PRINT May 2014


Yve Laris Cohen, D.S. (detail), 2014, wall alteration, 62 x 72 x 9". From the 2014 Whitney Biennial.


YOU COULD ALMOST MISS IT: A seam in the wall near the stairwell on the third floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—five feet up, six feet over, and five feet down again. And maybe it’s meant to be missed, this rectilinear fissure that separates the secular museum walls from the sacred slab of drywall that serves variously as artwork, prop, and envoy for Yve Laris Cohen’s D.S., 2014, the artist’s contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Laris Cohen likes to play with what you don’t notice, the alien supports and protocols that shape and secure how we make and show art. For this reason, some people fix him within the legacy of institutional critique, compare him to Michael Asher or Robert Morris or other pious art dudes, and indeed he has a certain post-Minimal/Conceptual stoicism. In my experience, though, he spends more time talking about mentors like Yvonne Meier and Sarah Michelson: thriving downtown dance lodestars who also skew the way art gets framed while putting their bodies and egos on the line.

Laris Cohen is always putting his body on the line. Rigor is a word now etiolated by its currency in press releases, but I still think it means something to say that Laris Cohen is a rigorous dancer: He began ballet training at four and studied Cunningham, Limón, Horton, Graham, and other modern techniques in college. He once could do six pirouettes en pointe, easily. He dances still, sometimes to flaunt his training and sometimes to flout it. I first saw him on a program of young choreographers at Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts) in 2010, and in the work he performed there, Duke, as well as in several others, he takes up music or movements from Giselle, the classic 1841 ballet he knows well and whose score and movements he continually reworks. Giselle is itself a dance about dancing, about its wear and tear, and so it is an apposite ur-text for a young dance-maker reflexively engaged with his canon, its romance and damage.

For Laris Cohen, the point is less to rehearse our archival impulse and more to play the field, moving among different institutional arenas. Which is why, for him, exhibition spaces are as crucial as theaters. Two works, both recently performed at SculptureCenter, stand out: Coda, 2012, in which he executed an exhausting series of châiné turns alongside a seventy-five-foot-long double-sprung marley dance floor that he’d built and then appended to a wall in a narrow corridor in the basement, and an untitled piece from 2012, during which he performed barre exercises on an elevated platform while his friend and sometime collaborator Park McArthur rode through the space in her wheelchair, mostly obscured by twenty-five-foot-tall duvetyn curtains attached to a mechanical conveyor that she controlled. Both performances tweaked recognizable visual art cues—the reorientation of the “studio” floor as “painterly” surface in Coda, the kinetic-sculptural drama of the untitled work—but both also used theatrical materials (sprung floors) and ploys (the “hide and reveal” function of the curtain) to ludicrous effect, all within a space dedicated to fine art, to “sculpture,” if we’re still thinking like that.

Sometimes I feel like Laris Cohen introduces an overdetermined matrix whose rules I can hold in my head only fleetingly. There in the matrix, “thinking” luffs. Standing in front of that wall at the Whitney, I notice the only thing on it, a politely pedantic label talking about D.S., short for “dal segno,” a term in sheet music that instructs the performer to return to the earlier segno (sign) in the piece. Reading, I learn that art handlers will soon appear and begin to prepare the wall fragment for the next episode, titled al Coda, the first of five performances. Actually, there are two politely pedantic labels, but an earlier one has been mostly obscured by this updated version, which is coyly askew to make the cover-up apparent. The museum modified the text to abjure some potentially sensitive reference to the government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration codes, though the presence of a second label just draws attention to the bowdlerization. It seems fitting, this staging of internal compromises, since the wall, in fact, has its own history: It first appeared as a prop in the exhibition “Landing Field: Vito Acconci and Yve Laris Cohen” at the Hessel Museum of Art and CCS Galleries at Bard College last spring, accruing its own dancing wear and tear as well as a history of its frictions—battle scars.


YOU COULD ALMOST MISS IT. The only publicity for the event was the writing on that wall and some e-mails sent to a small circle of colleagues. About thirty of us, mostly dance and art professionals, got the message. It’s late afternoon on a chilly and gray early spring day, and we’re assembled behind a fence at the corner of Tenth Avenue and Gansevoort Street, behind the new, under-construction, Renzo Piano–designed building in the Meatpacking District downtown, where the Whitney will relocate in 2015. In interviews Laris Cohen has teasingly suggested that he preselects his audience, so I can’t help but feel pressured, a vetted witness, though maybe I’m being paranoid. We’ve been told we can’t leave before the performance is over, but no one will tell us how long it is, either. We wear sensible shoes and hard hats. Laris Cohen is there, too, in his standard uniform of white T-shirt and black jeans; he paces, grimacing, crossing his arms. We mill about for a little while before a large blue truck appears and art handlers unload the wrapped wall fragment from uptown and carry it onto one of the temporary freight elevators that climb the raw building’s facade.

Yve Laris Cohen, Duke, 2010. Performance view, Dance Theater Workshop, New York, December 8, 2010. Yve Laris Cohen and Michael Mahalchick. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu.

At the previous Whitney Biennial in 2012, curators Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman converted the museum’s fourth floor into a performance arena. The gesture worked with and against the vaunted Marcel Breuer building’s recalcitrant architecture and in doing so made the museum itself a subject, anticipating the Whitney’s avowed plans to make the new downtown building into a “performance ready” museum of the future. Now Laris Cohen has brought us to the present-future, the soon-to-be performance and media space. The subject is less the soigné phenomenology of architecture than the disorienting teleology of construction—an aesthetics not of Breuer or Piano but of Turner Construction Company, which handles the building’s fabrication. What is the status of this room-in-formation, this almost-theater? Of the performance that moves through it, or the artwork/prop that is the work’s ambassador?

We get into the elevator behind the handlers and ascend to the fourth level, where we’re led to a sunlit, spartan space. The floor is raw concrete; the walls are green drywall, interrupted by blunt strips of joint compound. The blanketed wall slab is placed near the northwest corner. A museum registrar appears and Laris Cohen fills out a form, then asks the official photographer, Paula Court, where she’d like to stand. Court takes the northwest corner, near the large window overlooking the Hudson River, on what will someday be the theater’s stage left. She’s asked to remain there for the rest of the performance, though eventually, gumshoe-like, she’ll move to follow the trail.

These kinds of seemingly pedestrian negotiations are touchstones in Laris Cohen’s performances, in which the “ordinary” work of administration and staging is dramatized, rendered visible if still mundane. The registrar is crucial—shades of Tino Sehgal and his bureaucratic legerdemain, though Sehgal’s legalese is more circumspect, there to disavow his work’s categorization as “performance.” At the Whitney’s uptown building, the wall slab is classified and insured as a $200 artwork (reflecting the cost to make the wall), and so must be moved by art handlers. Once Laris Cohen formally receives the work at the museum-in-progress downtown, the wall’s legal status officially becomes that of a prop, and the artist becomes solely responsible for its reinstallation in its alcove back uptown later that evening. The wall’s ontological conversion is a conceptual feint that pressures the contextual status of objects, producing absurd logistical predicaments with very real physical consequences.

Soon enough, the artist removes the wrapping and the slab is revealed. On one side is the Whitney’s wall label; on the other, in the bottom left-hand corner, large letters spell TRANSSEXUAL: vestigial text—part of a list of materials—from one of the performances at the Bard show. The floating signifier at first seems obvious, pointing to Laris Cohen, who identifies as trans, but it also gestures to the earlier performance, whose materials listed multiple “Vito Acconcis” and “transsexuals,” and perhaps to the wall itself, whose scale evinces a relationship to Acconci. (Another wall, blank and built to Laris Cohen’s measurements, is in the room but hard to see: visible invisible.)

Laris Cohen moves the wall to conceal the single word, then disappears, reappearing several minutes later in an exposed control booth upstairs, looking out onto the theater. “So Tom,” the artist says from the booth, “the performance has to change.” Laris Cohen explains that twelve propane tanks that were supposed to be employed in the performance can’t be used—the only worker who is certified to operate them can’t do so today—and so Tom, a gray-haired man in slacks and a button-up shirt, will instead look at the audience and describe what he would have done had the propane tanks been available, taking the same amount of time as he would were he to “actually” do the performance “as planned.” Tom proceeds, telling us how he would take the propane tanks and line them up at various angles, turning them on “so they would make an awful noise and heat the space excruciatingly.” Etc. Laris Cohen, meanwhile, stands in the control room, looking at his watch, occasionally making gestures—I catch, among other moves, two hands crossed in symmetry—derived from choreography for the corps de ballet in Giselle. And so, in a way, the febrile propane tanks become our phantasmatic Wilis, those wretched spirits of dead lovers that compel Giselle’s two male protagonists to dance to death or nearly.

After perhaps ten minutes, Tom stops speaking, and Laris Cohen returns to his audience and begins, with great effort, to single-handedly move the slab back toward the elevator. Is this the exhausting death-dance commanded by the mad propane-Wilis? Once outside, the artist slowly pushes the wall toward a U-Haul van parked in the lot, and when the going seems impossible, he enlists several curators to help lift it in. But it’s a hair too big; it won’t fit. They wrangle the thing, slowly, until Laris Cohen leaves, presumably to find a bigger vehicle, while we loiter and then eventually disperse, the enjambment left wanting. Sarah Michelson’s getaway car at the end of Shadowmann: Part I, 2003, comes to mind; so again does that post-Minimalist cool.I don’t remember any applause, but in any case—like the work of Michelson, like that of Ann Liv Young—I don’t see that it would have made any difference.

A few days later, the museum cancels the rest of the performances at the theater, citing construction delays and safety issues. Since the five performances were conceived of as a network, D.S. lives unfinished. Laris Cohen built the work to be precise yet pliable, responsive to shifting terrain, though the use of the construction site—the engagement of the strange protocols of a space-in-becoming, and one made to accommodate a performative turn in art—was always nonnegotiable. The artist seems to have located the exact point at which the institution’s risk-taking could no longer obtain. What does such a realization mean? At this new, performance-ready almost-Whitney, what remains of a cancellation? And though solace is a mean thing, I know that Laris Cohen has already taken this dumb impasse, made it into something else.

David Velasco is editor of