The American photographer Liz Cohen pushes the concept of artists immersing themselves in their subject matter to a new level. When photographing a group of transgendered sex workers in Panama for her series Canal (2000), Cohen once let her subjects dress her up to look like them.
In her latest work, Cohen is taking the self-transformation to a much greater extreme, with her work as a photographer crossing the line into performance art—in an effort, she has said in other interviews, “to try to become what I was looking at.”
For her installation titled Bodywork, on view at Stockholm’s Färgfabriken art gallery through Feb. 5, Cohen is transforming an old German Trabant automobile into a custom-made American Chevrolet El Camino. Before arriving in Sweden, Cohen worked on the car for more than a year at a car body shop in Arizona—without any previous experience as a car mechanic or welder.
At the gallery itself, she is continuing her work on the auto, turning the kitsch German car into an American “low-rider” by constructing and installing complicated hydraulics and a telescopic driveshaft. “The car has to work and it has to work well,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just a fake toy or a big model.”
The exhibition title also carries it with another meaning: The installation also includes a gym, where Cohen is working to transform her own body so that she can serve as a “bikini model” for the car when she shows it on the low-rider circuit back in the United States.
“The process of the piece sort of is the piece,” she says.
While it’s no easy feat making this little grey, unassuming, cardboard box-like auto into a flashy muscle car, Cohen’s installation of course isn’t just about custom-car design. It’s also about the artist trying to assume different roles: She is the car builder, car owner and bikini-model promoter.
You get an idea of what that might look like when you see the large photographs that are part of the installation. In these photos, Cohen—wearing very little and sexily dressed—is photographed in the Arizona body-shop working on her car.
ArtInfo caught up with Cohen in Stockholm.
When you were photographing a group of transgendered sex workers along the Canal Zone in Panama, you once also took part in the scene—in some ways trying out the role—yourself. Have you always taken part in your own creations?
Not in the very beginning. I come out of a documentary photography background. I was doing interviews and still photography. During the Canal project, one of the sex workers, Linette, dressed me up one night in an effort to transform me. That led to this piece because it made me think about the limitations of group membership. Although they included me in their group, they are biological men taking hormones to become women. I couldn’t go through that journey with them. And I wasn’t interested in doing sex work.
After that, I started thinking about what would be a group that I didn’t belong to but that I would like to find out more about. I think a lot about differences and our desire to belong and be loved. I wanted to see how far I could stretch these limits and still be accepted as part of a group that I am interested in.
Who is the author of the photographs of you working on your car while you are dressed as a ‘bikini-model’?
I direct the photographs. In these photos I worked with a group of people who are close to me and know what I am trying to do. It’s a three-person team—a photographer, a stylist and another artist. It’s loosely directed by me. I consider myself the author, but I couldn’t work without the team. Actually, on the floor it’s loose, but in the pre-design it’s not.
If you do a bikini shoot here in Sweden, what would it look like?
I just started to think about it. I want it to reference where the car is—in this Swedish location. I would also like to reference that it is a winter shoot. I’d also like to reference this Swedish minimalist design—perhaps by removing everything else in the space and just keeping the car there. I’m interested in mixing high fashion with ‘folk fashion’—the really pretty knit scarves and gloves. Also, it should show that it’s in Stockholm—a really urban area where people talk about nature a lot. If I can get a hold of some, I’d like to have some animals here. So that’s my idea of a Swedish bikini shoot.
Art aside, some people might think it’s pretty cool to be able to visit a foreign country, while having time to work on your car and work out all day—the perfect project?
Although it was very rewarding to work on Canal, it was a very difficult situation and had a very dark side to it. In a way, they were photos of traumatic events. The poses allude to a lot of violent acts, like sexual abuse. After that, I wanted to make a piece that was a bit more celebratory and optimistic. But I wasn’t planning to have a vacation either!
What will you do with the car when it’s finished?
I will compete with it on the ‘low-rider’ show circuit. Chevys are popular on the circuit. This isn’t a real Chevy El Camino. It’s become one. And every thing runs on hydraulics, so I think it will go over well. It will be interesting to see if I will be seen as a legitimate builder and ‘low-rider’ or not. I will represent the car and that will probably help the car get into more magazines—or not. I might not be the best bikini model! I think that’s all part of it. You can’t plan on whether people are going to like you. You just have to put yourself out there.