. His writing on politics and art has been published in Prospect, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph and The New Inquiry. Follow him on Twitter: @en_khong

Most Read

Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018