Among, Within, and Elsewhere: Yve Laris Cohen

by Jenny Jaskey


Situating his practice within both visual art and dance, Yve Laris Cohen’s performances and attendant installations consider the material conditions by which bodies and objects are created or destabilized, legitimated or devalued. To watch a Laris Cohen performance is to see a given form pushed to its limits—bodies, architectures, and audiences find themselves under pressure, pulled in and pushed out of a shifting set of relations. Drawing on the legacies of Minimalist sculpture, Postmodern dance, and Institutional Critique, Laris Cohen performatively explores the nature of subjectivity—asking how we come to assume our bodies and by what means they are maintained. Laris Cohen’s work will be presented in New York in the Whitney Biennial this spring. He sits down with curator Jenny Jaskey.


JENNY JASKEY: When I first experienced your work a few years ago in a piece called Coda (2012) in New York, you performed in the long hallway of a gallery. Down one of the walls, you’d hung this excessively overbuilt performance surface—it had multiple layers of shock absorption and was finished with a top layer of smooth black marley, a material universally employed in dance floors. I was interested in the way you inverted the floor’s orientation, so that it suggested itself as a kind of painting on display. Materially it contained the capacity for movement, if only it was used in a different way. Much of your work involves the transformation of various architectural supports—floors, walls, or wall labels—over the course of a performance. What led you to begin working with these forms in this way?

YVE LARIS COHEN: I built my first sprung floor as a pragmatic solution to the punishing concrete floor of an art gallery, a venue ill-equipped to handle jumping. I had constructed a series of performances around a group of tours jetés done in succession, and I needed to protect my joints. This floor functioned as a floor. But it still needed to hold its own in the exhibition space and work as art during gallery hours when there wasn’t a performance going on. This called its dimensions into question, and it became a long, thin strip, wide enough to barely contain the tours jetés. Changing the orientation of the sprung floor for Coda marked the beginning of a new line of thinking in my work. The gesture of rendering a functional architectural surface functionless was an overpowering conceptual maneuver I had to contend with. It was too simple and careless to turn a dance floor into a painting. In the end, it was the performances themselves that mitigated this maneuver. I developed a complex relationship to the floor that wasn’t predicated on its use value, nor its lack of one. The floor came to embody dysfunction through its excess. It was hyperfunctional—a too-sprung surface, built with twice the depth as traditional dance floors. The over-sprung floor did not negate or remove its function so much as it changed the terms of function itself. In performance, I both maintained the floor through compulsive washing, and bumped into it when I veered off course while doing multiple passes of châiné turns down the narrow hallway. I acted upon it and it acted upon me in a kind of symbiotic tryst. At the time of Coda I was beginning to negotiate my work’s positioning in both visual art and dance economies. Floors and walls with black and white patinas, respectively, were useful visual synecdoches for “black box” and “white cube”—themselves synecdoches for not only the theatrical space and the exhibition space, but for dance and visual art as fields and economies. Working with white wall as a material, something important to my current work, was the next step in this progression.

JJ: Your relationship to these basic architectures reminds me of an artist like Robert Morris and his work Two Columns (1961).

YLC: Using architecture’s lowest common denominators is dangerous; it’s easy to get ensnared in allusions to Minimalism and Institutional Critique with all these walls and floors. This is a minefield I’m happy to be in. The tension is useful. Ultimately, I’m not making autonomous objects. The sculptural-architectural materials are always in service to the performance.

JJ: The wall also becomes a site for the wall label, an element that figures heavily in each of the performances I’ve seen, including Waltz (2012) and Landing Field (2013). As in Coda, you take care to mention your own body (listed as “transsexual”) as a material. This leads to an objectification of your figure—and I think in nearly every performance I’ve seen you take off your shirt. But listing yourself on the label also has the effect of leveling out the hierarchy of who or what is performing, suggesting that you’re just as significant to the piece as the wall, or dry ice, or whatever you’re using…

YLC: It wasn’t until Landing Field (2013), a project last year bringing together Vito Acconci’s and my work, that my listing of “transsexual” among other materials was doing what it needs to do. Destabilizing the subject-object hierarchy, as you suggest, has always been at the core of this move, but until 2013 the word “transsexual” in my wall labels had consistently mapped neatly and discretely onto my body. There was no question as to who or what was the transsexual in the room. Landing Field changed the game. I listed the materials for the first performance as “fog, Vito Acconci, Vito Acconci, transsexual, The Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery.” Vito was not in attendance at the performance, so already the viewers had to deduce who were the surrogate Vito Acconcis. On top of this, the four performing human bodies were in excess of the bodies enumerated in the wall text. “Vito Acconci” twice and “transsexual” once could not account for all of us. For the second performance, the materials further proliferated: “carbon dioxide, The Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery, Vito Acconci, Vito Acconci, Vito Acconci, The Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery, transsexual, transsexual,” with the two “transsexuals” being hidden from view for most of the performance. The relationship between the words “fog” and “carbon dioxide” was key. Compressed carbon dioxide, which appeared in the form of rectangular blocks in the second performance, is what produced the cryogenic fog in the first performance (mediated through a fog machine). “Fog” and “carbon dioxide” are alternate listings of the same material. If reiteration could happen in this way, then perhaps Vito Acconci could be the transsexual, or the transsexual could be the fog. Upsetting a subject-object hierarchy has become more about disrupting the sovereignty of each named entity. I should also mention that displaying “The Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery” in a particular size and typeface was a condition of using that room within Bard’s Hessel Museum. Using the Mapplethorpe font for the entire wall label and including the gallery itself as a material was my solution.

JJ: The Museum of Modern Art recently announced plans for what it’s calling the Grey Box, a room that is outfitted to meet the needs of the traditional white-wall exhibition space and black box theater. This transitional space as an institutionalized form is but one outgrowth of the increasing visibility of dance and performance art in the art world in recent years. Your work necessarily must contend with these changes, and I wonder what you think about them. Is your practice evolving as a result?

YLC: The art world’s incorporation of dance is moving very quickly; the terms have even shifted since Coda in early 2012. I have not participated in the one-way migration “from the theater into the museum”; I was starting to make work when this process was already—albeit newly—under way, and my practice was never situated solely in one site or the other. My practice was never situated solely in one site or the other. I benefit from this renewed interest in dance and visual art performance, but I’m not wild about some of the institutional modifications to the “white cube” made in an effort to accommodate dance. Accommodation is the wrong strategy. I respond more to barriers and constraints than I do gestures of inclusion. Often, new spaces in museums specially designed for performance have no use for me—they’re too slick, and their aspirational “neutrality” and flexibility paradoxically render them highly specific. Grey sits between black and white. “Between” is not the sort of transitional zone that compels me. The transitions I’m invested in are among, within, and elsewhere.

JJ: Speaking of transitions, I’m interested in your use of châiné turns, a transitional step that connects other steps in dance. They get repeated many times in Coda. Can you say more about how you’re using repetition in your work?

YLC: In the past, I’d described my movement as incorporating repetition, yes, but now I’m resistant to that word. It’s more accurate to say that I’m working with chains and vectors. It was Coda that unlocked this. In this piece, I used the châiné turn—a ballet step that literally translates as “chain” but can also mean a network. The word châiné evokes a linear, unidirectional, sequential image, but at the same time calls forth the reticulate. I build sequences that appear to be one thing over and over, or one thing for a long time, but within that crass score the delicate, reticulate minutiae are what holds the work together.

JJ: It strikes me too that these chains are not about articulating physical prowess or skill in the traditional sense.

YLC: The analogy I use to think through my relationship to skill and virtuosity has to do with a camera mechanism Alfred Hitchcock used in Vertigo. To simulate Jimmy Stewart’s vertigo, Hitchcock developed the cinematic technique where a camera tracks backward, away from the focal object, while its lens zooms in toward the object at the same rate. The result is a perspective distortion, a stretching of depth. As I continue to work with the same ballet step or sequence over the course of a performance, several factors contribute to the transformation of that movement. On one hand, there’s muscle fatigue and psychic exhaustion—both of which would typically lead to a “worsening” of the movement’s execution. But at the same time, I’m training my body. I’m learning. This is not dissimilar to what happens in the studio during a dancer’s training. The difference rests in my compression of steps not “meant” to be done in such close succession, or for so long, and the accompanying risk for the body. This compression and stretching, going back to the Vertigo analogy, results in a distortion. The two opposing forces—a forward zoom, a backward tracking—do not produce stasis. In performance, I’m getting better and I’m getting worse at the same time, but the net change is not zero. Hopefully the outcome is a dynamic distortion.

JJ: Unlike many contemporary dance artists you are just as likely to draw on Giselle as on Judson Church. How is classical ballet useful to you?

YLC: I don’t wish to comment on ballet as a discipline, field, or history, but rather I work with ballet because it is a language I can speak. It’s a tool. The only classical ballet I’ve ever referenced is Giselle, and I think I’d like to work with only that one ballet forever, like a tattoo. Although I’m rarely interested in human psychology and the notion of character, I was initially drawn to the Giselle narrative, and made a piece (WILLY, 2010) centered around the “mad scene” at the end of Act One. I learned Alicia Alonso’s famous rendition of those seven minutes. Alonso—arguably the most celebrated Giselle in dance history—was a peer of my ballet instructor from late childhood through adolescence, the late Dame Sonia Arova. I studied with Alonso briefly one summer. The impetus for WILLY, which has since vanished from my practice, was the desire to be seen dancing something in particular. I rationalized all my decisions for that piece with plenty of theory, but at the beginning, it came down to wanting to perform something I’d been trained to do. This is not uncommon in dance, and often drives the practices of choreographers who appear in their own work. Today, the dancing in my work is among the last elements I consider. Its importance is no less significant. It just doesn’t get much airtime until after I’ve performed and made sense of what I’ve done. The performance itself is the making of the work. Rather than being a performer in my work, faithfully executing a predetermined choreography, I’m instead actively building the piece as it unfolds. The scores I set in advance leave room for decision-making. This strategy is not foreign to dance; it’s the basis of Improvisation, one of the important legacies of Judson, among other historical dance movements. I’ve distanced myself from an identification around “performer” because I no longer have the desire to be watched. I bear it, for the sake of the work. This is not unrelated to my trans-ness.


Originally published on Mousse 42 (February-March 2014)


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