Ottawa

Lynne Cohen

National Gallery of Canada

Lynne Cohen documents spaces in which the everyday is not so much lived as staged: empty laboratories, showrooms, medical classrooms, corporate offices and corridors, and leisure spaces (spas, party halls). She began to photograph these deserted “found environments” in the early ’70s, archiving them as artifacts from the urban environment Wyndham Lewis once called the “fiery desert of modern life.” Unlike many women taking photographs in the ’70s and ’80s Cohen has resisted the instrumentality of a feminist politics that would show us a way out. Instead she has documented processes of identity formation that she finds not in bodies but in their nearly invisible supports, in institutionalized spaces that stand as allegories of the petrifaction and inertia of the postindustrial world. The spaces in these images circumscribe certain modes of being and acting in the world; they are settings in the sense of both place and placement, site and situation. The relation between these two meanings makes Cohen’s project more than just a knowing comment on alienation and modernity (a hip movie set à la David Lynch): It is a record of a social and political interpellation.

“No Man’s Land,’” Cohen’s first large-scale survey (co-organized with the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland), collected nearly seventy photographs dating from 1971to the present. While some are more familiar than others, the institutional spaces in the photos are surprisingly, similar in appearance; each is notable for its symmetrical lines, tiled surfaces, stark overhead lighting, and faux-natural materials (some of the spaces are lined with so much formica, linoleum, and plastic that they resemble constructed Thomas Demand sets). The training grounds for doctors and civil servants are as straightforward and unobtrusive as those members of society are supposed to be—and the paintball ranges and spas cannot easily be differentiated from the classrooms and laboratories. This overwhelming uniformity is the marker of an earlier utopianism, though nostalgia is not the point. Cohen focuses on idiosyncratic details: crooked electrical outlets, dangling wires, skid marks, handprints—signs of life, by turns amusing and eerie, that act as fissures in the institutional veneer. They do not bring a temporality to the images so much as an imprint of practice, a grammar of use. Even those friendlier spaces that include windows provide no respite from the subterranean atmosphere of secrecy and inaccessibility. This secrecy is tied thematically to the project underlying the function of many of the rooms: The flight simulators, anatomy tables, and police and army shooting ranges of her more recent work speak to experiments aimed at exerting control over the natural world. Perhaps not surprisingly, the images of leisure spaces are among the most disturbing: Leisure, the sphere of freedom, appears here as orchestrated movement and institutionalized ritual.

While her photographs may appear Becher-like, Cohen’s aesthetic project is both more his concerting and ultimately more poetic. According to Walter Benjamin, the epistemological force of the allegorical image is its capacity to heighten our awareness of the present moment, to reflect in its fragmentary state a larger social edifice. Cohen’s world of objects meets the viewer’s gaze halfway; her rooms do not so much invite us in as call on us to look at where we stand.

Janine Marchessault