Between No-place and No-Man's Land
An approach to Lynne Cohen's photographs


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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'?

In photographic or video work, where the image is produced using an industrial process, the multi-disciplinary references are broader and much harder to link up with art history than more traditional art media. The freedom from art historical baggage is not so easily sustained, not least because new critical languages have been appropriated by the cultural system and industry. This in turn has lead to the message being redefined, goals readjusted, visions broadened and new analyses with references to yet more influences and nuances. This has resulted in photography, even art-oriented photography, developing particular mechanisms for dissemination, sales, and exhibition. Still there is no escaping the influence of the mass media, the internet, advertising, cinema and a brief but intense history of images riddled with interpretation.

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.
Cohen's coherent and complex body of work often alludes to installation or to architecture, painting or sculpture from the history of art. Her first photographs in the 70's were of living rooms in private homes of the sort that appear in Richard Hamilton's work. Many of her photographs were Claus Oldenburg-like objects taken out of context. There are echoes of Marcel Duchamp in her use of found spaces as if they were ready-made and of Richard Artschwager in her attention to the texture of various surfaces like Formica, plywood and linoleum. Again there are references to Jasper Johns' targets and fragments of bodies rendered in plaster and even to Joseph Bueys' presence of blackboards in her photographs of classrooms and laboratories.
On the other hand, the documentary aspect of photography is more than an intrinsic feature of the medium itself. It is practically its first function. In art, this purpose has been fundamental throughout its history and it has even had a comeback with the 'new objectivity' movement. But it has also resulted in photographers photographing places from what seems an apparently neutral position while aiming (and this might be the most important point of all) to produce work that belongs and fits more comfortably in the art world, with its own peculiar characteristics and connotations rather than to the world of documentary photography or industrial photography. These photographers are unwilling to differentiate their work from the work of painters, sculptors and other artists. Lynne Cohen's work stands out among the most notable photographers grouped under this definition.

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 elements.
In the photographs produced by Cohen in the 70's, the size of the finished works was the size of the film itself, 20cm x 25cm or 13cm x 18cm contact prints. At this time, the artist thought 'that there was only one place to make a picture. It was as if paper footprints were stuck to the floor telling you where to stand.' Later on when she started making medium and large format prints, the search for symmetry, similar to that found in the locations (photographing exclusively straight on) came to an end. And having decided to enlarge the photographs, she began to produce a different sort of work. Her standpoint is broader and the work itself comes to have a more three-dimensional quality. This new stance is heightened by her adoption of a new framing device( the use of a simulated texture or colour Formica). At the same time, the pieces became perfectly framed windows, mirrors for a society that might even be surprised at its own extravagances.

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.

Álvaro de los Ángeles