Yve Laris Cohen is no stranger to a disaster. When a flood caused by Hurricane Sandy damaged and destroyed sets and costumes at the Martha Graham Dance Company, he set about replicating the Noguchi décor for Graham’s “Embattled Garden” (1958). That turned into an exhibition.
In 2020, when there was a fire at Jacob’s Pillow, the venerable dance festival in Becket, Mass., Laris Cohen was intrigued. Though he had never been to the Pillow and was immunocompromised — he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease before the pandemic — he traveled to see the site that November. He was curious to see what was left of the Doris Duke Theater, formerly called the Studio/Theater.
Not much, it turned out. But among the rubble was a wall and a pipe grid that had melted into a sinuous, twisting form. Both are part of “Studio/Theater,” an installation at the Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 1.
Once at the site, Laris Cohen felt an immediate connection. “The pipes looked like intestines to me,” he said. “It was not the skeleton of the building that remained. The bones were gone. But amazingly, the guts were still there.”
It was striking: “To think of a theater having guts,” he said, “that its viscera is what remains after a trauma.”
As part of “Studio/Theater,” alternating performances of “Preservation” and “Conservation” take place in the Kravis Studio on Wednesdays. Together, they create a dialogue between the Pillow fire and a 1958 fire at MoMA — the same year as Graham’s “Embattled Garden” had its premiere — which led to new protocols around conservation.
Martha Joseph, the installation’s organizer at MoMA, is drawn to the idea of “environmental trauma as a transformative force to engage an artist in new art-making practices,” she said. “This performance is asking us to think about the fragility of our institutions and the objects within them and our own bodies. Yve is interested in excavating the aftermath of performance.”
While “Preservation” focuses on the Pillow, “Conservation” looks more closely at MoMA, specifically toward its efforts in safeguarding its materials. The performances constitute a before and after. “Preservation,” on Dec. 21, tells the story of the building leading up to the fire, and “Conservation,” on Dec. 28., “is kind of like an autopsy,” Laris Cohen said. “It’s a much more clinical approach, and it’s more focused on MoMA, increasingly so once we learn about the fire.”
As always in a Laris Cohen work — a merging of visual and performance art exploring connections between institutions and the body — there are more layers, including the continual presence of the artist himself, who remains in the space for the duration; he calls himself a stagehand, but he could also be seen as something of a precision dancer.
While impressive, “Preservation” and “Conservation” can get dry, even arduous: During each two-hour presentation, there are interviews by Laris Cohen with experts, including Norton Owen, the Pillow’s director of preservation; Lynda Zycherman, a conservator of sculpture at MoMA; and Anthony Tung, a former New York City Landmarks Commissioner.
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And there are twists and turns. While “Preservation” concludes with an interview with Dominick M. Tursi, a veteran court reporter who dutifully transcribes each show, “Conservation,” ends with Lisa B. Malter, the director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program at Bellevue Hospital Center. She was one of Laris Cohen’s doctors. Again, his body returns.
All the while, Laris Cohen uses a hand crank to slowly move the serpentine grid; in “Preservation,” it’s lowered throughout the duration, and in “Conservation,” it the grid is raised. It becomes clear that “Studio/Theater” is not just about the objects, but a look at how two very different worlds — dance and visual art — talk about care.
In a recent conversation, Laris Cohen spoke about his presence in the work, his illness and the choreographic potential of a pipe grid. What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What was your first reaction when you learned about the fire at Jacob’s Pillow?
This is something I don’t usually say in front of Pillow people, because, of course, I’m supposed to be devastated and mournful. And it was surprising and shocking news especially because fire is mythological. It’s the greatest existential threat to a theater. But because my work has dealt with imperiled theater architecture, I was drawn to it immediately.
How did the framework for the piece come together? Did you have to learn about the fire at MoMA before it clicked?
That was a key moment, and that was when the titles, “Preservation” and “Conservation,” really fell into place. I knew there was going to be some type of grid and felt very sure that it needed to move. And that was mostly because I knew that I had to be doing something sustained, something physical throughout. I wanted my body’s relationship to the installation to determine what that movement would be. And it turns out it was cranking.
Why was it important for you to have your body in the piece?
It’s more that I have to be there to make the work happen. The work is making itself live. It’s not quite improvisation because choreographically everything is very placed.
You lower and raise the grid for the entire two hours. Which is harder?
“Conservation” feels twice as difficult because I’m going against gravity. It’s really hard by the end — [each interview lasts] roughly 18 to 20 minutes. I’m not trying to valorize hard work. It’s what’s necessary in order to make this a manual system, which is important to me. I didn’t want to be pressing a button.
You were a serious ballet student when you were young. Does that background and training play into this work, into how technical and precise it is?
Even though my politics are about the unruly, undisciplined body and mover-dancer, I do have that training in my bones. I don’t know. Maybe it is closest to ballet. But it also feels inseparable from other aspects of my life, including my trans-ness. It’s like, brutal commitment. [Laughs]
What is the connection between Crohn’s disease and the pipe grid?
I thought, wow, the bowels of the theater is the main material I’m going to be working with. I know what it is to have contorted or corroding bowels.
Do you think of this as a readymade?
With the grid, even though I wanted to preserve as many of the original connections on the pipes as possible, you can see my hand all over it.
There are wild curves. In order to get it to be sort of a rectangle and level enough to be a structure that could move, it has to be balanced. That required a lot of work. That process — to get one pipe to line up with the next — felt very dancer-ly and choreographic.
And oh my God, they were so heavy. It was a full body exercise just to lift them up and to move them around. I feel like my dance training was applied there. But maybe no one would know that.
This work is so connected with your body. Has it given you a sense of resilience?
I think that it’s a way for me to regain control over a situation that I was utterly out of control of and that completely changed the course of my life. Dr. Malter was a central figure in that episode. When I’m talking with Lisa, I think people see me as they see the pipes.
How do you mean?
I’m suddenly folded into the installation. And I think they maybe perceive my fragility and that maybe what I’ve been doing all this time isn’t some macho muscular activity, but something that’s really slowly wearing you down. I didn’t want to just be the brawny dude who’s making the scenery go up and down.
Is the grid a sculpture to you? Is it a relic or a ruin, or is it garbage?
I was careful throughout the process to not use the word sculpture. Partly because I am really invested in this other space — is it scenic material or an amalgamation or an assembly of props? Is it architecture? Is it sculpture? I want it to be able to move along those categories and not be fixed.
There’s nothing welded. This thing is pieced together and comes apart as a theatrical grid would. But if a pipe were to break, it would be almost impossible to replicate. So in a way, it’s dance-like: It is truly ephemeral.