Grave goods fill our museum collections, often standing as proxies for diverse themes from the life and times of past cultures. One difficulty lies in ‘seeing’ the frameworks in which grave goods were made and deposited beyond the ragged line of the grave pit itself. The mourners who placed personal possessions – and who may have made them especially for the occasion – are all too often absent. These things have been on my mind of late, owing to the Grave Goods Project.
It was all the more powerful, then, when Artangel’s latest project, An Occupation of Loss, created by Taryn Simon, concerned itself with the performative dynamics of the funerary ritual in the western world.
Just off Islington Green, beneath modern apartments that rehash the wooden ‘O’ of Shakespeare’s Globe, is a subterranean cavern of concrete, constructed over three levels. We’re led down at night, taking position by balustrades overlooking a central stage or pit, dressed with two poles of light, reaching to the heavens.
The temptation is to strike up, in a mocking falsetto:
‘Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.’
But before you can, instruments herald the arrival of the performers, and they are immediately disarming. Professional mourners drawn from across the world by Simon and the Artangel team, they come two-by-two, sometimes three, as if entering an arc or a morbid, alien zoo. They take their positions, scattered across the levels and alcoves of the space and proceed to lament, to mourn, to wail and sour the space with the utmost performances of loss and anguish. The visitor is free and can wander and engage, to feel under-dressed, insufficiently understanding, as the languages and customs of the world unfold in a death dance.
As archaeologists, we are fascinated by the things that so rarely survive: the clothes, organics, and, of course, the sounds of the past. We glimpse these things, the small bottles for unctuous liquids that purified the bodies of the mourners and the dead alike. The piggy-shaped rattle that may have warded off evil spirits at the graveside. But here are the instruments and oils brought to life in repeated gestures, slapped knees and tugged fabrics that act to animate the static things in museum cases.
The sound of each group competes for your attention. You cock your head, hoping that the cacophony will somehow harmonise, but the sound-waves remain jagged and unfitting sherds. Then there is silence. The mourners march off, a distant door slams, and you are left in the pit staring upwards for the stars.
There is no need to be upset: they were just performers, you remind yourself, acting like exhibits, dredging up the emotion required. Yet, if we opened our minds to the mute grave goods in the great museum exhibitions of the world, would we hear anything more harmonious – or real?
An Occupation of Loss is at Corner of Islington Green, Essex Road from 17 April 2018 – 28 April 2018
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Marina Doritis, Laura Purseglove and Thomas Kiely.