Scattered sediments of time and memory take form and substance in the work of Chicago photographer Alan Cohen.
Over the past decade, Cohen has traveled the world, tracing in elegant, almost abstract black-and-white, the overlapping waves of stone, earth, asphalt, brick and concrete — the geologic and manmade ground — that alternately demark and obscure “sites” both perceptual and physical, from national borders and the path of the equator to places of historic violence.
This fall, the Gallery of Art at Washington University in St. Louis will survey Cohen’s work since the mid-1990s as part of its Contemporary Projects Series.
Inscriptions of Time/Topographies of History: The Photographs of Alan Cohen opens with a reception, attended by Cohen, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 5, and remains on view through Dec. 7. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; and noon to 4:30 p.m. weekends. (The Gallery of Art is closed Mondays.) The exhibit is free and open to the public. The Gallery of Art is located in Steinberg Hall, near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. For more information, call (314) 935-4523.
Later this fall, Cohen will speak about his work during one of two Friday Forum discussions. The talk begins at 7 p.m. Nov. 14, with a reception at 6:30 p.m. Cost, which includes wine and appetizers, is $10 (or $15 for both events). For details or reservations, call (314) 935-5490 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Cohen’s world is a world of ongoing catastrophe, in which natural and manmade disasters seem to radiate triumphant,” said guest curator Lutz Koepnick, associate professor of German and Film & Media Studies, both in Arts & Sciences. “It is a world where history is about to become nature again, where the natural threatens to erase our space for choice, movement and agency.
“And yet, by concentrating on the visible presence of dynamic lines, diagonals, cracks and gradations, Cohen’s camera works against a merely static perspective,” Koepnick continued. “Cohen’s disorienting points of view, his interest in images of simultaneous movement and standstill, aspire to nothing less than beating the petrifying force of historical trauma and violence at its own game.”
Inscriptions of Time includes 54 silver gelatin prints divided into four sections:
Lines of Authority focuses on national and geopolitical borders, from seemingly immutable barriers to subtler, more symbolic divides. Mexico/United States, 1998, for example, depicts an imposing concrete wall, while Northern Ireland/Ireland, 2000 centers on a simple, disintegrating streak of white paint.
“Many of these images tell colonial or post-colonial stories,” Koepnick pointed out, noting that China/Macao, 1996 and Panama Canal Zone/Panama, 2001 no longer describe national borders. (The former Portuguese colony reverted to China in 1999, while the U.S.-held Canal Zone was repatriated in 1979. The canal itself was ceded 20 years later.) “They make us wonder about the very nature of national boundaries.”
Improbable Boundaries includes such unlikely national juxtapositions as Canada/France, 1998, and France/India, 1998, both found in a French World War II cemetery where, by tradition, ground interring foreign soldiers is considered foreign land. An ancient Hawaiian burial ground marks the transition from earthly life to afterworld. The equator — the ultimate intangible boundary, with a theoretical length of 25,000 miles — finds physical representation at two sites in Ecuador.
“These are borders that don’t really exist as such,” Koepnick explained. “Instead, they reflect cultural ideas about memory, commemoration and the division of space.”
Inscriptions of Trauma both memorializes sites of historic devastation — the Berlin Wall, the Northern Spanish town of Guernica — and bears witness to the erasure of memory by time, nature and man. The Wall’s former path, for example, fades in and out across pavement and parking lots while Guernica, infamously leveled by fascists in 1937, has been completely built over, retaining virtually nothing of its pre-war identity.
Strata of Time examines the submersions and sedimentations of natural history, though man’s presence remains implicit. Hawaiian lava fields reveal ancient petroglyphs; Hawaiian seascapes reveal fragmented glimpses of the U.S.S. Arizona, sunken during the Pearl Harbor attack. Photographs taken along China’s Yangtze River offer a last, melancholic glimpse of territory that soon will be submerged by the massive Three Gorges Dam project.
“These are Cohen’s most apocalyptic pictures, and in some ways represent an inversion of his own photographic process,” Koepnick said of the Yangtze photographs. “Where so much of his work is about layering past and present and making visible what we often fail to see, here he contemplates that which will soon disappear into oblivion.”
Born in 1943, Cohen was raised in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and initially trained as a scientist, earning a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering from North Carolina State University in 1966 before entering the doctoral program in thermodynamics at Northwestern University. In Chicago, however, he left Northwestern for the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he studied photography with Aaron Siskind, among others, earning a master’s degree in 1972.
Since the mid-1980s, Cohen has been an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also is a member of the visiting faculty at DePaul University’s School for New Learning. His work can be found in prestigious collections around the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. A monograph of his work, On European Ground, was published in 2001. For more information, visit Cohen’s web site at www.alan-cohen.com.
The Gallery of Art at Washington University in St. Louis
The Gallery of Art at Washington University in St. Louis is the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi River, founded in 1881 as part of the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts. The collection today includes some 3,000 objects, with the strongest holdings in 19th- and 20th- century European and American art, as well as two Egyptian mummies, several Greek vases, a large number of prints, drawings and photographs and the Wulfing Collection of approximately 14,000 Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins.
The Gallery of Art is part of the University’s planned Sam Fox Arts Center, a campus-wide umbrella organization for the visual arts and design that also includes the School of Art, the School of Architecture, the Art & Architecture Library and the Department of Art History & Archaeology in Arts & Sciences. When completed, the $56.8 million center will link all five areas through shared curricula and programming as well as new and renovated facilities, including two new buildings designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki.
Previous artists in the Contemporary Projects Series have included Christian Jankowski and Arnold Odermatt. Support for the exhibition is provided by the Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis; the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; and individual contributors.