Between No-place and No-Man's Land
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Captions reproduced alongside images in the media where the events occurred, placing them in historical context and identifying the people in the (subjective, fragmented and trimmed) scene. This provides us with an intelligible context in which to situate ourselves. Otherwise the context would be indecipherable, too abstract, too easily misrepresented. The captions filter what the author or the publisher want us to understand. They reflect the author's experience or ideology if only to focus how the image should be read.
In the art world, titles have a similar function as captions in
the media but with one important difference: they broaden ones interpretation
of the artwork or shield the work from easy interpretation behind
a veneer of neutrality. In both cases, the titles are a part of the
work itself and are completely subjective. The tone in which artists
title their work reflect a stance, perhaps even a political view.
What a title reveals, how it relates to an artist's exhibitions, catalogues
and publications, contributes to how the viewer might interpret the
work. But can we expect to draw conclusions from titles about the
artist's future directions? Are the titles any theoretical guide to
an artist's body of work? Perhaps the best answer is another two-pronged
question. How can we approach an artist's discourse if not by trying
to understand the wealth of experiences and influences underlying
it, along with the styles and trends (or lack of them) which can derive
from or lead up to his or her work? And how can we hope to use this
information to analyze the work if through an interpretation of what
is presented and labelled as a 'work of art'?
The titles of Lynne Cohen's work appear to be in search of standards,
to aim to document and match categories, regardless of the place photographed.
They put very different subjects on a par, cut down distances, blur
geographic differences and use globalisation as an arithmetic mean
of diverse elements. Actually, the anonymity of the spaces photographed
is only subtly disrupted by occasional signs and inscriptions indicating
unseen entrances and exits. Paradoxically Cohen's photographs of laboratories,
classrooms, spas, military facilities, corridors or waiting rooms – all
work places or transit spaces-- are defined by the absence of human
presence and its influence on the construction of the spaces themselves.
Particularly striking in this regard is her avoidance of the spectacular
space documented many times by other photographers in this tradition
(an example would be the interiors of Candida Höfer, a photographer
whose work is in some ways similar). And it is striking as well that
she shuns the sparse staidness of the alleged parents of this movement,
Berd and Hilla Becher, who favour formal repetition, framing similar
motifs which resemble each other, as a catalogue of scarcely differentiated
Her first monograph of work from the 70's and 80's was entitled 'Occupied Territory', a military term; her more recent book of work mainly from the 90's and early 2000's was called 'No Man's Land', another military term. This military jargon is not unintentional. In an interview in 'No Man's Land' the artist humorously observed that 'perhaps it's just that there is too much camouflage'. For her camouflage functions as a physical element, precisely by obscuring the locations of the unidentified spaces, which may be true or false, spaces that could turn out to be stage sets or backdrops (though as we learn later, they actually exist as they appear). But it also functions as a political element. The narrative and beauty of the pictures camouflages their interpretive power, whereas the masquerade shields her use of irony and the grotesque to criticize behaviour and ideology which is generally seen as neutral by an apathetic public.
This would be an excessive interpretation were there not so much evidence confirming it and pointing subtly in its direction. One of the six new colour photographs presented by Cohen in the Galería Bacelos is of a classroom (the other five are of spas). It could not be possibly anywhere but in a police academy, where assault systems and ways to gain access to a space occupied by enemies are taught. Three dummies, riddled with holes, red-spattered by the contents of dummy-shot cartridges, indicate where they have actually been hit.
The picture shows an altered space, temporary partitions, within a larger space, one that can be inferred from the modular ceiling and fluorescent light fixtures. Several security cameras point in various directions as if to record every corner while other object – including inflated or burst balloons, an easel with a paper block and flower curtains co-exist in a room dominated by a perspective which seems to lead nowhere. On the one hand the restlessness caused by the photograph creeps up on one slowly, like a scent filling a room. On the other hand the technical precision of the photographs makes us attend to details that are not immediately visible (the fragmenting of the polychrome bodies, the multitude of gunshot holes, the pieces of duct table holding together dismembered legs, the metal structures holding them upright, the curtains, the colourful balloons, even the wood frames that support the backdrops). All this contributes to the production of an image that tells a story that has to be read to the end for what is going on to become clear. However there is still an irony, a macabre wink, a subtle twist reminding us that, even if what we are viewing existed previously in the real world, its lack of context makes us view it as if we are seeing it and analysing it for the first time.
This also happens in the new Spa pictures – as it did in the spas, classrooms and laboratories in 'No Man's Land'. The atmosphere of the chosen spaces, the walls and floors, marbled or tiled, the collection of handles and steel brackets, cold and antiseptic, are more connected to the atmosphere of a hospital clinic than to a place of rest or therapy. Even if the deck chairs and stretches are redolent of recuperation and objects, there is an uneasiness, awkwardness and restrained tension that seems connected to no-presence, the devices in their desolation, devoid of all activity, looking ridiculous if not aggressive. It is precisely this no-use, this desolate impasse, that mutates tools into un-animated objects. The photographs conjure up the feeling of a cold receptor of general disenchantment.
The photographs by Lynne Cohen deal with the concept of No-place. The complementary and diverse array of meanings related to this and the generic title of 'No Man's Land' closes a ring of references and clues that are ethnological in nature, if not anthropological. Marc Augé describes the concept of No-place as one of differentiating place and space. While place is about site, space includes the inhabitants and actions that occur there as well. No-places contrast with anthropological sites. They are not defined in their historical, social and political aspects but exist as consequences of the practices of what is called 'hypermodernity', their importance resting on transit, speed, channels destined to communication and travel (highways, tolls, airport and such like). When viewed positively, not as they are usually viewed, these no-places becomes transformed into something closer to the spaces of hypermodernity, with their own characteristics – which are actually not so new and in fact easily related to classical anthropological sites. We are speaking here about changes that are as fast as the devices which transport us and as fast as the changes in the means of transportation.
Meanwhile, 'No Man's Land' is the 'unoccupied territory between
two enemy fronts' or the 'territory which belongs to no-one'. It refers
to military or political jargon, in the sense of ownership, control
and vigilance, or lack of them. Typically a no man's land is a strip
of ground between one border and another: the line between countries
as in a scale map. For Cohen, however, it refers more to the absence
of human presence in particular interiors. Her no man's land makes
reference to the no-use-by the no-presence-of spaces normally used
and inhabited (if only during the time of a massage or shower or the
time it takes to walk down a corridor), not to forget the lack of
vigilance, in those interiors which are usually monitored and controlled.
Her spaces undergo a power crisis because of their lack of human presence
and the fact that they are all in one way or other places of transit.
When they become objects, they lose their transient characteristic
and become three dimensional works. They are not only need a spatial,
three dimensional interpretation, they actually seek it.