Artist Taryn Simon’s latest work, An Occupation of Loss, explores the anatomy of grief and mourning and the ways in which we attempt to make sense of the uncertain universe. Now on view at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, the exhibition brings together 30 professional mourners from Greece, Burkina Faso, Russia, Venezuela, Albania, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and other countries, who perform traditional rituals of grief and mourning within slim concrete towers.
Collaborating with Dutch firm OMA and the New York office’s director Shohei Shigematsu, Simon designed a series of 11 raw concrete pipes, each measuring 48 feet in height and featuring a half-height entryway. The towers are arranged in a stately semicircle and are accessed by a ramp. Inside, mourners sit on a ledge built in to the tower. Visitors enter the small room (they must crouch to get inside) and observe the mourners, who sit a mere one or two feet away.
Referencing Zoroastrian “Towers of Silence,” which exposed dead bodies to carrion birds, the slender towers—or inverted wells—function to give literal structure to the cries, recitations, and songs performed within. Their open, slanted tops allow the sounds to escape into and echo throughout the massive hall of the Armory, which is dark except for three thin strips of L.E.D. lights. Each column is illuminated with a strip of light as well.
“Visually and sonically, I kept gravitating toward the form of a well,” Simon said in a statement. “But I wanted it to be super-terrestrial and have height instead of depth while retaining the echo, the reflection, and the vertigo.”
Indeed, the experience of first confronting the solemn installation from a balcony in the dark, then descending a steep, narrow staircase to meet the performers face to face grounds the viewer and attaches her to something real, even as the mourners grieve in an abstract space, detached from an actual object of loss. As a viewer, I was grateful for the heft and physicality of the architecture, even feeling comforted and enveloped by the blank, intimidating structures.
During the day, the exhibition is open to the public, and visitors may enter the towers and activate the sculptures with their own sounds, while a subtle soundtrack of the evening performances plays in the background. An Occupation of Loss, presented in conjunction with Artangel, London is on view at the Armory until September 25.