Liz Cohen's Car Culture
Liz Cohen's Trabantimino is the kind of car that you'd expect to see in the Radical Custom category at a low-rider exposition. Soldered together to form one single body, the Trabantimino is equal parts of a Trabant, the Eastern German "people's car" popular in the Cold War Eastern Bloc, and an El Camino, the quintessential American muscle car of low-rider culture. When stretched to its full length of almost 19 feet, Cohen's vehicle looks like a vintage clown car with a prosthetic back end. The kinetic sculpture, currently on view at Salon94, is static in the context of the small, high-ceilinged space of the gallery, looking less like a functional vehicle and more like a static monument to Cold War automobile production both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Cohen, who first started working on the project in 2002 as a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, doesn't look as if she's worked in an auto-body shop. She's slight and unassuming, but she knows what she's talking about when it comes to cars. We started our conversation with a tour of the vehicle, provoking from the artist a steady stream of mechanical banter that included jargon about horsepower and torque. Cohen lifted the hood to unveil the engine, and discussed fitting the different structural elements of the Trabant and the El Camino into one body. The car is painted a bleak beige associated with the original Trabant, but is finished beautifully, with leather interiors and the shiny chrome fittings of a modern, showcase quality lowrider, the kind that you'd see Snoop Dogg manning in a music video.
The work draws immediate comparisons with Gabriel Orozco's La D.S. (1993), which saw an automobile sliced and re-constructed, but the Trabantimino is actually a working vehicle. "I always viewed the Trabantimino as an art object," says Cohen. "It can be displayed at car shows, or on the street. But ultimately, it's about the viewers. It's about the journey that they arrive at looking at the piece, and the anxieties of transformation that occurs when one thing tries to become something else. Hopefully this opens up a whole new space for creativity and personal interpretation."
A visitor to the show stopped to listen in. "Does it work?" she interjected. Cohen's quick response: "Want to see?" Jumping into the passenger seat, one leg out the door, and she turned on the engine. She fiddled with a gear at the front of the car, and the back popped up abruptly, jumping almost a foot off of the ground. She pushed another button, and the front of the car popped from its compressed height of 56 inches to a full 64 inches. With each successive pop, the artist's face lit up, betraying both pride in her work, and how much fun it is to pop a car a foot in the air. Once the car was at its full height, Cohen showed us how the back of the car retracts 114 inches, collapsing into the original frame of the Trabant, and transforming the artist from a muscular cowboy into a socialist worker.
Cohen's journey from photographer (the medium in which she was trained) to imaginative mechanic is something of an odyssey. When she arrived in Germany eight years ago, she did so with the vague intention of purchasing a Mercedes to create a new automobile-based work, although she wasn't yet sure how the new project would take the form of performance, narrative photography, or both. Her past experiences in cities like Panama, amongst communities of drag queens and trans-gendered people, had made her interested in themes of transformation- whether that transformation occurred by a sex change, or immigration to a foreign state. Taking a car, often the symbol of a nation's economic production, and taking it out of context-in her case from Germany to the United States-is one way to explore these interests.
In Germany, Cohen quickly realized that she couldn't afford a luxury car, and turned her attention to the Trabant, the utilitarian vehicle that was ubiquitous throughout the communist bloc. "I learned about the car because I saw it everywhere on the street," she explained to me. "I was interested in the associations that people made with it, and the way that it was from the former East. That's when the project clicked for me. I wanted to make a car that bridged the gap between the two dominant economic systems during the Cold War [communism and capitalism]."
This merging of industrial symbols into one signifier is particularly relevant, with the car industry in America in long-term peril, and struggling to innovate. Over 3 million Trabants were produced from 1957 until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Almost universally derided for their mediocre performance (when they first flooded into West Germany, it was joked that they were made out of cardboard), the factory that produced the Trabant was closed in 1991, despite being heavily subsidized by a newly unified German government. Reasons for this included the failure to improve production methods, which were costly and time-consuming, and the flooding of the newly open market with foreign automobiles that were better designed and frequently updated. Some theorists have blamed the collapse of the Eastern German car market on a failure of a centralized, socialist state to produce an efficient, competitive market for automobiles. But if the car industry in the United States, whose current situation is spookily similar to that of the East Germans in 1989-it also relies on heavy government subsidies, and is struggles to adapt to new technologies and production methods-is any indication, then perhaps the condition, rather than the type, of market is to blame. As Cohen pointed out: "The same thing is happening in our capitalist world. I live in Detroit, and I see it everywhere. There are just a lot of abandoned factories." Seen in this light, the Trabantimino could be seen as a monument to industries that have collapsed under the weight of their own rotting systems.
After leaving Germany, Cohen shipped her Trabant to Northern California, where she began to search for auto body shops that would take her on as an apprentice. "I went to a [car] show for the first time when I was in San Francisco," she remembered. "It's really just a family event. The dads do the cars, the moms do the displays, and the kids display bikes that their fathers helped them make." As Cohen saw it, there were three different points of entry into lowriding culture: owning a car, building a car, and modeling a car as a pin-up girl in a swimsuit. She determined that while constructing her own hybrid car, she would hybridize herself.
Traces of this hybridization are visible in the accompanying documentary materials in the exhibition. Behind the Trabantimino, on the wall of the gallery, a black and white photo series, The 5 P'S (Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance) (2005), meticulously documents 150 tools owned by Billy Cherry, one of Cohen's original mechanic mentors. "A large part of the value of a mechanic or a body man is in their tools," she told me, highlighting the importance of Cherry's vast collection. "There aren't many guys like him left. He could probably build anything." Cherry allowed Cohen the rare privilege of using many of his tools in the construction of the Trabantimino, so the photographic series is overtly a dedication to his role in the creation of the final work. But it also serves as an archive of process, providing a documentary narrative in disparate elements of Cohen's eight-year journey from a mechanical neophyte to fully transformed low-rider maverick.
At Salon94 Freeman's, an annex space located around the gallery from Salon94 on Bowery, Cohen's final transformation manifests in photographs of the artist posing in brightly colored bikinis. The photographs were taken at the Trabant factory in Zwickau, and they mimic photo spreads of babes modeling cars that can be found in trade magazines. They are unsettling, as Cohen is beautiful enough to be a model but she looks like an outsider. Perhaps it's because it's almost impossible to feel comfortable wearing a teeny-weeny bikini in front of a camera lens, no matter how you feel about your own body. Or perhaps it's because there's an inherent discomfort with any culture that objectifies women.