Taryn Simon’s most recent work, An Occupation of Loss, is billed as a sculptural installation that comes alive with the laments of professional mourners after sundown. In collaboration with Shohei Shigematsu of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Simon has built eleven concrete towers that reach forty-eight feet into the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall rafters. While this sculpture is open to the public during the day, the real performance begins in the evening, when the towers’ bases transform into individual cells for the eleven groups of professional mourners from different religious or cultural traditions. The performance installation seduces with all the supposed merits of interculturalism — a study of how the world mourns that transcends lingual and cultural divides to uncover some sort of “universal” experience. The affective intensity of witnessing the mourners’ laments is undeniable. And yet, the performance also falls prey to the pitfalls that any critic of interculturalism already knows — minority cultures are exoticized and decontextualized for an artistic vision that leaves us no more connected than we were before.
Upon arrival, the audience was directed to a waiting area around one side of the Armory. This area and side entrance is not commonly used in Armory performances, and while it effectively avoids the lavish mansion entrance, it is entirely theatrical in its own site-specific way. The audience then climbed a flight of stairs to enter onto a balcony within the Drill Hall, where we encountered the towering spectacle. The structure is reminiscent of grain silos or giant organ pipes, eleven gray concrete columns reaching into the air. The cavernous space is dark but for subdued white lights within each structure and around the periphery of the towers. From the balcony, the audience waited as the procession began, and one by one each tower became a chamber as the mourners moved into their cells. Some walked alone, some in groups, and some with the help of stagehands. With a ceremonial beat of a drum, the audience was ushered down the stairs off the balcony and released into the semicircle of towers. On the night that I attended, we paused, looking at each other with sheepish trepidation. What do we do now? The group came to a tacit conclusion, and dispersed into the cells. Each mourner was activated by the approach of an audience member, and one voice soon multiplied into a symphony.
The experience was both monumental and personal at the same time. The sheer size of the towers is impressive, and when observed from a distance they feel historic, even important. When the towers are activated by their human instruments within, an impossibly large atonal cacophony of voices and instrumental sounds is created, as each voice joins with the others to create something larger than itself, larger than life. But then, each column’s base is like a little hut, and the audience members within it experience something that is more intimate. I first joined two Buddhist monks, Tashi Galay and Phurba Tshering, who had traveled from New Delhi. They played two long horns before chanting with a large drum, and my body vibrated with the proximity and intensity of the sound. In some instances like this one, all other sounds disappeared and the singular mourning experience took over. But then, I visited Hanna Koduah, who had traveled from Accra, Ghana, as she sat in silence. This quiet mourning fused with the echoes of the myriad experiences surrounding us, and I was made aware of all that took place outside my little corner. It is perhaps this duality of the local and the global that is the piece’s greatest strength. Each performance of mourning is given its own equal space and attention, rather than Simon mining aspects of each for something new. But the separate traditions still combine to form a new entity, as the individual voices add to the complexity of the final creation.
I should clarify here that when I approached the first chamber, there was no way of knowing who was inside. In fact, the audience was given no information whatsoever, and so each mourner had to be approached on an aesthetic level only as it was impossible to know where they were from, what ritual tradition they were performing, or more simply, what their names were. After a short thirty minutes in the space, a door to the street was opened and the audience received a booklet filled with this information on their way out. It felt like too little, too late for me, as I unsuccessfully tried to match each performer with their mug shot. But this booklet is undeniably part of the performance itself, as information about each performer is relayed through their U.S. Visa applications, while more contextual information about their performance is delivered through excerpts from supporting documents submitted to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It was here that I discovered that Hanna Koduah was only one of four mourners accepted to the U.S. from Accra. The other three were denied with no further information. Grieving is not so universal, then, when national borders force many to mourn alone.
The political dimension, although it always already exists, was underscored by this inclusion of immigration documents. Simon’s performance installation clearly highlighted the simple fact that the ways people mourn are different, if viscerally moving and superficially relatable. Any illusion of unity, however, disturbingly approaches a sense of pre-cultural universalism. It’s easy to feel as if we have much in common when we spend three minutes together engulfed by the beats of a drum. But, while the ways people mourn are different, what people are mourning for is different too. It may have been a coincidence to open the performance so close to September 11, but as any New Yorker knows, the date cannot be ignored, and I had encountered a few modes of New York City’s mourning in the preceding days. For me, 9/11 images resurfaced during the performance, but I can be sure that these images were my own. After spending some time with the provided booklet, I found that the practice of Kantaomming, performed here by three men from Cambodia, nearly disappeared during the cultural destruction of the Khmer Rouge era. I also found that professional female Shiite lamenters are at the margins of society, here represented by Lala Ismayilova and Haji Rahila Jafarova from Azerbaijan. I was able to enter their cell as a woman, but men could only listen from beyond the entrance. Indeed, we all have much to mourn. At a personal level, perhaps mourning itself is universal, but the objects being mourned are starkly different.
The ambiguity of what exactly was being mourned added to the complexities of the installation. In the absence of a personal impulse to mourn, witnessing such intensity of emotion felt, at times, uncomfortable and voyeuristic. But the authenticity of anyone’s mourning was questionable as these mourners are professionals. Perhaps they themselves are not mourning anyone or anything specific to their own lives either. Perhaps, rather than actively mourning, these performers are perfect examples of affective labor in action. But the question will remain ambiguous as the audience is not empowered to ask such questions, or indeed to interact at all with the mourners. Language barriers might be one obstacle, but there were performative barriers of the artistic space as well, with the audience instructed to remain silent. I was in a cell with the Shiite lamenters as the thirty-minute performance period ended. The women stopped, looked at me and the other woman in the space, and said, “Thank you.” It took me a moment to bring myself out of the performance mindset, where the women were off-limits performers, into the reality of two women sharing an intimate space, where I could form my own “thank you” in response. The problem is that the audience was encouraged to see each performer as something separate from themselves — to watch quietly and sample these exemplars of a foreign tradition as voyeurs, rather than relate to them at any physical or metaphysical level. And so, their status as the exotic Other is never questioned. Perhaps An Occupation of Loss would have felt more like an honest study of the world’s mourning if mourners not marked as “the Other” to a New York audience were also included. Priests and rabbis also perform professional mourning tasks, do they not?