To enter Taryn Simon’s monumental installation, An Occupation of Loss, currently on view at the Park Avenue Armory, the audience must climb an outdoor staircase to arrive on the mezzanine level, where they can gaze down at an eerie constellation of 48 ft. tall, hollow concrete cylinders, arranged in a semi-circle, resembling an industrial pipe organ. From this vantage point, they watch as a series of professional mourners from various cultures enter the concrete structures, grouped by nationality. This opening ritual establishes the distance between the witnesses and performers. The initial physical separation speaks to the contradictions present in public expressions of grief, a focus of this piece. This distance remains a constant throughout the piece, even after the audience is invited to descend a long set of stairs to explore the intimate spaces inhabited by the mourners. The viewers are in close proximity, but are still outsiders, uninitiated and removed from the subject of lament.
Simon, a multidisciplinary artist, has brought over 30 professional mourners from all over the world to participate in this ambitious project that explores cultural frameworks around grief and the political forces that shape these traditions. Americans may be less familiar with the concept of professional mourners - representatives traditionally hired by families of the deceased to direct and occupy the experience of loss. For the mourners participating in this work, the loss may represent an individual, a larger cultural tragedy or an act of displacement.
The installation is epic, featuring 11 concrete structures created in collaboration with OMA / Shohei Shigematsu. In each hollow tower is a simple ledge where the mourners sit or stand performing their ceremonies. The doors to the concrete vessels are low, requiring visitors to assume a position of involuntary reverence, bowing as they enter the intimate spaces. Those who venture inside may find themselves overwhelmed by the literal echoes of grief. The mourners’ lamentations reverberate against the curved massive walls of the enclosures, and are felt in the body of the observer.
I was suddenly overcome with emotion when I found myself face-to-face with a pair of Bhutanese Lamas, blowing into brilliant silver horns (Dungchen) – the sound ringing around me and vibrating inside my chest. The physical vibration felt while being surrounded by the amplified sound emulates something evocative of the buzzing experience of sorrow. It was hard to distinguish between this physical sensation and genuine emotion.
The visceral experience of the installation emphasizes the complications raised by these mourners’ status as professionals, performing the rituals of death. It illuminates what the artist describes as: “the tension between authentic and staged emotion, memory and invention, spontaneity and script.”
The evening performers admit 50 guests for 30 minute sessions. The encounter is so brief and powerful that it resists definition. At the end of the performance, the mourners exit their spaces, and the cavernous armory hall is flooded with light as a garage door opens and visitors are ushered onto the street. Viewers left looking dazed as they wandered out, as if re-emerging from an otherworldly visit. Evening performances are sold out, but the space is open during the day for visitors to explore and activate the sculptures with their own sound.
Artistic Concept and Direction: Taryn Simon
Installation Design and Architecture: Taryn Simon in collaboration with Shohei Shigematsu/OMA
Lighting Design: Urs Schönebaum
Production Consultant: Marianne Weems
Consultant: Ida Nicolaisen, Professor Emeritus of Cultural Sociology, Copenhagen University
Installed by Art Domantay Artworks LLC and More Specialized Transport Inc.
The exhibit and performances are on view through September 25th.