BY Martha Joseph in Features | 21 SEP 19
Featured in
Issue 206

How Yve Laris Cohen Upsets the Binary Between Healthy and Sick

Drawing on his dancer’s training, Laris Cohen radically presents his body simply ‘as is’ in his performances

BY Martha Joseph in Features | 21 SEP 19

Metronome, 2017. Courtesy: Alamy; photograph: Pathrpol Davivongsa 

Earlier this year, I arrived at The Kitchen in New York to find the doors closed. A small group of people were gathered outside: some I recognized, others I didn’t, but all had received the same cryptic email – an invitation from the artist Yve Laris Cohen to his performance 71/33 with no contextual information other than a list of dates and times. At precisely 6:44pm, Laris Cohen brought us up a back staircase to an office on the third floor lit only by skylight. He informed us that this was a version of a piece he had first presented at The Kitchen in 2013. He left the room, then returned wearing only his boxer shorts, with an open cut visible on his abdomen.

With the training of a dancer and the sensibility of a conceptual artist, Laris Cohen often presents his body simply ‘as is’ in his performances. Following surgery related to Crohn’s disease this past January, Laris Cohen was left with a stoma – an opening between the gut and the epidermis that allows excrement to leave the body while bypassing the rectum. For four months, he had to wear an ostomy bag to collect waste before a follow-up procedure could restore his digestive tract to full working order. Appearing without this bag, Laris Cohen allowed faeces to ooze out in plain sight, upending traditional expectations of dance: here, the performer’s body was stationary while his insides moved.

For the next 45 minutes, we sat listening only to the ticking of a metronome while excrement seeped from the artist’s open abdomen. Laris Cohen often makes performances in which non-dancers are actors: painters paint, friends read texts aloud, workers carry objects around a stage, truck drivers shuttle slabs of drywall across town. This work, unlike 1960s Viennese actionism or the Julia Kristeva-influenced art of the early 1990s, is not merely about bodily abjection. It is also about movement. The substance oozing from the viscera is the dance: a movement both in its use of the body and the deep reaction it stirred.

The title of this piece, 71/33, refers to the last blood-pressure reading Laris Cohen remembers being taken before going into haemorrhagic shock last January, after a complication from another surgery. As your blood pressure drops, your heart rate increases. Looking at his watch, Laris Cohen kept a steady hand on the metronome dial during the performance, increasing the tempo at a slow yet constant rate so that the acceleration was barely detectable. As Laris Cohen references in an unpublished artist statement on the work from 2019, the clock is a common metaphor in relation to the body – we talk about the ‘biological clock’; at work, we ‘clock in’ and ‘clock out’ – but it is often applied to progressive illness, too: those with degenerative diseases hear doctors say that a medication will ‘turn back’ or ‘stop’ the clock. These metaphors comingled and degenerated in 71/33, as Laris Cohen deliberately distorted the steady beat of time in the room.

In Laris Cohen’s performances, bodies and objects are often in states of transition; whether it’s his own trans body or objects used as either sculpture or prop, the artist presents us with things that migrate from one state to another and sometimes linger in between. 71/33 likewise tenders a body between two surgeries, between ‘sick’ and ‘healthy’. Laris Cohen had precisely four months before another operation would reconnect his insides and close the ileostomy. Performing this work during that four-month period confuses the binary between illness and health, questioning whether – particularly when suffering a progressive disease like Crohn’s – the body ever fully exists at either pole or merely vacillates between the two states.

Laris Cohen’s work regularly addresses issues of labour in the dance and visual art worlds, and 71/33 specifically opens up questions about how capitalism values the body with respect to labour power, designating it as sick or well based on its ability to function productively. This is complicated by chronic illness and progressive diseases, for which medical treatments focus more on management than healing. In Carolyn Lazard’s 2013 essay ‘How to Be a Person in the Age of Autoimmunity’, she writes: ‘When we are sick, we enact unintended resistance to an economic system that privileges efficiency over resilience.’ In 71/33, we are presented with an unthinkable image under capitalism: the performing body as both a body of labour and illness simultaneously. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 206 with the headline ‘Time and Materials’

Martha Joseph is assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA