Dance as Blood Sport: Performance Artist Yve Laris Cohen Tackles Ballet
Yve Laris Cohen’s performances are marked by an almost Sisyphean sadomasochism. Two years ago at Saint Cecilia’s abandoned convent in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the New York–based artist prepared for his performance Willy, clustering several umbrella lights and soft boxes in front of a marble altar.
For several hours on the night of November 6, 2010, he performed the iconic mad scene from the ballet Giselle, in which the eponymous peasant girl, upon learning that her lover, Loys, is not a peasant but the Duke Albrecht, dies melodramatically. Cohen repeated this scene over and over again, endlessly deferring its final moments until his body, exhausted, could hardly dance the part. With his feet bleeding through his socks, and rows of water bottles—and a bucket for urine—waiting in the wings, this was a blood sport that rivaled any of the Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic’s by now clichéd self-inflictions.
Wearing nothing but football trousers and sneakers, Cohen, who is transgender, made his mastectomy scars shockingly visible. He cast the ballet’s male and female archetypes in dubious relief, as if Willy was an attempt, in vain, to reset them. Framed by photo equipment, Cohen, while not setting about the dialectical undoing of traditional gender roles, was clearly recasting them as mythological representations divorced from the complexities of real life. The French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes wrote that “the function of myth is to empty reality,” to depoliticize what he would term the “goes without saying.” Through repetitive tasks, futility, and failure, Cohen politicizes what is otherwise unspoken, deconstructing the status quo through a very personal and pragmatic employment of his body—one that’s used to, in his words, “demote ballet to labor.”
This is not to say that Cohen abandons ballet. On the contrary, he insists on its continued viability, retaining its choreography despite the fact that for years postmodern dance choreographers and theorists have tried, very successfully, to get rid of it. No institution is more closely associated with postmodern dance than Judson Dance Theater, in New York: Inspired by John Cage’s chance-derived musical works, contingent compositions, and his emphasis on deflected authorship, and shaped by the teachings of Robert Dunn, many of Judson’s leading practitioners, including Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti, aimed to de-skill ballet by reducing its movement to quotidian actions that could, in theory and in practice, be executed by anyone. Given that Cohen has performed at the Judson Memorial Church a number of times, one could say that his relationship with the church-based dance collective is ironic, if not completely awkward.
In Cohen’s hands, the Judson movement itself is mythologized and historicized. His 2009 performance Homing featured a small architectural model of Judson’s sanctuary, placed on the floor of the sanctuary itself. Overwhelmed by the scale of that iconic space, the model was nearly impossible to see as Cohen danced around it, accompanied by the Organ Symphony by Camille Saint-Saëns. He lay on the floor for the latter half of the performance, calling out names of male artists and writers in the audience, each of whom promptly went onto the stage and lay, facedown, on top of Cohen, as if stacking up various permutations of maleness.
For Dog House, 2011, again at Judson Church, Cohen aimed to create, according to the program notes, “a fascistic postmodern dance regime...[that’s] all about the fetishization of the Judson Church Movement.” The institution was humorously symbolized by a DIY life-size replica of the church’s rose window, placed onstage directly beneath, and in opposition to, the real one—although the effect was largely lost on the audience. Cohen was given access to the church window’s light switch—which illuminates the glass from a series of fluorescent bulbs behind it—until his access was inexplicably revoked at the last minute. As it stood, viewers saw little to no correlation between the two windows and viewed the replica, more often than not, as a kind of generic Constructivist prop.
These setbacks and humorous discrepancies turn out to be paradoxically fortunate; what appears to be futile labor actually focuses attention on the artistic, social, and economic framework of his performances. This framework is often most clearly articulated in Cohen’s writing, which has increasingly become a part of his work. In many texts, he details every production expense—from the shipping van to the reams of fabric, including, as is almost always the case, how he pays for most of these things and how little institutional support he—and, by extension, other artists—receive. He’s also disclosed the overwhelming debt from the tuition costs for his Columbia MFA degree, the socioeconomic makeup of his classmates, and details of his personal sex life, including a tryst with a Judson Church minister’s daughter and his sexual attraction to a potential thesis adviser.
Gossipy and amusingly diaristic, these writings seem casual yet are carefully composed. They give written form to what has become, sculpturally, something of an archive-based and self-referential practice, in which one work inevitably finds its way into another. For his Columbia thesis exhibition, at the Fisher Landau Center for Art, in Long Island City, New York, last May, he literally assembled all of his sculptural objects into one very large metasculpture, a seemingly haphazard aggregate of his rose-window replica, the scale model of Judson Church, and every other object he’d previously made. Onto this he attached two perpendicular walls that functioned simultaneously as a utilitarian gallery wall, a theatrical prop for performance, and a sculpture.
In a subsequent performance, Duet with Thomas von Foerster, 2011, at the Abrons Arts Center in the Henry Street Settlement, in New York, these same Sheetrock walls were taken apart and repurposed. Filled partly with bricks, they became the very heavy surrogates for a dance partner who dropped out just before the performance. Futilely dragging them off dollies and moving them along the floor, Cohen succeeded alone in what would ordinarily be a job for two, but not without much unnecessary effort—although in retrospect, the futility was entirely the point, and the absence of his partner became a blessing in disguise. Speaking directly to the audience, Cohen detailed, amid chuckles, exactly what went wrong—a canny shift of context, both spatial and theoretical, for the performance itself.
One can argue that Cohen’s contextual dilations recall such Dan Graham works as Performance/Audience/Mirror, 1975, which addressed the relationship between performer and spectator, and Robert Morris’s Site, 1964, in which Morris manipulated large plywood sheets to reveal the artist Carolee Schneemann in the nude, posing as the eponymous subject of Edouard Manet’s Olympia. Like Graham and Morris, Cohen takes an interdisciplinary interest in the contingencies of time, place, and artistic practice. His endurance-based works, which implicate their own support systems, reveal their inherent political, sexual, and economic ramifications.
This article appeared in the March issue of Modern Painters magazine.