Taryn Simon has made her name over the past few years with photographic series that are production heavy, ponderous, and derivative. One series consists of 1,075 images of items confiscated at JFK Airport in New York, another charged objects (an anti-carjacking device, a 3D-printed handgun) posed against a black square the same size as Malevich’s legendary black square monochrome. A particularly weak project, which appeared at the Venice Biennale last year and Gagosian in New York this year, involved recreating and documenting in (admittedly exquisite) photos the floral arrangements that appear in archival images of signing ceremonies of various documents, like contracts and treaties.
Simon’s work typically apes the look and language of minimalism and conceptual art (the Bechers loom large), includes a reference to art history, and bears a pretentious title (the flower series is “Paperwork and the Will of Capital”), which means it is the sort of work that is easily lauded in a conservative art world that is obsessed with the past. I like to think of her hulking series as high school projects pushed to big-budget extremes by a particularly hardworking and well-funded student: it is not particularly original, it is not at all thrilling, and there is no real meaning to any of it, but it certainly involved a lot of work.
Now Simon has entered the realm of performance with a vertiginously ambitious work at the Park Avenue Armory, titled An Occupation of Loss. It is, in contrast to her mostly pedestrian photographic work, a deeply strange and conflicted piece, by turns beautiful and discomfiting.
In collaboration with the architect Shohei Shigematsu of OMA (who was responsible for creating a domed set for the recent stunning, celestial “Manus x Machina” show at the Met’s Costume Institute), Simon has installed 11 narrow raw concrete towers in a semi-circle in the Armory’s Drill Hall. Forty-eight feet tall, they resemble grain silos, the body of missile silos, or super-sized organ pipes. (Press materials liken them to Zoroastrian “towers of silence,” where the deceased once were left to be excarnated by birds. Peter Zumthor’s rural chapels also come to mind.)
In the dark hall, these cylinders are lit from within by a single string of light that stretches most of their length. During the day, the public can come inside the hall, stroll the concrete walkways in front of each silo, and go inside them, feel them, and explore their acoustics. As impressive as the pieces are as temporary architecture or stage setting, this frankly seems like a fairly limited art experience, like walking through the shell of a construction site before all of the building material arrives. The actual performance takes place at sundown, when 30 professional mourners, hired from all around the world, take up residence in the silos, playing music, speaking, singing, praying, and crying.
Last night, a group of about 50 people—the maximum number invited into each performance—met at 7 p.m. on the north side of the Armory, an area not typically used for events there, waiting on small benches. Right before the start of the piece, an usher told us to silence our phones, explained that photographs are prohibited, and said, “You will have 30 minutes inside the installation.” Then we were led up a side staircase to a balcony overlooking the Drill Hall.
My assumption was that using this side entrance was meant to undercut the trappings of theatricality that attend a performance at the Armory, to underscore that what we were about to see was something decidedly different from a play or performance art, something more serious, but the immaculately lit mise en scène was intensely stylized and dramatic. It looked wonderfully cinematic from up above the floor. Einstein on the Beach would look great there.
After we all took our places, the mourners came out, barely visible, walking one by one into their cylinders, as a few solid clangs reverberated through the hall, and we all slowly made our way to the ground along a narrow staircase as the mourning began. There was powerful, sorrowful singing, the sound of drums and cymbals, speaking and yelling. It was gorgeous but also overwhelming, filling the hall with cacophony.
The audience spread out, wandering over to various columns, peering through the small doorways and ducking through them. I first entered one where an Ecuadorian man in a shiny dark suit wearing dark glasses was pouring all of his energy into his accordion, trilling vigorously, letting it howl, and singing words I could not understand. The rooms are so tiny that only three to five spectators can comfortably fit inside of them, and I was right up in his face. That profound closeness felt like a rare privilege, but also a nearly obscene one, witnessing someone emoting so strongly, performing a ritual to which I had no real connection.
The man was incredible, singing a yaravi, an ancient Andean song of the dead, but I only knew that because I had read a preview of the performance in the New York Times. Simon’s actual work provides no information about who is performing in each room, and so all but the most educated in mourning processes will experience the rooms as purely aesthetic experiences, guessing—by clothing and instruments, intonation and language—where the performers are from and what they are doing. On the one hand, this lack of explanatory information invites you to really focus, to try to decipher what you are seeing and hearing. On the other, it dangerously delimits the experience, obscuring the very different traditions that are being brought together. It risks becoming just a form of exotica. I kept wanting to know more, to have a some information about what I was seeing—knowledge can help you hear better, too.
And so I wandered around the hall, moving from one silo to the next, always mindful that with just 30 minutes to view the whole work I had not even 3 minutes to spend in each room.
Two Tibetan Buddhist monks in sumptuous orange and red robes, sitting serenely still next to long horns, played delicate hand drums. Three Cambodian men offered bewitching funeral music on gamelan-like metal drums and a recorder. Two Azerbaijani women in long black robes spoke and cried, slapping their legs. A man ducked in before me but was immediately tapped on the back by an usher and told to step out: only women are allowed to share space with them. He quickly darted out, looking a little embarrassed. But in truth it felt wrong to be in any of the rooms, so close to these age-old practices.
Many audience members stood outside the rooms, only peering inside. I eventually sat down on a low platform that connects the 11 silos and tried to listen to it all. The various types of singing and percussion and speaking often clashed and drowned each other out, only at rare moments flowing together. As grandiose as this may sound, I was overcome for a few seconds with the sense I was hearing minute bits of the suffering that takes place regularly all around the world, and the very human, very heroic efforts people make every day to make sense of that suffering, to remember loss and persevere through it.
There were darker connotations, too. At especially loud, dissonant sections amid all of that concrete, I thought of the terror of noise in some prisons, refugee camps, and hospitals—institutions that also bring together disparate peoples.
And then, after what actually felt like much less than 30 minutes, there was silence. The mourners walked out of their silos and the mechanical back door of the Armory rolled open, just as a city bus was screeching to a stop outside. Ushers handed out thick booklets in wax paper that contain reproductions of the electronic visa applications of all of the performers, accompanied by supporting letters from various experts and short texts about the mourning practices we had just witnessed. This information was fascinating, but it felt like too little too late—I thumbed through it, trying to match the people I had just seen, in costume, at their best, with the people’s official applications.
Most of the visa applications in the booklet are complete and issued, but some are marked “Refused,” without any additional explanation. This is classic Simon, shining a deadpan light on the glaringly obvious: the American visa application process is numbingly dehumanizing and, in many cases, seemingly arbitrary. Compared to the gravity of the actual work the people perform, it felt rather trite. As with so much of her work, I was left wishing she had just written a book or perhaps made a documentary film—mediums that can carry a great deal more pedagogical opportunities—or just scaled back her efforts, really allowing us to understand, spend time with, and appreciate even just one of the traditions we had witnessed.
There is no doubt that Simon has earnestly done a tremendous amount of research to realize the project, but the overall experience for viewers was superficial, embodying the cultural voyeurism that has become so dominant in the art world, and the recent trend of readymade labor being appropriated as art. (One thinks of the chocolate factory that Oscar Murillo installed at David Zwirner in New York in 2014 as another prime example, albeit one with a very different pitch.)
But all criticism aside, the performers were deeply moving. Since seeing the performance, I have continually been turning over in my mind one of the mourners walking out, handkerchief against her eyes, still crying. And the piece is trying to get at some big questions, albeit in a blunt. It asks about the value of grieving, and about whether we can ever understand or adopt the suffering of another.
When we speak about loss in the United States, we tend to do so only in vague ways, in bromides and clichés, keeping most of it in the shadows, unexplored. The 30 mourners, in sharp contrast, bravely and generously gave voice to myriad forms of pain, conjuring hurt that exists thousands of miles away, that is present in our own communities, hidden away, and growing in our own hearts. There is a lot of hurt that our nation has never stopped to consider, much lest to atone for.
As Simon has noted in her interviews and in her text, these professional mourners are often persecuted by authoritarian governments. That is because recognizing pain can challenge the status quo. It can foment change. Shuffling out of the hall, I thought of Robert F. Kennedy’s quotation of Aeschylus after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. He told a crowd in Indianapolis the night of that terror, “And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”