Taryn Simon and The Occupation of Loss

Art, if nothing else, wakes you up to a new perspective. The visual, spatial, and auditory statements artist Taryn Simon makes in “An Occupation of Loss,” her performance piece at the Park Avenue Armory in New York (up through September 25th), are absolutely beautiful: Tall cement columns, open at the top like gigantic organ pipes, each with a small open doorway at the bottom reminiscent of the entrance to an igloo, each with a long pointed walkway, all arranged in a semicircle in the mostly-dark, soaringly huge armory space. In each organ-pipe-igloo are professional mourners from different points on the globe, singing, playing instruments, crying, speaking, or wailing as their individual tradition dictates. It’s especially powerful because there’s typically room for only three or four audience members in each space, so, after stooping to enter, you find yourself face-to-face with someone mourning, strenuously and beautifully.

But even without seeing or hearing any of it, simply the knowledge that the job of professional mourner exists, in cultures (many of them) all over the world is perspective-altering. Whether a given mourner’s style is locking eyes with audience members and sobbing uncontrollably or shaking a maraca-like instrument beneath a full-body carpet of what looks like the shaggy fur of a wooly mammoth, each makes their living going to funerals and performing—precisely as an actor does—grief. That this helps people through their grief in some way is incredibly useful information.

Our culture’s responses to grief, when there is a response at all, is typically the opposite: It’s about moving on, minimizing, anything I can do to help? (aka fix). Imagining a paid mourner, screaming and crying at a funeral of someone close to us is almost grotesque at first, but allowing even the tiniest piece of your grief to be understood and felt by others, rather than pushed away, can be deeply comforting.

Simon’s piece brings up a lot: Should I smile at the mourner—after all, he/she’s acting and doing a really great job? Should I look upset, instead? What are they really feeling? Are they sad people or happy? Why do these mourners cover their faces? How much do these people get paid anyway? What’s it like when they’re really sad? What do they think of (privileged, objectifying) me? Isn’t it their job to be objectified? Why is it so sad when people die? Watching powerful art-world men stoop into the doorway of the pair of female mourners from Azerbaijan only to be turned away—only women are allowed in—flips the script on power and entitlement in a particularly visceral way.

The music—especially the sound of it all being performed at once, amplified through the towers—and visuals together are pure, deeply resonant gorgeousness. But the sheer fact of the performers themselves, what their real jobs consist of, is perhaps the most beautiful thing of all.