by Jean-Louis Poitevin

open in Word



The titles of Lynne Cohen’s photographs tell us very little about what the pictures show us. They in fact point to each photograph’s belonging to a type of space that fits into one or another of the series making up the work No Man's Land—a spa, a laboratory, a classroom, among others. While each of these names denotes the function of the photographed site, it tells us nothing else—nothing about the country or the city it is located in, nothing about the date the photograph was taken, and nothing about any specific feature of the site.

This paucity of information in the titles confers de facto another function upon them, inciting the observer (in the Duchampian sense of the participant-spectator) to question the relevance of the titles; that is, the relationships between what is shown in the photograph and what is signified in the title. In other words, what we see may correspond to the idea of have of such-and-such a type of place, with the titles acting as a simple filing system; but if we look at the pictures without paying attention to the titles and then try to find out to which series such-and-such a photograph belongs, we begin to realize that the spaces we are shown have a great many features in common and that they are all somewhat alike. What emerges is a world of formal resemblances, reflecting one another in a sort of infinite play of echoes.

And by giving us such a general indication, the titles invite us to question more directly the identity of the site, but only by imagining what could be happening there, for we will find out nothing more about what is really going on there, even if we devote attention to their purely plastic components and consider them for their aesthetic characteristics.

Merely by this play of titles, then, Cohen forces us to stand at a strange crossroads where patterns of ambivalence seem able to transmute into patterns of ambiguity, and vice versa.

The sites Cohen photographs are ambivalent in that they represent real, functional spaces that, emptied of their functionality both in the way they are shot and by the fact of becoming images, attain a plastic dimension. Each space is both sociologically and aesthetically interesting, and the coexistence of these two qualities renders it undeniably ambivalent.

Once the reassuring identification promised in the title is complete, however, we find ourselves before a photograph that shows us a space whose function we cannot truly divine, and that is not any more worthy of representation than other spaces. We learn nothing specific about its real function, nor can we say that possesses absolutely undeniable plastic qualities. The status of the place that the photograph shows us is, to say the least, ambiguous.

I have chosen to refer to this point where ambiguity and ambivalence intersect as “the irrepresentable.”

In the interval between the two works Occupied Territory and No Man's Land, the photographs of Lynne Cohen underwent a sea change. To better understand what happened, we must first attempt to analyse the reasons that led the artist to include certain images from the first album in the second.

What Cohen was shooting belonged to two separate worlds that were nonetheless blended in part, like two plates superimposed one over the other, two universes interweaving each other, covering each other, one being more visible, taking up more room than the other. It was precisely the realm that had not yet reached maturity that slowly disengaged itself and has now become visible.

From photographs that used cold yet vibrant humour to show spaces that gave off a kitsch atmosphere, we note a shift to photographs of spaces that can be described as “hard,” both in the subjects represented and the very materiality of the image.

In fact, the photographs of Lynne Cohen have evolved along three planes at once: there is the choice of sites photographed, the relationship to the body engendered by them, and the very materiality of the image.

The spaces photographed in Occupied Territory were in the main familiar spaces—at least, they were the types of spaces in which anyone might expect to find oneself in someday: hair salon or office entrance, dancehall or bank vestibule, classroom or club. What rendered them interesting was their singularity, the eccentricity of some of their decorative aspects, and the radicality of their layouts.
Common places in the strict sense of the term (despite being more or less private), they convey within themselves a sort of fundamental ambivalence so long as the signs that defined their functions were exaggerated. Photographed, they attain an extra, almost sublime dimension, related to the exaggeration or intensification of certain signs, and thus reach a second degree of perfection. Photography laid bare the implicit humour in these spaces, just as it revealed all their other aspects.

These spaces were hardly ambiguous, insofar as their functions became more blurred only because of this intensification of signification due to the singular usage of certain signs—which, in a way, were folded in on themselves, giving the spaces an oneiric dimension that could not mask for long the involuntary ironic dimension they bore. The photographs that were included in Occupied Territory and that were used again for No Man's Land, therefore, already addressed another set of issues. Because they are places most often inaccessible to the public, forbidden places which one cannot enter without authorization and where the taking of photographs is therefore probably not allowed, these places are vehicles of mystery. Thus the general ambivalence that can be said to define Cohen’s photographs was already responded to by a form of ambiguity that the new photographs made palpable. Having lost none of their oneiric and ironic dimension, these photographs make tangible a new dimension, that of irrepresentability.

The spaces to be discovered in No Man's Land differ from those shown in Occupied Territory in that one cannot imagine what one would do there oneself but become, as all the photographs suggest, the object of an experiment, which moreover is probably a dangerous one. Where once it was the potential for humour that led me to ask myself how I might react were I to find myself in one of those singular salons, today the response is a sort of angst. As a person, an individual, a subject, if I am in one or another of these spaces, I have no possible status other than that of object in an experiment, about which I know nothing and that might be conducted directly on my own body (or, because it is carried out on one of its simulacra—the mannequins—will concern it anyway).

Where the photographs of Occupied Territory confronted us with singular shapes born of our imagination, those of No Man's Land force us to question the non-visible zones of the reality in which we live, which we know nothing about and yet are the site of all experimentation that concerns us to a primordial degree.

The types of spaces Cohen chooses have thus changed radically: what was still a secondary interrogation in Occupied Territory has become a paramount interrogation in No Man's Land.

These spaces, then, as their titles indicate, are places where experiments are conducted, and most of them involve the body. We are in spaces where mannequins are manufactured, in spaces where mannequins are used for all manner of experiments, in spaces where experiments are conducted on animal or human bodies, in spaces where real bodies attempt experiments that themselves, in their potential applications, affect other bodies, or finally in spaces where the individual body is made to undergo treatments commensurate with its evils.

A hospital room, a shooting range, a factory or room in which military experimentation is conducted—we are in realms connected to violence and danger, to illness and death, but where danger, violence and death are shown only allusively, or metaphorically if you will. They are also spaces in which, in the end, we pretend to pretend. The experiment is completed using the simulacrum, but always it is the real effects of the introduction of that violence in reality that we seek to know, anticipate or control.

If the overall tone of Occupied Territory was that of witticism, a humourous stroke enabling us to make discoveries that tore the veil from our narrow-minded obviousness, the overall tone of No Man's Land is, instead, irony. Irony is an operation of thought that shifts the action being played out in one space onto another stage, thus enabling a different form of classifying the experiences and elements in play. Lynne Cohen’s photographs, then, employ irony because they depict a manner of pretending that inevitably leads to the revelation of the abyss between simulated violence, its imagined effects, and its reality. It is this abyss that constitutes the true danger, that is the source of true violence, against which everybody rebels with all their strength—and it is what Lynne Cohen’s photographs confront us with. The abyss to which I referred to earlier as the irrepresentable.

The other important change in Lynne Cohen’s work concerns the body: its status, its place, its function. Each of these photographs confronts us with a situation in which the body is at stake; it is impossible for us to say what is really happening to it or could happen to it in that space. We can seek to divine this true nature by questioning the most recognizable of these spaces, even though it is one few of us has ever entered: the police shooting range. Here, the mannequins are targets, and they serve to help police officers practice not only their shooting accuracy, but the proper identification of their targets that will help them avoid making an irreparable mistake in a real-life situation. In this case we know, more or less, what actually goes on in the space we are shown. In the others, however, the mystery persists, even after we have read the title.

These photographs place us before something that can not be truly recounted, nor truly shown, nor represented, something that precisely is found at the intersection point between ambiguity and ambivalence, where the fictional dimension of reality does not totally encompass the real dimension of fiction, but on the contrary reveals the power of attraction or repulsion of a certain type of void, of which the absence of a living human body in these images is the most trenchant paradigm.
The body is the subject of all attentions, but of attentions that may turn against it in reality. If the presence of an absence is often embodied in a fetishized object, here, in these photographs by Cohen, it “is” the body. Absent, it is present precisely in its absence, and present, it is in the form of simulacra and can thus be said to be doubly absent. In other words the body here attains the dimension of irrepresentability. Because it is present by its absence from the core of the representation, it is what at stake in the representation. Because it is represented everywhere via its simulacra, it is not irrepresentable as such, but being represented by its absence and as absence, it thus attains—because it reveals it—the dimension of irrepresentability.

Conducted to help better protect the body in the real world, these experiments use simulacra of the body. The latter is thus presented to us here as a virtual entity. The virtual realm, here, is the field on which semblance doubles itself as semblance in the expectation of becoming again and returning to reality—and, in that doubling, discovers the existence of a specific power of effectuation. The virtual is that dimension in which the body is subjected to experiments qui that can, or are designed to, confer upon it a new power as subject. In this sense the virtual is nothing other than representation perceived as a field, one criss-crossed by a web of potentially actualizable forces.

Lynne Cohen’s photographs have a very particular way of deploying that doubling and making the virtual realm that they reveal the true double of the representation as such—that is to say, of the irrepresentable. If everything appearing in the field of representation bars access to the irrepresentable, it is through indefinite play on this absence of living human beings in her photographs that Cohen—in so doing following one of her richest and most radical prime intuitions—succeeds in rendering it perceptible. Each element appearing in the frame—insofar as it speaks, finally, only of humanity—forces us to perform the task that for Duchamp constituted a particularity that had become conscious in contemporary art: as he famously declared, “it is the spectator who makes the picture.” In this vein, one can say that Cohen, more than others, forces the observer to take photographs, in the sense that she forces us to either accept the ambiguity by being satisfied with the ambivalence displayed, or try to escape the trap by confronting the void. Signifying its virtual presence but acting via the absence of living human beings, the irrepresentable is before us. Here it is presented to us as a sort of “void of people” in places that are, all the same, “peopled.” Almost without dealing with it, Cohen therefore leads us to question the virtual, that current mode of presence-absence that seems to take a leap beyond fetishization and lead us to a confrontation with the plastic potential of the void.

The third aspect setting the more recent photographs apart from the older ones is the overwhelming presence of visual elements that function as incarnations of minimalist or conceptual works (or fragments thereof). This realm of experimentation, this hidden realm that is the site of experiments about which we know nothing, this world of simulation, this reality dominated by virtuality produces forms that resemble simulacra of art works. They are not simulacra of just any sort of works, because these are works that question the real function of the virtual entities that are words and images, the relations that exist between them, and therefore the function and the status of representation in our culture and civilization.

Discussing Joseph Kossuth’s work Glass—One and Three, Ghislain Mollet-Viéville writes: "three modes of production or re-presentation thus confront each other:

– the object itself, defined by a three-dimensional system of reference;
– the photo of the object, its two-dimensional iconic representation; and
– the definition of the object, its linguistic representation.

Faced with this whole, the spectator hesitates between aesthetic perception and utilitarian perception". (Art minimal et conceptuel, Geneva: Editions SKIRA, 1995, p. 72, freely translated).

Lynne Cohen’s works take us a step further in this questioning, leading us to the heart of the machinery of doubt and revealing to us, as far as is possible, its secret. That secret is at once that most shared thing in the world and the most inexpressible. That secret is not a secret merely because it is quite simply incommunicable. An irrepresentable object of the human experience, it is in fact the Gordian knot at which intersect the diverse lines of force that can allow each entity to move from the status of object of an experience to that of subject. We are no longer speaking of the subject of the story but of the subject in action: that which is ceaselessly subjectifying itself—that is, which dares to confront, or shall we say manages not to ignore, among its multitude of experiences, that inexpressible and yet essential one that is the confrontation with the void, with the irrepresentable that haunts representation and lies at the heart of the virtual, as its fundamental core. One might even say that, in a way, humans as humans “are” that irrepresentable.

The irrepresentable is at once inside every one of us but inaccessible, all around each of us, but imperceptible. What Lynne Cohen’s photographs show is that this empty mirror of absent passions is the place where the real transformed into semblance, seeking its truth in the excess of semblance, is discovered to be inhabited by the virtual, that bottomless theatre where the void is everywhere and the irrepresentable, nowhere. They expose, in their nudity, that impossibility that is the secret of representation, the open secret so well shared that it leads to eclipse the fact that the plastic potential celebrated by any representation finds, in the irrepresentable, the source without which it could not exist.