Taryn Simon

An Occupation of Loss

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

It is three weeks since my mother passed away. Much of that time I have spent with my father and sister: naturally enough, we have attempted to look after each other. Perhaps harder even than my mother’s passing is seeing my father be strong and at the same time upset, seeing him come to know his life will be lived in a new way. The complexity and multiple directions of loss took me by surprise. Mourning comes not only with raw emotion, but with also questions of how to now go on, a horizon which marks the that has been, and that which is to come. A difficult balance is struck between trying to think to the future whilst ordering memories of the past. You do not only look back.

For the moment, I cannot write about loss only at a distance. But it seems also that it is always both near and far, particular and universal, emotive and analytical. It is not as simple as the specifics of my loss or yours, or the abstract commonalities we share. Neither is mourning simply a manifestation of loss: the rhythms of its puncturing wounds and subsequent healing, whether fast or slow, follow in successions. Its facts undo artificial dualities.

It is strange to consider, in something which seems so personal, that mourning is also a vocation; that is, a task, a role, an occupation. It is strange because a western assumption is that grief is personal, tied to the one. It should not be a surprise that it is also experienced by the many, as a multitude, even if those magnitudes vary. Nor should it surprise us that our grief is not teased out by ourselves alone. In mourning, it is often contact with others which brings out the strongest emotional responses: gestures of kindness and consideration which frame and amend our own perception about how we are coping. These unearth vulnerabilities that we have come to cover. Contact with priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and counsellors facilitate a coming to terms, accommodating and enframing. Professional mourners occupy a similar role in many cultures. What appears to some eyes as a synthetic or staged form of loss, is, perhaps to the ears a contribution towards – a permission to embrace – its full sensations. Here is also its overcoming: the necessity of mourning recedes only once it is given space to emerge.

Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss began as research into the roles of professional mourners, an extension of her enquiries into bloodlines in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII (2008-11), and structures of social order, such as Contraband (2010) or The Innocents (2002). Its ultimate form is as both a performance – of the mourning songs, laments, and crying, performed by mourners from a variety of countries and cultures – and as a documentary administrative record, in the form of a book with Hatje Cantz, which aims to reveal something of the global conditions of mourning and the passage of people. Performed first in New York, and more recently in London through an Artangel commission, the performance is visceral and moving, an encounter which brings emotions to the surface that are long suppressed, at the same time demonstrating mourning’s specificities and universalities. By contrast, the book is colder, with a stronger emphasis on witness, testimony, and its passage through bureaucracy. It is a challenge not to cry in response to the apparent mass sadness in the performance, and hard to respond emotionally to the bald and complex administration of the state.

It is clear that Simon intentionally allows for two separate experiences to co-exist. Indeed, upon entering the performance, little information is given over to visitors, so that a clear experience of mourning is uninterrupted. It does not matter who or what is mourned: instead a theatre for mourning is provided, a space away from distraction. It is only upon leaving the visitors are handed small booklets that reveal details, also in the book, which names the performers, the complex immigration process of bringing these mourners together in one place, and the professional testimonies which are needed to support the visa applications.

If such contrasts between performance and book are more than jarring at first glance, they come to demonstrate a key aim of Simon’s project in demonstrating duality while also revealing how they are closely interlinked. Personal and public mourning, emotional experience and cold administrative explanation co-exist, as do staged and natural experience, the tears of professional mourners, and the emotion they release in others. Neither polarity can be exorcised, even if each position calls for the abolition of the other, especially in polemical times. It may appear that Simon’s book details the complex bureaucracy undergone in order to achieve the performance, but this is a reductive reading, which aligns with the privileging of visceral experience. Instead, it takes us deeper into the labour of mourning, as a component that the mourner can hardly pay attention to in their moment of grief.

Though initially resistant and seemingly straightforward as a document, Simon’s use of the visa application papers functions as a framework to provide fundamental details and draw attention to the number and variety of cultures which work with professionalised mourners. Alongside these bare facts, the visa requires cultural explanations of the rites of loss and recovery, which Simon extracts to draw attention to the many forms of mourning. Rather than supplementing the performance with complimentary texts and other forms of assembled contextualisation, Simon finds in the visa papers a sufficient matrix which moves between the details of a ruthlessly simplified bare life, and the complex cultural constructions which underwrite communities and their nuanced responses to the universal experience of death. Such is the dominance of this material that Simon’s photographs of the performers, set against neutral backdrops, appear tertiary, adding little to the work. Arguably the project would be stronger, the contrast more pronounced, without them.

All images courtesy of Artangel. © Hugo Glendinning

An Occupation of Loss performance was co-commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Artangel.

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Arwed Messmer


Book review by Gerry Badger

In 1977, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel produced their famed book entitled Evidence, in which a collection of anonymous photographs from government and corporate archives – presented without commentary – looked liked an exhibition of images by the latest young art photographers. It demonstrated that, with most photographs, it is usage rather than aesthetics that matters. Sultan and Mandel introduced archive imagery into the aesthetic discourse, and thereby aestheticised it – made it art.

This is the area in which German photographer Arwed Messmer also operates. For a number of years, he has had privileged access to various German state archives, including those of the former DDR. He has produced various projects mining this rich material, including one made with Annett Gröschner, Taking Stock of Power. An Other View of the Berlin Wall. Here, Messmer created panoramas from negatives made of the Berlin Wall in the 1960s, made from the DDR side, and combined this with other archive material, including a series of watch towers that out-Bechered the Bechers. Now he is particularly interested in the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s and 80s as evinced by his latest publication Zelle/Cell, as well as an exhibition this June at Museum Folkwang, Essen, entitled RAF: No Evidence / Kein Beweis.

As with Sultan and Mandel, the aesthetic element is there, but Messmer’s artistic intentions are more complex. He is clearly asking questions about the archive, about all this photographic material held by the state, not necessarily for nefarious purposes, but largely because, like the vast new Internet archive, it is simply there. Nefarious – maybe not, but as Sultan and Mandel say – it is evidence. It is also, to one extent or another – surveillance.

On February 27, 1975, a prominent West German politician, mayoral candidate Peter Lorenz, was kidnapped by one of those revolutionary groups that so haunted that decade, the Movement 2 June group. Next day, the gang sent a Polaroid picture of a shocked and battered looking politician, holding up a sign to prove its legitimacy. The picture, like a similar one of the kidnapped Italian politician, Aldo Moro from the following year, became one of those symbols of the 70s – iconic, to use this overused and now devalued word. But unlike Moro, who was left to rot by his own party and eventually murdered, Lorenz was freed after a deal was made to release the prisoners demanded by the kidnappers. It is this image around which Messmer constructs his narrative. But, while well-known, it is one of many, taken from an extensive archive of 3,000 police negatives, and yet many of the written files and object evidence had been destroyed, so these hitherto unexamined photographs bear the burden of the story – a story which, as Messner says is “non-linear.” He is not attempting to reconstruct the history but play creatively, as it were, with this fascinating, but enigmatic material. His concern, as Ines Linder puts it in the book’s accompanying essay, is ultimately with “the language of the photographs.”

Messmer begins with a suite of photographs depicting the incident which gave the Movement June 2 its name. During a student demonstration on June 2, 1967, against a proposed visit to West Germany by the Shah of Iran, a student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the head by a police officer who later was revealed as an East German Stasi agent – in “self defence” of course. The photographs show the aftermath of what was nothing less than murder – but instigated by whom? The images show shocked bystanders, police officers not knowing what to do, a woman tenderly cradling the dying man. Using direct flash, the aesthetic reminds one of Garry Winogrand, but this isn’t art, it’s reality.

This is followed by similar, press-photo style pictures of two of the people released in accordance with the Lorenz kidnappers’ demands, taken to Tegel Airport to be flown to Yemen. And then the fun begins. Firstly, Messmer photographed a model made of the ‘cell’ under a bric-a-brac store in Kreuzberg where Lorenz was detained, followed by a variant of the famous Polaroid. Thereafter, there is an almost bewildering sequence of images – of getaway cars, the location where Lorenz was released, and his basement cell. One particularly intriguing sequence – again out-Bechering the Bechers, shows a series of sheet materials used to soundproof the Lorenz cell. There are images of weapons, mug shots, fingerprints lots of interiors with piled up detritus – terrorists are a squalid lot, as the Daily Mail would say – and one intriguing shot of a broom left at the scene of the kidnapping. One of them, it seems disguised himself as a street cleaner. Squalid, not him.

Messmer deliberately alters the chronology of events, and you need to look at the captions in the rear to make sense of things. But that is not the point. Messmer is questioning photography’s role, both as witness, and ultimately, as art. As Ines Linder again points out: “The super cool style of crime scene, medical, or military photographs communicates with our imaginations in a very idiosyncratic manner when these images are not contextualised in a narrative.”

Even when contextualised into a narrative, the photograph communicates in ways that are not only idiosyncratic but sometimes downright baffling. The more I get into photography – and that journey represents more than four decades of my life – the less I am interested in arty-farty photography, in a word, pictorialism, and the more I am fascinated by how photography intersects with history. That necessarily means documentary photography, but not necessarily ‘documentary’ photography in its strictest definition. It might mean photocollage, or constructed photography, or art utilising photographs. As long as it intersects with history it becomes interesting. For photography in general does not intersect with history in a straightforward manner since all photography eventually becomes history, but again, not necessarily history as we know it. Some photography clearly portrays history directly. However, not as much as we might think so one could say photography excels most at providing history’s footnotes. In the main, the historical connection is oblique, confusing, slippery, inconclusive, often unreliable, but always highly intriguing. As this superbly conceived and executed book amply demonstrates. It shows art clashing with history – with art just winning out on points.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Arwed Messmer, using negatives from the Police Historical Collection Berlin (Lorenz files).

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.