Taryn Simon, Ritual and Loss

A series of hollow, monumental concrete towers currently fill the Park Avenue Armory’s cavernous Drill Hall. The imposing structures are silent until occupied, transformed as the site of multidisciplinary artist Taryn Simon’s new installation, “An Occupation of Loss.” In a series of nightly performances, Simon invites the audience to enter each circular space at their own pace. Within each, viewers encounter paid mourners from around the world (approximately 30 in total) whom Simon has invited to grieve. The audience is both witness to each mourner’s cultural traditions, in the form of songs, wails, chants, and costumes, and enmeshed in the emotion set before them.

Simon’s work—which has explored the iconography of James Bond movies, political floral arrangements, TSA-detained contraband, and wrongfully convicted prisoners; and taken the form of text, photography, sculpture, and performance—has never felt more up-close and human. The rigor of her past projects, which are marked by a diligent approach to research and documentation, melds with the physical presence of others in a display of startling intimacy. At its simplest, “An Occupation of Loss” is about what unites us rather than what divides us. Its more complicated questions regarding death, identity, and expression linger for days afterward in the viewer’s mind.

Simon recently spoke to Homi K. Bhabha, a professor at Harvard and a leading critical theorist, about her Armory commission. In 2012, Bhabha contributed text to the publication version of Simon’s project A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII, in which she traveled the world for four years, researching and documenting family bloodlines. Here they discuss the nature and performance of grief.

HOMI K. BHABHA: Taryn, I’m really so pleased [about] this current show at the Armory, which you talked to me about a long time ago in such remarkable and now I think visionary detail—talking about the actual physical structures, the diverse practices of mourning, and the importance of sound as a form of sadness and a form of managing loss; the sonic, the aural, listening to sound. I’m very much looking forward to experiencing this well of wailing sounds [and] other music. But let me move quickly to ask you about what it took to put this whole idea into play?

TARYN SIMON: Well, because it was existing in such a schizophrenic form where it was architecture, and then the actual production of organizing for all of these individuals to come into the United States and simultaneously deal with all of these sonic properties, and learning about sound and how it reacts to space and concrete—there were endless stops and starts and difficulties along the way. I think the most anxious aspect was definitely dealing with USCIS, [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services,] and somehow feeling that I would actually have a cast of performers that would be able to populate what we were constructing. We were working for four years on the construction of this massive installation with the knowledge that we may not garner any permissions to allow for the people that I was imagining that would populate it. In the end, the resulting work is in many ways curated—unbeknownst to them—by the U.S. government, because the absence and presence of performers was determined by them. To get these individuals into the United States, you have to apply for a P-3 Visa, which is this massive pile of papers with academic and expert testimonials, and validating these people as “culturally unique” according to government standards. It’s certainly highlighted this whole hierarchy in art and culture, but it was down to the wire.

Every day I would wake up and we would have local embassy interviews after you are granted the P-3 Visa status; each individual had to go to their local embassy and have an interview, and that was the time when they would actually get the visa, and it would either be denied or issued. So it was this constant deflating news that would be rolling in, and we would have to reposition everything and rethink it all—all of this work that had been done with anthropologists and linguists and musicologists and just the collection of data. It was so often disappointing. It was sort of hard to keep the energy going in the face of that.

BHABHA: You know, Taryn … There is a great irony in my talking to you. I am a Parsee, I belong to a small Zoroastrian community from Bombay in India, and our burial grounds are called the Towers of Silence. The burial grounds are a series of towers, where priests lay the dead bodies and traditionally vultures consume them. I just say this because the notion of the Towers of Silence is so different from your towers of song and wailing and mourning and music. I think there’s quite a nice little contrast there.

Let me ask you something—you’ve just given us this long litany of problems you had in actually constructing the installation and the performance, but I think that your work is important not simply for the final product, but all of the processes that go into the work: the bureaucratic processes, the conceptual processes, the journalistic processes, the archival processes, the conversations with anthropologists, the conversations with legal scholars. All of that archive may not be immediately visible to the viewer, but it is very much part of the internal structure of the work, because death in a way is about the loss of all time. After death, there is no time, except the time of memory or the time of history, which tries to hold on to the individual or the event as it has passed. But the concept of dying, which is a much slower, much less sudden concept, has been a great theme in literature, in music. … I think although these are mourners in some ways, professional mourners—there’s a little irony in that too but it’s something that we would historically understand—what you make us think about is the long process, the legal process, the bureaucratic process, the long process of delays, and different kinds of temporality, different kinds of time that eventually lead to the performers to be able to do their work and for you to be able to construct the mise en scène for the work. So, I’d like to put it to you that in all of your work, the whole process of production is as important as what you see on the gallery wall or on the evening. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about the work. … The choices you make in bringing all of these different knowledges to bare on an image or in an installation, that’s really what fascinates me, because it is not a traditional art practice. And I refuse to treat those processes as somehow outside of the work; these are not just things you have to do to make your work, these things are part of the work itself.

SIMON: They are. I think the way in which that was exhibited previously, like in “A Living Man Declared Dead [and Other Chapters I – XVIII],” it was with the empty portraits, or the ways in which rejections and absences were noted. But in this particular work, “An Occupation of Loss,” it’s actually the visa process that I was just describing. For the first time I allowed the process to be visible, and it’s this punctuating booklet that you get after this [performance] that exists without text. My interest in the act of professional mourning, and in that abstract space that opens up after loss, is that it is unspeakable, that it is difficult to communicate with language, that it is something beyond words, and so it takes this performative form because it’s something that can’t necessarily be framed in a photograph or a text. They themselves acknowledge that through using instrument and speech in radical ways that are beyond text, and using sonic properties to get to that space. The performance itself is actually more psychological and a bit out of control, and then when you leave, you’re given something that exhibits the process, where there’s finally notation about what you’ve just seen. It’s excerpts from all of those expert testimonials and affidavits that were submitted to the government and pictures of their visa receipts. It’s the first time where I’ve made the process very visible.

BHABHA: Can I ask, why were you so interested in mourning? And why were you so interested in professional mourning? Two questions.

SIMON: I was interested in the duality and contradiction in it all, and just looking at—

BHABHA: The duality [in] being a professional mourner? Is that the duality or the contradiction you’re referring to?

SIMON: It’s the idea of being authentic and scripted simultaneously, being of the past and the future simultaneously, being with the living and the dead simultaneously, and generating and shaping emotion, and inhabiting emotion, but then also it’s linked to commerce because these are also often paid professions, and literally exhibiting tears yet knowing that that is also performed—that strange collision of what’s considered our most precious and individual and private space. I wanted to look at loss because I think it’s an emotional space where we feel we are most ourselves, or there’s this pure space that is yours in that unspeakable moment, and to consider if that space is somehow still programmed and performed, and can it ever break from that. Or do the two always exist side-by-side? Does one require the other?

BHABHA: The first description you gave of professional mourners just reminded me of actors. Actors do exactly the same thing; they’ve shed elephant tears, they take on other people’s lives, the play out both in language and gesture the sense of loss, they live, as it were, on the cusp of life and death, because they are playing people who are absent, whether they’re fictional or otherwise. Let me also say that as somebody whose central practice [includes] photography, the photograph is philosophically, if you think about it, something very similar—it’s always on the cusp of life and death because the image brings something to life, the image gives you a picture of life of one kind or another, even if it’s an abstract image, but in a way to get that image, the original—and of course with virtual work or digital work the notion of the original becomes problematic—there is always another object that is being represented. Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, when they all talk about the fact that death haunts the photograph, they’re not only talking about the fact that people often had photographs made on occasions that they knew would pass … There is always this notion with a photograph, and indeed with death itself, that it is a complete erasure, it is a stoppage of time, and therefore you need ways of continuing and need ways in the future of making the memory or the history hold those things together.

SIMON: So making the invisibility of loss visible.

BHABHA: Yes, to make it experiential. Sometimes it’s visible, sometimes in language it’s much more experiential, sometimes in narratives or stories it becomes much more phenomenological, sometimes in models it becomes embodied if you have a sculpture. So I think there is an interesting link between the concept of death and its continuity, its representations in this work, and your interest in photography.

SIMON: Absolutely—and how a photograph breaks time’s continuum, and marks something that is gone and lost. I was thinking about that in the architecture of this installation because I see a photograph as very linked to the process of also marking loss physically, from Neanderthal times to the current day, and how scale plays into that conversation and corresponds to a certain level of grief, whether it be national, global, or individual, and how we physically mark loss. With the installation, it has this sort of monumental appearance that was [part of] thinking about that relationship.

BHABHA: But, you know, traditionally, the institutions that you go to express that loss are often monumental; you got to a church, you go to a cathedral, people scatter ashes in the ocean, people go to the mountains, people bury. Burial also is a kind of strange scale, that problem of going deep into the ground. We take it as a normal thing, that it’s a normal process, but of course it’s a very strange thing to put somebody in a box and then hide them under the ground. Apart from that, the burning of bodies is a very monumental thing, on pyres—of course I’m not talking of contemporary cremation, cremation is in a way the violation of the body somehow, or death somehow returning the body to its sublime, to its sublimity.

SIMON: To that point, many of these mourning practices, and these professional mourners, are operating in customs that are pre-Islamic, pre-Christian, and then you have organized religion, [which] has organized the way in which populations now govern that complexity that occurs after loss, and maintains order in that space, because that’s a space in which people can change. That’s a space in which disruption to order can occur, and people can be transformed, and so these customs have often been marginalized by governments and organized religion, and I think threaten that control.

BHABHA: Yes, I think that may well be so, particularly amongst governments that want to control the religious beliefs and the religious cultures of their populations. But the meditation on death makes me think that not all deaths are the same. That is one of the illusive qualities of dying—death reduces everybody to this kind of inanimate state. But what happens around the ritual of death, whether it’s on the scale of the family or on the scale of the nation, is the storyline that attaches to the death. It can be the death of a million people by starvation, it can be the death of 200,000 people crossing the Mediterranean in the migration crisis, it can be the death of a single boy, Alan Kurdi, found on a beach in Turkey, it can be the death of a great hero, of a great national figure. So, in a way, death in itself defies definition, and yet professional mourners of various traditions weave a narrative to keep alive in words and music and wails and other kinds of sonic material, or sonic mediations, the presence of somebody or something.

SIMON: They also are committed to generating emotion, which I like to think about a lot even in terms of how that’s used politically today and privately. What is this commitment to a generation of emotion? And that has to punctuate these moments.