Yve Laris Cohen in conversation with R.E.H Gordon on Coda

R.E.H Gordon interviews Yve Laris Cohen on his current installation and performance, Coda, presented as part of In Practice: You never look at me from the place from which I see you, curated by Kristen Chappa at SculptureCenter. Laris Cohen explains, “I list my body as a material whenever I make a piece in a visual art context that calls for wall text… I include “transsexual” among materials such as plywood, vinyl, and sweat…” The artist’s final performance will take place March 19th at 5PM. For reservations, email rsvp@sculpture-center.org. 

Interview Dates: February 13th and 18th 2012, Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Download a PDF of this conversation

R.E.H. Gordon: Since your performance last night I have been thinking about an early Robert Morris sculpture, from 1961, Two Columns, in which he made two white upright square columns and then stood inside one of them, falling over suddenly from vertical to horizontal, a loud thump, I imagine, and possible bodily injury. I am thinking about this, I think, because of the way your piece, Coda, that I saw last night at SculptureCenter, navigates in a similar way these, what at least sometimes feel like poles—the coolness of later Minimalism with the heat, breath, exertion of body-centered performance, dance, process centered work. Does this feel like a good place to start talking about your work?

Coda, 2012 at Sculpture Center photo by Jason Mandela

Yve Laris Cohen: It’s interesting you cite the disparate temperatures (of disciplines, art movements) as the two “poles,” rather than referencing the spatial organization of Coda, which involves a ping-pong of sorts, between two groups of viewers. I do tend to think about my pieces in terms of diptychs, pairings, dualities, and doubling, even as I try to resist binaries in most other arenas of my life. Rachel Silveri, an art history PhD student friend of mine, talked about Minimalist sculpture making “cameos” in my work when she saw my graduate thesis piece in May 2011 (she described my long, thin, black marley-sheathed sprung floor as a “BDSM Carl Andre,” and saw the ghost of Morris’ Slab in the freestanding white walls I’d built to support an endurance lap-sitting section of the piece). I finally felt comfortable with comparisons to Morris and other Minimalist artists with the introduction of that word “cameo.” These quotations happen in time, they evaporate or shift when my body is proximate (or in contact with) the objects/structures I build, and the references are lightweight—almost humorous. In short, yes.

R.E.H: I also see a connection with Minimalism in your work’s focus on perfection and mastery through discipline—of your own body in relation to your dance training, of your own body again in terms of gender transformation, in relation to the sculptural component the perfect marley floor on the wall and your inventory of its imperfections and errors. I keep thinking about the kind of knowledge dancers have of their own bodies—knowing down to a millimeter where every part is and what it is doing, and also the kind of knowledge sculptors have of their object—being able to fully identify with it and know all its contours and errors. Art and dance as safe spaces, if you will, for exceedingly detailed physical knowledge, knowledge that is generally not considered healthy or appropriate. And using and developing this detailed knowledge over time as a way of transforming one’s work, one’s body, one’s self.

Duet.. (installation view), 2011, Fisher Landau Center for Art

Yve: Built into perfection, of course, is the impossibility of perfection, and while it’s important to me to demonstrate mastery as a starting point—to garner trust—my work feels more about compromised (and thereby transformed) mastery. I’ve tried to strategize around withholding and denying information while simultaneously overdisclosing, exemplified by that moment in Coda you describe where I obsessively catalogue the errors in the sprung floor. The floor becomes a body—the marley patina a layer of skin. Describing the sculptural object’s imperfections is an exercise in displacement. In this moment I’ve turned on a single fluorescent overhead light, and the blemishes and histories (as told by our surfaces) of both of our bodies are revealed. The litany of mistakes isn’t completely accessible, though, to either end of the long hallway. I turn my head to face one half of the viewers, but their ability to digest my words is compromised by the sound of radio static. The viewers at the other end of the hallway only catch fragments. As a transperson I am often asked to produce detailed information about my body, simply to satiate strangers’ curiosity. I do think of my work as a “safe space” to redirect these questions and (perhaps snidely) answer them—with huge gaps into which viewers propel their own projections.

R.E.H: I want to pick up on the conversation about gender in your work, but before we do, or maybe while we do, I want to talk more about the floor and the special relationship dancers have with the floor. Knowing it so well, relying on it so much, spreading our body’s residue and fluids on it. I keep thinking about the ballet teacher I had during my many years of classical ballet training who would lean over and pick up a single stray hair that had fallen on the studio floor and throw it in the trashcan. It continues to astonish and delight me, not that she did this, but that in that context, it was totally normal behavior.

Yve: I realized quickly that I needed to mount a sprung floor on the wall in order to examine it as a fetish object—both within dance, in the way you describe, and also as a metaphor for the visual art world’s current fascination with (fetishization and cooptation of) dance. It wasn’t enough to reproduce a chunk of a sprung floor and resituate it (on the floor) within a white-walled gallery, as I had done in my Columbia thesis piece. The sprung floor in Coda is both hyperfunctional and completely stripped of its function. I’ve made it excessively sprung—sprung beyond what most dance floor construction calls for—through the layering of twice as many wooden battens than would usually be employed. I did this because I enjoy “too-sprung” linguistically, and also because of the way this enables the floor to creep out from the wall enough to feel slightly oppressive in that narrow corridor. You also forget about how it’s mounted—it almost floats. I do rely intensely on the sprung floor in performance, even though it exists mostly as a painting. As I chaine down the hallway, it guides me like a straight edge, and both helps and hurts me; it provides a severe constraint by narrowing the hallway while its shock-absorbing properties support my execution of the turns (I “bounce back” into my coda if I hit the sprung floor, but if I veer into the other brick/steel wall, I completely wipe out). Your ballet story is familiar to me. I hear my childhood ballet teacher’s words echo during my performance: “the floor is your friend.” This is paradoxical within ballet, of course, with its paradigm of uprightness and weightlessness.

Coda installation in progress. Photo: Kristen Chappa

R.E.H: So the wall-mounted super sprung floor becomes a fetish object, in its own right, but also as a stand-in for the art world’s fetishization of dance. I wonder, also, about what seems to be a near fetishization of queerness in general, and the trans body in particular, in art and academia (the queer-ing of everything…) In my own work I have long struggled with the stakes of positioning queerness and my own queer identity as central to my work, peripherally relevant, or not explicitly visible at all. Can you talk to me about how you and your work have developed in relation to these questions?

Yve: Ah, the dreaded question. “Peripherally relevant” resonates most strongly, although I do play with (in)visibility—particularly in terms of resisting or giving into representation. I list my body as a material whenever I make a piece in a visual art context that calls for wall text. Half self-deprecatingly, half to preempt (and thereby have some control over?) viewers’ objectification of my body, I include “transsexual” among materials such as plywood, vinyl, and sweat (in the case of Coda, the materials list reads simply, “Sprung floor, dancing transsexual.”) This move both attempts to erase my subjecthood and positions the other materials in the realm of bodies.

R.E.H: Nicely put. I really enjoy the confusion that is happening here with the proper roles and modes of address for bodies and for objects—there is a crossing of roles that is compelling to me. Can you speak more about objectification, about the pains (and pleasures?) of being objectified? Of objectifying?

Yve: I deploy objectification as a strategy, but everything needs to be on a very tight leash. Naturally, I can’t completely control the ways in which my body is seen and read and talked about, but I’ve learned a lot about how to manage the inevitable objectifying gaze that feels more pointed in a gallery setting as opposed to a theater (different branches of my practice are tailored for those two different spaces/economies). In a “white cube” setting, I specify start times for discrete performances, and while the beginnings and endings of the performance are sometimes ambiguous or bleed seamlessly into the everyday happenings of the space, viewers are less likely to talk about the performance (and, consequently, my body) as it unfolds. I rarely perform at openings. I don’t want someone to move, wine in hand, from discussing a painting to discussing my body in performance. It’s also important for the viewers to endure with me—to see the piece through from beginning to end. I’m not uniformly offended by attrition, but I don’t want viewers to “make the rounds” and discover and then leave me. We journey together.

R.E.H: That makes sense. Your piece last night unfolded in such a way that it felt to me of central importance to witness it from beginning to end. Would you speak about your movement choices in relation to time in Coda? More specifically, a central part of the experience of watching the piece is watching you exert yourself physically and become out of breath and continue on through these moments of exhaustion—why is it important to you that the audience have this experience?

WILLY, 2010, Convent of St. Cecilia

Yve: I’m less concerned with the audience’s experience of my “enduring” the demands of the score, and more invested in the transformation of mundane task-based movement and ballet technique. Physical exertion and exhaustion is an unavoidable by-product of the assignments I give myself. In past projects, I have adopted a “dance till you drop” methodology (namely, in a piece called WILLY that sourced the ballet Giselle, for which a “dance to the death” is thematically and narratively integral,) but in most cases, external structures dictate the piece’s duration. In Coda, the sprung floor itself choreographs the piece. In my mind, the piece is a diptych—comprising two sections that I’ve secretly named, “Preparing the Floor” and “Eulogy.” As I was building the floor, friends kept asking if I was going to slam into it or jump off of it, to showcase its sprung properties. I concluded I needed to resist this urge, instead choreographing a compulsive readying of the floor’s surface for a performance that never materializes. The washing and drying of the marley is difficult to execute over time, and this so-called “pedestrian” activity begins to tip-toe, I hope, into a virtuosic realm. That is where endurance becomes important—as a means to unlock this virtuosity. I want to produce a leveling of ballet technique and manual labor. As the washing and drying is elevated to an elite kinesthetic form, I seek to demote ballet and reposition it within the domain of manual labor, the domain from which the washing and drying has now been ejected.

R.E.H: I want to shift gears a little bit to conclude and ask you about your research process—the work that goes into making your work, this work.

Yve: I can safely say that I can build you a sprung floor using whichever technique you desire: woven batten, foam block, raked or not. The majority of my capital “R” Research for this piece had to do with construction logistics. Otherwise, I read about Minimalism on an ongoing basis. It’s dangerous to build forms that so closely mimic iconic sculptural works. When Fionn Meade, the curator of the upstairs show at SculptureCenter, came down to check on me during install, he started rattling off every art historical reference that involved a narrow corridor. My first response was to plug my ears. A minute later I said, “Tell me everything.”

 

 

R.E.H Gordon is a New York based artist and writer. Gordon has exhibited and performed in such venues as The Kitchen (NYC), Taxter and Spengemann (NYC), Samson Projects (Boston), LaMontagne Gallery (Boston), Roots and Culture (Chicago), Western Exhibitions (Chicago), and The Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), has been published in Monsters and Dust, New York Art Magazine, and Make Literary Magazine, and was the curator of Second Gallery in Boston from 2005-2007. Gordon is currently the director of the Center for Experimental Lectures. Gordon holds an MA in Visual and Critical Studies and a MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from School of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

 

 

 

 

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