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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.