For artist Liz Cohen, photography initially seemed well-suited to serve her natural curiosity about the lives of others, but she quickly had to reckon with a sense of voyeurism that left her standing apart from her subjects. Her first big project, CANAL, was a four-year work of street photography and portraiture in Panama City, where Cohen ended up meeting a group of trans sex workers.
“They taught me about performance,” she told Hyperallergic. “They started having me pose and showing me how they got poses from, like, storefront windows, and they started to dress me up. And then I did a photo shoot where I was on the street with them.”
But there was a problem. “There was a moment I realized I was participating in a masquerade because there was a fundamental, essential difference in our experience — I’m not a street sex worker, there was a class difference,” Cohen said. “There was a difference that I wasn’t in a trans body, going through a trans experience, the difference that I didn’t want to or need to take sex work.”
Determined to find a more authentic, expansive, and reciprocal way of learning about otherness, Cohen moved on to her next project, TRABANTIMINO, in which she fabricated an automobile over nearly a decade. Starting with a Trabant, an almost painfully simple and resourceful vehicle produced in Socialist East Germany from 1959–1991, Cohen installed an expanding hydraulics system that combines the car with a 1973 Chevrolet El Camino, to make a custom lowrider.
“I knew I was the last person anyone would think would build a car,” said Cohen. “Why would I build a car? My parents were professionals; they weren’t gearheads and there was no tinkering in the garage. It wasn’t something I did or was exposed to.”
In tandem with the rebuild, Cohen created BODYWORK, a connected project wherein she remade herself in the image of bikini models that were a hand-in-glove feature of custom car culture, in order to accompany the lowrider to shows around her native Southwest environs. She also modeled around the former Trabant factory in what was once East Germany, in a series titled ZWICKAU ROUTINE.
“I had short hair and hairy legs and armpits,” said Cohen. “I was not the person you thought would become a bikini model.”
Not only did Cohen successfully fabricate the car and develop an abiding interest in lowrider magazine models, an interest that would fuel two subsequent bodies of work, thus far — STORIES BETTER TOLD BY OTHERS (2018) and BODY MAGIC (2021) — she found a way to break the fourth wall between artist-documentarian and subject. In a sense, Cohen became her own art material.
“The project gave me the opportunity to try on a lot of things that I just wasn’t inclined to try on,” said Cohen. “Could I become a real member of custom car culture? Can I really become a low rider? Can I become a bikini model? As farfetched as that was, with enough labor, I felt maybe it was actually possible.”
Maybe Cohen’s interest in fringe culture and outsider-vs-insider experience comes from her transnational roots. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, to parents from Colombia who came to the United States as part of a visa lottery, Cohen’s first language was Spanish, and her childhood involved much travel between the Southwest and her extended family in Panama and Colombia. From a mixed-faith marriage between a father from a family of Orthodox Syrian Jews and a Catholic mother, Cohen’s inheritance was a heady mixture of influences and culture clash.
“My father was a doctor, but two of his brothers were merchants like their father. That’s why he moved to Panama, because of the free trade zone and the canal,” Cohen said. “We would go to Panama when I was a kid and my grandmother would have Shabbat, which was a very Middle Eastern Shabbat. It was always contentious because, in terms of belonging, me and my sisters were part of it, but also ‘half-breeds’.”
Cohen eventually went to college in San Francisco, and spent seven years total in the Bay Area, during a time when the tech boom was still nascent, and the city was a destination and haven for queer culture and social experimentation. Along with car culture, trans people’s bodies and stories have been an interest of Cohen’s throughout her career, captured early on in CANAL, but revisited again in HIM (2016). This body of work translates the poetry of Eric Crosley — a male-presenting, self-described eunuch who has engaged in radical physical transformations in his search for a body that he feels appropriately reflects his identity — into a minimalist language of shapes and colors, that Cohen converted into textile works, some of which are worn by Eric during photoshoots.
“It’s always been central to my work in some way, gender and representation and who’s being left out,” said Cohen, “and me identifying with that in some way.”
The shapes and motifs in HIM, as in ZWICKAU ROUTINE, and other aspects of Cohen’s work hint at another of her perennial themes: the influence of Soviet and Communist ideology on culture and society. Her newest ongoing work, GAZ COFFEE, Build #2 transforms a 1969 GAZ-69A truck into a functional coffee station. The work is the centerpiece of an upcoming solo show, Café Pan-Soviético Americano, at the MOCAD in Detroit.
Like most of Cohen’s work, GAZ COFFEE is a living process and collaboration between artist, audience, and subject. Cohen is as ready as ever to get her hands dirty, whether it’s changing the oil, dressing up with models, or sitting down for a cup of coffee with a museum audience.
“I’m interested in finding ways of belonging when you’re different,” she said. “How do people find ways to have integrity and be free, but still find a way to exist on the fringes meaningfully. How do you participate when there’s something about you that’s fundamentally different?”