Issue 140

Yve Laris Cohen: Meeting Ground
by Jovana Jankovic

Entering the single, windowless room in which Yve Laris Cohen’s Meeting Ground is installed, one can’t help but think, “Is this it?”—and then suddenly feel guilty about perpetuating a clichéd philistine conception of art. The work is quiet, unassuming and sparse: it consists of the transplanted walls of the interior of Sherwood Auditorium, a grand performance space in La Jolla, California that was shuttered in 2017 to make way for the construction of a new facility. The old auditorium’s walls line the walls of the gallery space completely, fitting perfectly from floor to ceiling, inch for inch.  [1] There is nothing else there.

The sparseness could easily have a viewer give up and leave; or, alternatively, reach for something to hang onto, some avenue through which to pierce the stark, empty silence. Indeed, once thought through, the work’s puzzling implications elicit an infinite (and fun) spiral of questions. It’s fitting that the work’s effects take place in a future ahead of the moment of its viewing, since the work itself seems to be concerned with, among other things, dismantling ordinary conceptions of time, change, objecthood and memory.

A particularly entertaining aspect of the philosophical branch of metaphysics is concerned with the persistence of objects through time, their identity, their material constitution and the puzzle of how and whether they “change” at all. Think of the ways in which our bodies grow hairs or lose skin over time; and yet, we are still “ourselves.” Think of the conundrum of art restoration, and whether a piece whose parts are replaced, repaired or otherwise altered is still that same piece of art. To what extent is Meeting Ground actually Sherwood Auditorium? Is there “enough” (quantitatively or otherwise) of the latter to be able to say as much?

What about the relationship of names to things? Artworks, of course, have titles, and places have names as well. Do we call this iteration of the auditorium Meeting Ground, while in its past iteration it was named Sherwood Auditorium? Would “Sherwood Auditorium” then qualify as the materials out of which the artwork is made, as when we unproblematically agree that an oil painting’s materials are oil paints?

A San Diego native, New York-based Laris Cohen’s history as a trained dancer informs his work in Minimalist sculpture, physical movement, performance and social critiques of art and labour. Meeting Ground is his first solo exhibition on the west coast, and takes up his usual concerns with objects (often buildings or bodies) and their identity, decay, transformation, appearance and disappearance. Laris Cohen’s own identity as a transgender man relates to these issues at a deeply personal level: what is the body’s relationship to identity? To the names we call it?

Laris Cohen sees memory and experience as integral to the constitution of an object’s or space’s identity. Meeting Ground was installed with the participation of Mike Scheer, a former Sherwood events technician who acted as caretaker of the venue for over two decades. In his notes on the exhibition, Laris Cohen also relates that he visited 91-year-old Daniel Lewis in Orange County; Lewis conducted the San Diego Art Center chamber orchestra inside Sherwood Auditorium (then called Sherwood Hall) for five seasons in the 1960s. “I showed him photos of himself conducting in Sherwood Hall in 1961,” writes Laris Cohen. “He said, ‘that man’s handsome’ and asked if it was me who was pictured.”2  In this touching anecdote, a body is replaced, a memory displaced; an object, an era and a locale are mistaken for others.

Indeed, if it weren’t for the existence of an experiencing subject, such as Mr. Lewis (or myself), we could not accurately list “thing of which I have certain kinds of memories” (joy, regret, longing, trauma) as a rightful property of a certain object. It’s here that Laris Cohen’s experience with performance begins to emerge, and yet in such a starkly performance-less exhibition made up of the physical parts of a venue that has seen so much performance inside its walls. Consider the extent to which I, as viewer, as visitor, as interpreter, was being asked to be the performer, the doer. Meeting Ground asked me to do quite a few things, and not necessarily all at once; did I not go home and read up on the metaphysical concepts of temporal parts and identity over time? Did I not start to look at simple objects and their temporal relations differently—say, the banana in my kitchen that’s suddenly unappetizingly brown, fostering disappointment, regret, confusion about where all that time went so quickly?

Finally, and perhaps extremely: are there such things as galleries or auditoriums at all, or only collections of particles and material “stuff”? While the latter is in many senses true, the former can hardly be disputed when we think of the people who worked inside the Sherwood Auditorium, those who attended performances there, those who fought battles for funding for the arts, unionization for Sherwood’s employees, support for restoration efforts and more.  [3] To whatever extent my memory of a time, place, object or person is part of that thing’s identifying characteristics, it also marks me as real, as present, as a thing that exists.

As philosopher Katherine Hawley writes, in a seemingly simple point about the magic of temporality: “What is it about the passage of time that makes it possible for one and the same object to have apparently incompatible properties?”  [4] Meeting Ground plays with this question, hinting at the fact that its answer might be somewhere, but certainly not here nor now.