Between No-place and No-Man’s Land

An approach to Lynne Cohen’s photographs

Lynne Cohen. Bacelos Gallery, Vigo, 2004.

The captions of the images reproduced in the printed media, have the characteristic of locating the places where the facts occur, placing the event in its historical context, naming those appearing in the scene (a trimmed, fragmented, subjectively reframed scene), situating ourselves before a rendition that might otherwise remain unintelligible, too abstract, or even too easily manipulated. In this way, we acquire additional information which has been filtered by the author or the media publishing it. This information comes surging from the author’s own experiences or ideology, even if only based on the fact of adequately showing the image and writing its succinct caption.

In the arts world, titles have a function similar to that of the captions, with an important difference: they can either initiate, and broaden, the interpretation of the works of art themselves, or they can shield the works of art behind a neutral and general “untitled”. In both cases, titles are a part of the work itself, and as such completely subjective. The tone with which an opus is titled implies a stance before the work itself and before the artist’s work, thus representing a committed -and political- attitude.

What the title text tells, its more or less predictable course, how it relates to the generic title of a larger series, a specific exhibition or that of a catalogue or future publication on the artist’s works, will contribute the necessary clues for possible interpretation. However, do we still expect a specific conclusion from a subsequent interpretation of the works of art? Can we rely on it or on its theoretical value? The reply might be another question, since the answer is two-way: how could we approach the artist’s discourse if it is not by trying to understand the wealth of experience and influence, the styles and trends (or lack of them) derived from the artist’s work or lead to it? And how do we expect to learn all this and to use the knowledge in a subsequent analysis and search, if it is not through the interpretation of that which is presented and labelled as a “works of art”?

Especially in analysing photographic or video work in which the image reproduced and reproducible is possible through an industrial process, the multi-discipline references are broader, and not so easily related to the art tradition. The freedom from historicist weight is ever more difficult to maintain since the new languages have been deeply quickly assumed by the cultural system and its industry. It allows redefining the message, readjusting quests, broadening sights and making the new analysis, once more, a vast field of influences and nuances, despite going in other directions: a complexity little known up to now. This way, photography as a media –even that photography exclusively orientated towards the world of art, developed through its specific mechanisms for dissemination, sales and exhibition- carries certain connotations deriving from mass media, Internet, advertising, cinema and a brief but strangely intense history of images that overflows with interpretations.

The titles of Lynne Cohen’s work seem to be a precise quest for standards, that is, a will to document and match categories, regardless of the location of the scene photographed, putting different behaviours on a par, cutting down distances and geographic differences, using globalisation as an arithmetic mean taken from diverse elements. Actually, the anonymity of the photographed spaces is maximum, scarcely and subtly indicated by signs and inscriptions present in the photographs, marking the access to spaces that are not shown. The laboratories, classrooms, spas, military installations, corridors or waiting rooms… all of them workplaces or transit spaces, devoid of the human presence and its influence in the construction of a world, which in fact, defines them by its absence.
Often, L. Cohen’s extensive and coherent photographic work, relates to some installations or pieces from the history of art by artists such as Richard Hamilton (his first photographs in the 70’s, when his main motifs were living rooms in private homes), Claus Oldenburg (some image were objects shown out of context), Marcel Duchamp (in the use of certain spaces found as though they were ready-made), Richard Artschwager (in the texture of certain surfaces, like Formica or plywood), Jasper Johns (in target ranges, targets, and fragments of bodies made of plaster: mouths, ears, hands or noses that decorate some walls), or even Joseph Beuys (in the presence of blackboards in certain photographs of classrooms and labs) 1[THOMAS, ANN: “Apropiating the Everyday”, in “No Man’s Land. The Photography of Lynne Cohen”, Thames & Hudson. Ltd. Londres, 2001. Catalogue issued for the exhibition under the same title, in the National Gallery of Canada and in the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland.]

On the other hand, the use of photography for documental purposes is not only an intrinsic feature of the media itself but, practically, its first function. In the art field, this purpose has remained valid throughout its history; it has even had an extraordinary comeback with the benchmark of “new objectivity”. It has meant a renovation of the motifs photographed from the apparent neutral objectivity of the photographer, who –and this might be the most defining aspect of it all- places, from the beginning, his aesthetical result, within the world of art, with its own characteristics and connotations, not in that of documental or industrial photography. Therefore, unwilling to distinguish between their aesthetic results and those obtained by painters, sculptors or other artists. It is in this sense that L. Cohen’s work stands out among the majority of the most notable photographers grouped under this definition. It voluntarily escapes from the spectacular grandiloquence of spaces that have been recorded many times by these photographers (for example, in many of the interiors by Candida Höfer, to name a photographer whose work shares, in some aspects, a common ground). At the same time, it also avoids the sparse staidness of the renovators and alleged parents of this renovation: Bern & Hilla Becher, who seek formal repetition, framing identical motifs very similar per se among themselves, as a catalogue of scarcely differentiated elements. In the images produced by L.Cohen in the 70’s, the size of the works was limited to the size of the large film contact format. Coincidentally with this, the artist “thought there was only one possible place from which to take the photograph (…) as though a pair of footprints were marked on the ground indicating the point from which to frame the images”2[“Camouflage: An Interview with Lynne Cohen”, en “No Man’s Land. The Photography of Lynne Cohen”, Thames & Hudson. Ltd. Londres, 2001. Página 29.]

This search for a symmetry identical to that found in the scenes (exclusively front view 3[Reference could be made also to the production of American photographer Walker Evans, recovered and valued decades alter its production, which main point of view, seeking neutrality, frequently showed a front view of images]) stopped being a motif and an end; a change coinciding with a new scale for the images: medium and large format. From this amplification onwards, her work is viewed differently. It is read with broader input, interpreted as 3-D work, an approach well supported by the texture of frames, always covered in Formica of different colours, imitating other materials. At the same time, the piece, itself, is a perfectly framed window, or even a mirror for society, a society that remains surprised at the methods developed by its own extravagance.

The titles (Spa, Laboratory, Classroom, Military Installation, Factory, Living Room, Recording Studio…) identify spaces of today which are impossible to place geographically, but not politically or socially. Their traces take us to the generics that span all of her photographic work.
A first monographic catalogue gathered the works from the 70’s and 80’s under the title “Occupied Territory”, a military term used again in the more recent “No Man’s Land”, that also became the title of the series produced from the 90’s to-date. The connection with the military jargon is not at all casual. The artist humorously stated that “perhaps It’s just that theres’s there’s too much camouflage”, in the interview published in the last catalogue . Camouflage operates as a physical element (precisely in the diffuse presence of those spaces of unidentified locations, that might be real or not, which may turn out to be sceneries or backdrops prepared ad hoc or –as we learn later- actually exist as they’re shown to us). Camouflage works as a political element, in the sense that, beneath the scenes, under their aesthetic character, lies their interpretative power: a masquerade shielded behind irony and the use of the grotesque to criticise decisions and behaviours that are assumed in a natural and general apathy.

These conclusions could be deemed as excessive interpretation if it were not because there are points confirming them and subtly indicating this direction. From the six new colour photographs presented by L.Cohen in Bacelos Gallery, five correspond to five Spa scenes and the remaining one to a Classroom. This one, after a detailed study, cannot be anything but a police academy, where assault systems and ways to gain access to a space occupied by people considered enemies are taught. Three dummies profusely pierced, red-splattered by the contents of some of the dummy-shot cartridges indicating that they have actually been hit.

The image shows a changing space, temporary partitions, within a larger space which we only perceive from the modular ceiling and the fluorescent light fixtures. Several security cameras are pointed to diverging positions, to record every corner. Other items, such as inflated or burst balloons, an easel with a big paper block, or a pair of flower-print curtains coexist in a scene dominated by perspective leading nowhere. The restlessness caused by the photographs is perceived slowly, like a scent that finally seizes the air. The photographs’ technical quality allow paying attention to details that are not visible at first sight (fragmenting of polychromic bodies, number of gunshot holes, pieces of adhesive tape to bring dismembered legs together, metal structure to keep them erect, curtains or colourful balloons, and even the wood frames that support the background). All of those contribute to produce an image akin to those narrative pieces that need to be read to their very end to learn what it they are about. However, there is still irony, a macabre wink, in a subtle implication letting us understand that, even if the scene existed previously as it is presented, its lack of context makes us view it as if it had never been seen or analysed before.

This also happens in the new Spa scenes –as it did in previous works of spas, classrooms or laboratories, particularly those belonging to “No Man’s Land”. The cold atmosphere of the chosen spaces, walls and floors, marbled or tiled, collection of handles and steel brackets, cold and aseptic, related to hospital clinics, more than to those meant as a well-deserved prize of rest and regeneration after a hard day’s work or to soothe urban stress. Even if the objects speak directly of rest (deck chairs, stretchers…) there is uneasiness, awkwardness, restrained tension that seems due to the no-presence, the desolation of those devices that, devoid of action look ridiculous, if not aggressive. It is precisely this no-use, this desolate impasse, what seems to mutate tools into un-animated objects. The images capture this feeling, a cold receptor of a general disenchantment.

The photographic images by Lynne Cohen are related to the No-places. In the same way, the complementary and diverse in the array of meanings related to the concept of No-place, and to the generic title No Man’s Land close a ring of references and clues that could be circumscribed to ethnology, if not anthropology. Marc Augé describes the concept of No-place differentiating place and space. The first holds the condition of site. In the second, the concept broadens to include the inhabitants and actions that occur there. The No-places contrast with the anthropological sites. While these are defined in their historical, social, political settlement, the no-places exist as a consequence of certain practices that occur in what is called “supermodernity”, basing their importance upon transit, speed, channels destined to communication and travel (highways, tolls, airports, airplanes…) When viewed in a non-negative manner, not as they have been up to now, these no-places begin a transformation nearing them closer to those spaces belonging to the supermodernity, with their own characteristics which are not so new and easier to relate to the classical anthropological sites. We are speaking of changes that are as fast as the devices which transport us or the means used for that purpose.

Meanwhile, No Man’s Land is the “non-occupied territory between two enemy fronts” or the “territory which belongs to no-one”, clearly referring to the military or political jargon, in the sense of ownership, control and vigilance, or the lack of them. The typical No Man’s Land could be strips of ground between one border and another: the line between countries, as in a scale map. L.Cohen’s no-man’s land apparently refers us more to the absence of human presence in certain interiors. On the one hand, it refers to the no-use –by the no-presence- of spaces normally used and inhabited (if only during the time span of a massage, a shower, or the time it takes to walk down a corridor). On the other hand, it refers to the lack of vigilance, in those interiors that are usually being monitored and controlled.

The spaces undergo a power crisis, precisely due to the lack of human presence and the choice of transit places. When they become objects, they lose their transient characteristic and become three dimensional works. Images that not only need and expect a spatial, 3-D interpretation, but seek it.