seats of power

With her new video installation at the Getty Center’s decorative arts collection, Nicole Cohen creates a virtual link between the world of Versailles and the 21st century.


The influential French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose fascination with American culture is often cited by artists and critics (in particular media artists, who frequently investigate perception and its mechanisms), asserted that, “The very definition of the real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction…that is the hyper-real.” A new contemporary video installation now showing at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Nicole Cohen challenges this axiomatic tenet of Postmodernism, even as she builds her work from its very foundation. Commissioned by the Getty as part of its ongoing contemporary art initiative, the same program responsible for the innovative Tim Hawkinson exhibition on view there earlier this year, Cohen’s Please Be Seated is a partially interactive, multimedia, chair-based video installation inspired in part by the life of Marie Antoinette in which the artist employs a coterie of estranged genres to generate a work that refuses to play favorites between fiction and reality.

Inspired by, and partially executed within, the Getty’s Decorative Arts galleries, Please Be Seated is an elegant use of these underappreciated aspects of the Getty’s collection and a dynamic way to bring the holdings back into contemporary discourse; in other words, it is a transparent but well-conceived bid to get younger people to enter the Decorative Arts building of their own free will. Getty Director Michael Brand has stated of Cohen’s work that it “provides us with an opportunity to take a fresh look at our permanent collection, to draw links between historical and current artistic practice. There is an increasing interest in contemporary art to incorporate viewers and their responses.” Peggy Fogelman, who oversaw the development of the piece, boasts the expository title of assistant director for education and interpretive programs at the Center. Decorative arts and meta-theory might seem like strange bedfellows, but Cohen’s special talent for creating not just images but experiences that splice reality, fantasy and history into fluid forms from within the idiom of domesticity lends itself remarkably well to just this kind of conceptual and aesthetic promiscuity.

At various times a resident of L.A., now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 36-year old Nicole Cohen is known for engineering recombinant layers of still and video imagery, investigating the network of relationships and associations that interior spaces evoke, and the psychological and social structures they contain. An exhibition in 2003 at Shoshana Wayne Gallery (who will host a new show of Cohen’s work next year) featured a two-screen video projection of a tennis match, with the players at opposite ends of the gallery and the intermediate space of the room-cum-court collapsed and occupied by the viewers. 40-Love represented Cohen’s developing interest in using projected imagery to change the way three-dimensional space is perceived, but it also spoke to a desire to expand the purview of her own medium. No matter how dynamic its imagery or structure, video is still a passive medium, and Cohen was interested in making it active. By stationing viewers in the midst of the action and forcing a physical immersion in the narrative, she began to accomplish that goal.

That same (apparently quite busy) year, Cohen presented “La Vie en Rose,” her first solo museum show, a multi-channel installation in which videos of female figures in modern dress were projected onto still photographs of interiors such as bedrooms and living rooms. Her process was analogous to Cindy Sherman’s “Film Still” series, but her choice of hyperbolically feminized details like floral blankets and saturated colors, pretty accent furniture, and overstuffed pillows made it clear she was more interested in persistent private girlhood than subversive, urbane feminism. Linda Shearer, director of the Williams College Museum of Art, which commissioned the work, notes that, “Cohen’s work is an elegant and wry play between fashion, art, technology, and popular culture. Her light touch belies the veiled critique of contemporary attitudes she is pursuing.”La Vie en Rose” was based on a particularly confectionary 1931 painting of the same name by Raoul Dufy, a Postimpressionist whose improbable seascapes managed to be both sweeping and precious, superficial and iconic, and in their way chronicled the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie summering along the Mediterranean gold coast. In making this piece, Cohen articulated a kind of bedazzled empathy with Dufy’s life and subjects, a resonance born of her own relocation to sunny Southern California, where she would earn her MFA from USC.

Cohen has said that she often finds “that how I feel I should act in a designed space is different than my interpretations of the place.” This curiosity about her own attitudes and behavior has grown into an avenue of broader investigation, as she began to focus her instincts for light, space and color on the question of how personal identity comes to be defined. “I always wonder what you can tell about people from where they sit, the rooms they live in; the more private the better.” And it is this suspicion that in the intersections and attenuations of interior design an emotionally rich and symbolically fraught form of personal expression exists that prompts her to construct these composite media portraits. “When I pass a corridor in a building, for me it makes a reference to a way of acting or to a set of behavioral codes. My work is inspired by interior spaces where certain personalities and attitudes seem to already be in place in the rooms.”

The extensive holdings of the Getty Center’s French Decorative Arts collection are among the finest in the world, featuring chairs, tables, beds, mirrors, writing sets, all manner of dining gear, glassware, textiles and sundry domestic treasures that look to be in as fresh and dazzling condition as the day they were made in, for example, the second half of the 18th century. At least, that’s how they appear, since it’s difficult to get within three feet of most of the objects, and their elegant, precise arrangements in intimately scaled galleries are deliberately devoid of the wear and tear of everyday use, the very aspects Cohen finds most compelling. Decorative arts galleries possess the same kind of coolly evocative distance as high-end design magazines, in that they attempt to generate the same level of narrative fantasy with no possibility of physical interaction; separated from the viewer by the page, the prohibitive rope or handrail, their authenticity is voyeuristic, not experiential. And that is exactly the kind of chasm Cohen works so resourcefully to bridge.

Sunday Morning, also from 2003, used an enormously lush cushioned brocade bed in the shape of a chair, an exact twin of which occupies the hall between the rooms in which she filmed at the Getty. As with other pieces from this year, the figure of a young woman in casual clothing was projected onto the photographic backdrop, creating the awkward choreography between luxury and disorientation that is Cohen’s trademark. This work was installed in Paris as part of the U.S. government’s Art in Embassies program, making its layering of American fashion and treasures of French rococo decorative art a fitting precursor to the current project. In fact, footage for Please Be Seated was filmed not only at the Getty but also at the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre, and the Nissim de Camondo Museum in Paris. As in Brentwood, the stewards of these sacred spots allowed her to enter the vignettes, duck under the rails, and even tread on the rugs using special paper for the bottom of her (and her actors’) shoes. She wa
s granted access to the nearly hermetically sealed personal boudoir of Marie Antoinette in the Petit Trianon at Versailles, where she photographed the sumptuous chair in which the Queen sat, gazing at her manicured grounds, while she had her hair done. “I couldn’t resist taking a peek under the bed.” The ambient light in the Versailles rooms, in particular, reignited Cohen’s experience and training as a painter; she later painstakingly reassembled video images to capture its changing sunlight, color balances, and other atmospheric details to increase the painterly illusions in her work.

The installation at the Getty has visitors entering an all-white room and taking a seat in one of six white chairs designed by Cohen for the purpose. Above and around them, multi-screen videos project the looped, layered videos Cohen has spent the last year crafting, frame by frame like paintings, conflating space, time and style into collaged confections. Across the still and moving layers, the viewers themselves are incorporated in real time, adding a lively and curious dimension to an already sumptuous visual choreography. Theory wonks should be pleased as well, as it isn’t often that investigations into layered consciousness unfold inside decorative art galleries; yet this is exactly the kind of task to which not only Cohen but the Center itself is most suited. It’s an imaginative experiment that goes farther than a typical curatorial project could, and in so doing restores a level of functionality to a history thought to be dead or at least too precious to spawn progressive ideas, and restores life to some breath-takingly lovely, long-disused objects, a life they’ve been denied for centuries.

Aside from the technical virtuosity and the unlikely charm of its subject and location, the project poses some fairly profound questions about presence, absence, sense memory, and the paradoxical aggregate narratives that we construct for ourselves. Once viewers figure out how much control they do have over the narrative and aesthetic content of the piece, what Cohen anticipates is an experience in which her ongoing investigations into role-playing and how identity manifests itself are available to viewers, and that they each leave the room with a renewed curiosity about the everyday. And that’s as real as it gets.

—shana nys dambrot