Artist Q&A > Yve Laris Cohen

Learn more about New York-based, San Diego-born artist Yve Laris Cohen, whose first solo museum exhibition on the West Coast is on view at MCASD Downtown through September 2.

MCASD: Your performances and installations often foreground bodies, buildings, and objects in states of transition—on the cusp of appearing or disappearing. Do these ideas relate to questions surrounding being queer or transgender?

YVE LARIS COHEN: Many writers have addressed the notion of “queer time,” but I’m interested in how the space-time of transness is a little different. Queer time is often thought in terms of arrested development, being late or out of sync with normative time, and resisting chronological life benchmarks and terminal goals. I’m compelled by topologies: crumpling, stretching, and trembling, where form holds but is recomposed under duress. This spatial and temporal warping confuses distinctions between inside and outside, here and there, forward and backward. This is the transness I’m invested in—not a movement from one stable pole to another, but the continual renegotiation of power and form.

MCASD: For your exhibition Meeting Ground, you spent many weeks onsite at MCASD conducting archival research into the Museum’s early history, focusing on Sherwood Auditorium. Can you talk about this process? What was the most surprising thing you learned?

YLC: I was shocked to discover that the Museum had, from 1960-65, fully funded an in-house orchestra comprising local professional musicians. All Sherwood Hall Orchestra performances were billed as Museum programming. I can think of no other US visual arts institution, let alone a museum, that has ever birthed and fully underwritten a performing arts ensemble. My initial research process was thrilling; I felt like a detective unearthing a mystery. The documents I was handling were mostly office files: memos, contracts, applications, letters, order forms, invitations, and occasionally newspaper clippings, programs, and photographs. I developed what felt like meaningful and intimate relationships with the various characters who worked in Sherwood during its early years. The tone and texture of my research shifted when I attempted to contact and interview those people. Nearly everyone had died—many of them very recently. I’d missed them by a few years, or in some cases, a few weeks. I found myself grieving in the Museum board room, surrounded by boxes of ephemera. Grief is one of the exhibition’s materials.

MCASD: You have said that your project aims to extend the life of Sherwood, stretching and suspending time. How will this be accomplished?

YLC: Relocating some of Sherwood’s signature architectural materials in the Museum’s downtown building is the core gesture here. Although I first thought of the project in terms of life extension—this exhibition offering a kind of palliative care for the auditorium—now that install has begun, I’ve become a mortician preparing a corpse for public viewing. The materials are in the uncanny valley now, unable to be fully reconstituted. One challenge has been resisting simply building a memorial to Sherwood Hall, which itself had been conceptualized as a memorial (to La Jolla Art Center co-founder Franklin P. Sherwood). I hope the project is lurking in stickier terrain. The body is still on the premises.

MCASD: In 1980, Sherwood Hall changed its name to Sherwood Auditorium. How is this distinction between hall and auditorium significant?

YLC: In piecing together Sherwood’s early history, I was hungry for any sign that its initial function and early programming were inflected with the leftist politics of the 1960s, as Sherwood’s existing architecture indicated this might have been the case. The carpeted steps leading up to the stage apron, for example, pointed to a porous “fourth wall” between performer and spectator—one that might allow audience members to spontaneously leave their seats and venture onto the stage. Based on these clues, I imagined Civil Rights-era community organizing meetings, public forums, and lectures, where the “hall” in Sherwood Hall might indicate an assembly hall or union hall. I sadly found little evidence to corroborate my political organizing theory, with the closest approximation being a town hall event called “Dialogue for Black Presentation of Views” in June 1968 with speakers from the Black Panther Party and the NAACP. The union hall association, however, was somewhat apt: before Sherwood was erected, satisfying La Jolla’s need for a moderately sized auditorium, the union Sherwood Hall Orchestra musicians had been performing in the American Federation of Musicians, Local 325 Union Hall. I imagine the shift to “auditorium” had much to do with clarifying programmatic goals—deemphasizing music performances and amplifying Museum lectures—but its timing at the onset of the Reagan era also suggests a distancing from the politicized connotations of “hall."