We leave the busy sounds of Essex Road while dusk is still falling. The audience is led to the third floor of a barren cathedral space. Peering below, we see an empty space with ramps leading to the centre. Each ramp is lined with thin LED lighting creating an entrance, a focus in the increasing darkness. Before we can consider its purpose we hear the deep bass of drum beats as performers enter the space in twos and threes, eventually disappearing into recesses on all three floors. Sounds of chanting begins to emerge from unseen corners. The sounds layer and bounce off the cement walls.
The first corner I turn reveals two seated figures concealed with capes. I can’t see their faces but their plaintive singing voices suggest they are female. I make my way round and find a lone, blind accordion player, stood high on a platform. And on it goes with each twist and turn, we are spectators to lamentation from professional mourners. The audience wanders wordlessly.
This is ‘An Occupation of Loss’. Originally staged in New York in 2016 by artist Taryn Simon, it is an art performance like no other. Architecture, performance and sound are the tools used to explore the experience of grief. Following a lengthy period of research into professional mourning speaking to musicologists, linguists, historians and anthropologists, Simon began organising the travel of 21 international mourners to the US, and this year to the UK. This process is documented in a book that brings together visa applications and supporting documents from academics, on the cultural history of mourning. The effect exposes the bureaucracy of movement of people, and the value of art and culture across borders – particularly from post-Trump countries of scrutiny.
The concept came to Simon through an interest in the rituals of death and grieving in the US and UK. In The Independent Simon explains how “we respond privately, nationally, civically to loss. You’re also confronting the moment that will be unprecedented”.
The experience itself is at once sobering and strange. The audience respectfully watches the mourners put voice to sorrow in languages and emotions that may be alien. It is also rather voyeuristic to observe people submerge into grief – an outpouring that has no focus in a space that has no visible ‘loss’ at its centre. Despite the magnitude and sincerity of the feeling, these mourners rarely know the deceased in question. They perform a role – hired to express the sadness of the occasion through their voices and execute the stages of mourning. They embody and amplify the very real tears of the loved ones left behind; shaping their anguish in a way only the voice can express. In this context, we’re asked to witness the authenticity of the moment but are not privy to the loss.
The experience of the performance isn’t to be found in the chanting voices themselves but the personal journey our mind takes. For some, the journey may be instant and tangible, a recent bereavement may foster a kinship to the mourner expressing their silent tears. For others, the unfamiliar wailing will express an intangible void, as we try to fill it with a sense of empathy for the people we will never meet and yet are culturally aware of their sufferings. As the last voices recede into the darkness, we’re left alone in a meditative trance, in quiet reflection on the universal language of grief that connects us.
An Occupation of Loss is co-curated by Artangel and Park Avenue Armoury. Tickets and details artangel.org.uk
All images taken by Hugo Glendinning, courtesy of Artangel
Extraordinary art, unexpected places
Place: Islington Green, London
Times: Monday - Saturday 17:00 - 22:00 slots
Dates: 17 - 28 April