Can a structure give shape to something as enigmatic as grief?

Artist Taryn Simon and architects OMA recently collaborated to find out, creating a memorable—albeit temporary—setting for Simon’s performance piece, An Occupation of Loss, at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.

The work, which comes down Sunday after a short two week run, features 30 “professional mourners,” representing traditions from around the world, simultaneously weeping, chanting, singing, playing music, and performing other grief-related rituals in widely varying costumes.

But more imposing than the players are the 11, 45-foot-tall, smooth concrete columns that accommodate their the performance. Simon wanted the pillars to represent inverted wells. The enormous structures—made of circular, cast-in-place pieces, and held together only by grooved joints—fill the center of the Armory’s cavernous space in a semi-circular pattern, their small entryways accessible via short, concrete ramps.

Their visual impact, to use an overworked word in an appropriate context, is awesome.

The wells take on both profoundly monumental and personal dimensions, echoing the awe-inspiring scale of grief-related structures like monuments and tombs (and the enormity of grief itself). At the same time, they draw you nearer to the mourners, who sit on small ledges inside each structure. It often feels like you’re too close. You’re invading their space and sharing an intensely personal moment, like you’re inside a movie scene or part of their family. Because the entryways to each well are abnormally short, you can’t get a full sense of what’s inside until you’re quickly and fully ensconced.

The shape, surface, and formation of the pieces, says OMA principal Shohei Shigematsu, creates an echoing instrument of sorts, like a bandshell or amphitheater, where you can hear all the mourners at once, or, by moving inside each space, individually. (The sound inside each well is surprisingly loud.) Bevels at the top of the hollow tubes lend the columns an appearance reminiscent of a pipe organ.

During the day, when the structures are empty of performers, visiting children (and the occasional adult) yell, whistle, and clap inside, oblivious to the sense of loss that the columns represent. Somehow the noisemaking is ok, evoking the innocence of a bustling playground beside a graveyard. Two LED strips, one vertical, by the entry stair, the other horizontal, along the far wall, illume the pieces with a haunting, poetic softness.

Such light and acoustic considerations were big drivers of the design, as was the intention to create monumentality, intimacy, and a placeless aesthetic—a neutral backdrop to diverse traditions. Shigematsu calls it a readymade ruin. But, like grief itself, there was an aura of mystery and unpredictability to the process that could never be defined through study and planning.

“It’s quite difficult to pin down,” said Shigematsu. “In the end it’s all about intuition. You’re ultimately trying to feel the feeling of people feeling grief.”


These Colossal Pillars Are a Beautiful Embodiment of Grief