Ersatz Grief

Taryn Simon has filled Cisternerne with the beautiful voices of twenty professional lamenters, but the magnificent sadness does not really hit home.

Installation view, Taryn Simon, Start Again the Lament, Cisternerne, Frederisberg, 2024. Photo: Torben Eskerod.

There is much, indeed far too much to mourn at the moment. The deliberate, premeditated annihilation of the Palestinian land and people is a fact, as is the truth that, with open eyes and frozen hearts, our demented politicians are blowing up children, and keep doing it and doing it. We are long past any kind of justified relativisation. Fuelled by firmly convinced ideological madness, the West’s insufferably self-righteous democracies are killing a non-Western country, and if that isn’t cause for acute paralysing grief, I don’t know what is.

The fact that Taryn Simon’s exhibition in Cisternerne about mourning opened as the genocide entered its sixth month was presumably an unfortunate coincidence. Nevertheless, it made the laments that form the exhibition’s overriding content seem uncomfortably topical. No fewer than twenty singers from virtually every corner of the world have worked with Simon to create the sea of mournful sounds that loops in the wet darkness of Cisternerne, all brought together under the oddly literal title Start Again the Lament.

Simon is by rights something of a scoop for the venue, the kind of successful American artist who has been granted the Guggenheim Fellowship, is represented by Gagosian and has presented solo shows far and wide – including one at Louisiana in Humlebæk some years back. She is probably best known for her stringent photographic works, but at Cisternerne audiences will almost exclusively find something to listen to, a soundtrack dripping with ritual sensibilities.

Of course, hymns and ceremonies can still be found in our rational, reason-obsessed part of the world, but the kind of professionally performed mourning rituals and catharsis-prompting laments currently being played underground at Søndermarken are sung in languages other than the imperialists’. The singers chant in Turkish, Kurdish, Chinese, Kyrgyz, Albanian, and other tongues, singing songs about death and displacement and exile, the resurrection of souls, murdered mothers, fathers, children, and loved ones. A total of twelve songs are played in different places throughout the 4,000 square metres of chilly humidity that make up Cisternerne. And the combination of undoubtedly superior speakers and acoustics that are either relentless or spectacular, depending on who you ask, certainly creates a quite majestic soundscape.

To my mind, however, there is something unapproachable about the magnificent, densely pathos-filled darkness. Of course, grief is a very individual and often lonely condition that cannot be subjected to generalisations or judgements. It is perfectly possible that people with grief experiences different from mine will venture into the darkness and find a sense of being redeemed or crushed or filled with emotion in ways that this mournful chanting undoubtedly has the potential to evoke.

Even so, Simon’s mourning chorus feels like an example of sacred sensibilities requiring a visual context to be truly successful. This need not be iconic mosques or churches or actual funeral processions – mourning fiction can certainly be effective and grand – but moving around half-blind in nothing but a flood of voices is a somewhat drowning experience.

It is almost completely dark inside Cisternerne with the exception of a single neon tube at the far end: a rigid strip of light plunging from the vaulted ceiling into the water where it becomes soft and wavy. This bar of whiteness after a long trek through black-blue cold appears to be some kind of finale or culmination, and while getting a shiny pay-off amidst dense darkness remains as understated as it is certainly tasteful, it also falls a little flat.

Presumably the choice was made because sound is meant to take centre stage down here; the songs and grief enjoy our undivided focus. However, because the many languages and words and melodies get thoroughly muddled up due to the aforementioned acoustics, you feel a need for something to pin your feelings on. Simply introducing (neon) light in the dark remains, in my opinion, a relatively uninspired artistic impulse – which generally seems to make it difficult to create exhibitions in Cisternerne overall. What do you do with dramatic darkness other than illuminate it in gimmicky ways? Still, if the soundtrack was truly all-encompassing, the addition or removal of a couple of fluorescent lights would be either unnoticeable or forgettable.

Installation view, Taryn Simon, Start Again the Lament, Cisternerne, Frederisberg, 2024. Photo: Torben Eskerod.

It’s not that the songs aren’t beautiful and well done and brimming with all sorts of hurt; they definitely are. But down here, completely detached from the wide range of cultures they jointly represent, they come to resemble props – a wallpaper or scenography of unhappiness, and one which is relatively intangible to boot.

The fact that none of the lyrics are available (unless you buy a booklet of printed translations), and that it is beyond difficult to separate the songs from each other obscures any sense of the work’s essence. It is Simon’s exhibition, but the voices and lyrics belong to other people. Their names are mentioned, but linking them to the experience of the work is impossible, just as the languages themselves are probably out of most visitors’ reach. And even though grief is a universal language, even though unintelligible sentences can certainly possess their own kind of beauty, you find yourself groping for pain in Cisternerne rather than being pierced by it – despite the loud sound levels and a will to pathos doing everything they can to establish a total, immersive experience.

After about forty minutes in the dark, I sensed that the loop had definitely started over again, and I moved back towards the light and its real, all-dominant catastrophes with a feeling of having heard the soundtrack to an epic film that never really got off the ground.