Eleven monolithic cylinders rest in the Park Avenue Armory’s cavernous drill hall, and seven times a night, professional mourners from around the world fill the installation with songs of lament. It is a sampler platter of the ways cultures grapple with loss. Individually the elegies are distinct, their nuances reflecting disparate customs. But together, the mourners’ discordant voices intertwine, becoming a nationless, language-less outpouring of sadness.
Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss focuses an anthropologist’s gaze on grief, investigating how people use rituals and monuments to grapple with loss. “I was interested in how grief is performed, and how the emotional response is influenced by civic leadership, organized religion, or in this case, by people who are paid to generate emotion,” Simon tells The Creators Project. Humans have found visible, permanent ways of memorializing death for millennia, and Simon wants to interrogate those Stone Age instincts. “There’s this purposelessness to these things we erect. What are we aiming to accomplish, and how does scale correlate?” she probes.
Simon mostly works with image and text—and sometimes even nuclear waste—and this is her first performance piece in a sculptural setting. A rigorous researcher, she spent years developing An Occupation of Loss. “I worked with anthropologists, musicologists, linguists, and academics who were doing different studies in different areas. It’s the same as all my projects I’ve ever done. I followed the research lines, and they led me to this constellation,” Simon says.
The sheer diversity of mourning practices Simon managed to unearth and exhibit at the Armory is mind-boggling. The Bhutanese buy funeral insurance, so they can pay monks to conduct the proper rituals needed to guide a soul towards reincarnation. In Malaysia, the mourner is supposed to be postmenopausal, because the journey to the underworld is considered too dangerous for women of childbearing age.
An Occupation of Grief is a bit of a cultural petri dish, putting mourning customs under a microscope for New Yorkers to observe. It can feel kind of discomfiting, watching people grieve in a foreign language in the name of art. But if showgoers feel a little uncomfortable, Simon thinks that’s a good thing. “There’s a couple examples of people who are crying. You inevitably feel like the grief has to be real to generate that level of constant emotion, but you know it’s performed. It’s a bit of a mind scramble,” Simon says. “To be able to sustain that, and think about how that’s generated, I always find that striking.”
“She means it to be somewhat discordant,” Rebecca Robertson, President and Executive Producer of the Armory, says. “There’s so many inherent contradictions in the notion of mourning for hire, as it were. So all of this is on purpose. She wants you to think about all the implications.”
Simon worked with architecture firm OMA to design the “inverted wells” that house her performers. Each smooth concrete pipe is 46 feet high, built to function like a huge amplifier. “It needed to be not too designed, but carefully designed. It’s about finding the right balance of reduced language, so people don’t think it’s overdesigned. Nor would people think we found this at a concrete precast company,” OMA Partner Shohei Shigematsu says. The dichotomy echoes both readymades and the work of Donald Judd.
The mourners only activate the sculptures at night. In the afternoons, the Armory invites the public to perform and create their own cacophony, which is a little reminiscent of monuments becoming tourist attractions when the grieving ends. It drives home Simon’s point: what are the limits between living and dead, performer and bereaved? Where are the boundaries of grief?