Letters to the Editors
I have long admired the work of Amelia Jones. Her writing has often been influential on my own and it is for this reason that I was all the more disappointed in her recent piece published in the summer issue of X-TRA [“1970/2007: The Return of Feminist Art,” vol. 10, no. 4].
Over the past three and a half years I have had the privilege of witnessing Liz Cohen develop her BODYWORK project firsthand. I have come to understand the complex nuances of the project. I’ve watched her tackle the labor intensive and mechanically challenging physical transformation of an East German Trabant into what she calls a “Trabantamino”—her own hybrid vehicle combining this icon of socialism into a revision of the quintessential American muscle car, the El Camino. I’ve been aware of the engineering hurdles she’s surmounted as she learned to build the car and make it do the “tricked out” things it does, as well as the accolades and respect she has received from her male counterparts working on their own lowrider cars for the car show circuit.
It has been equally interesting to observe the significant personal relationships Cohen has developed with the people in the shop she has been working with over the past four years. Cohen’s deliberate intention to take on issues of cultural assimilation into both lowrider culture, as well as the world of the mechanic shop, contribute essential background and meaning to Cohen’s photographic images dealt with in the article; there is quite a lot going on beneath the surface. The intense immersion she has subjected herself to so carefully and consciously is sorely missing from Jones’s interpretation of her work.
There is meaning in all the elements of Cohen’s imagery, not just her own bikini clad body—the car, the other workers, the location itself—all contribute to a much more complex and multifaceted dynamic of power relations than Jones acknowledges. Minimal additional research would allow one to become informed about the multifaceted cultural and durational aspects of this project that are key to grasping its full meaning—a meaning that Jones has sadly misread and mis-represented.
That Jones, in an effort to uphold a historical tradition of feminist criticality, writes so superficially about Cohen, a Colombian-American of Syro-Lebanese Jewish heritage, as a “thin, white” woman further demonstrates the deficiency of her research. Understanding the fluidity of mutual cultural and linguistic commonalities that Cohen shares with the men she works with in the shop is also important to understanding the layers of conceptual complexity Cohen tackles. Over time and through shared experience and her labor she has become at once one of them and yet also remains—given her well educated, upper-middle class background as well as her position in the art world—one of “us” as well. This sense of riding the line between identities and positions is key for Cohen in her practice over all (see CANAL, 1998-2002 for example). She deliberately plays both sides of the fence in her position on sexuality and feminism as well. Her images are overtly constructed and explicitly charged so as to play up the various roles she plays in this project and to provoke challenging questions about her use of her own body in a range of ways to address issues of class and culture as well as feminism.
It is essential to recognize that her sexualized pin-up poses are deeply entrenched in the vernacular of low-rider culture. For Cohen, taking on this persona of the bikini model is a documentarian attempt on her part to gain access to this culture through her own body, parallel to her experience building the car in the shop. In essence subjecting herself to this role play, she strives to provoke questions about agency and empowerment in an effort to open up a range of possibilities that are precisely not binary, not by any means solely about male/female objectification.
The possibility that the images might be read as perhaps regressive in terms of feminism is a risk Cohen is not afraid to take. She is quite open to the idea that people might take issue with the work. By challenging her viewers and maybe even deliberately striking a nerve or creating a sense of confusion, she allows for multiple readings of her own position as a feminist and in turn the position of the contemporary viewer (not without his or her own spectral conditioning) as well. Uncovering the slipperiness of these various readings is precisely her goal.
To disregard the full complexity of the overall project’s context is a missed opportunity for Jones to expand her own theory of “positionality.” Given the dynamic nature of Cohen’s position on feminism and agency, a different reading could perhaps enable Jones to further her theory and offer new means of opening up meaning for younger generations of artists tackling issues of feminism in contemporary culture.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art