ON THE MORNING of November 17, 2020, a fire destroyed the Doris Duke Theatre (formerly the Studio/Theatre) at Jacob’s Pillow, a venerable dance stronghold in Becket, Massachusetts. Yve Laris Cohen’s “Studio/Theater,” his current project at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, takes up this conflagration and ties it to another, a 1958 blaze at MoMA that kindled new institutional protocols around conservation.
For those who have followed Laris Cohen’s work, there’s an obvious kinship with his “Embattled Garden,” a 2016 exhibition at Company Gallery in New York during which the artist examined, deconstructed, and re-created the Noguchi-designed set of Martha Graham’s 1958 dance of the same name, which was severely damaged in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. But where “Embattled Garden” still tangled with a desire for restoration, “Studio/Theater” comes at a different point in Laris Cohen’s life, when the impulse to work through has perhaps supplanted the urge to rebuild.
Few artists have so convincingly staked an artistic practice in that expansive nisus we might call reparative critique. What lies between preservation and conservation? Between rescue and repair? Like every work by Laris Cohen, “Studio/Theater” asks more questions than it answers, mining forgotten histories and giving voice to minor and repressed narratives, revealing the artist to be worrying the scarred remains of modern dance like a coarse pebble in his pocket.
MY FIRST TIME at Jacob’s Pillow was six days after the fire. This was November 2020, before the Covid vaccines were out. I’m immunocompromised, so I had been holed up in my apartment. It was the off-season, in the middle of the pandemic, but I had a gut feeling and knew I had to go.
I stood there looking at the obliterated theater. I was curious about certain architectural features I had worked with before—sprung floors, walls. These had been almost totally consumed by flames. It was a wood structure built to resemble a rustic barn, like the rest of the campus. All that remained was part of one exterior wall and the guts, all these metal pipes that were part of the pipe grid. Much of the theater hardware that retained the intersections—rota locks or Cheeseborough clamps—had held despite the fire and the force of falling. But the steel had gotten hot and pliable, and the pipes had melted into these beautiful twisted forms.
I did not expect it to become a MoMA show, but five months into the salvage process, Martha Joseph invited me to do a commission. Then I spent another six months going back and forth from New York to this warehouse upstate to reconstitute the pipes according to the geometry of the tension grid in MoMA’s studio. It took a lot of rigorous on-the-ground work with my assistant, Cuba. It wasn’t just a matter of putting the pipes back together as they had been. That was impossible, based on how they had been deformed by the fire. And MoMA’s space is quite small. I ultimately used about a third of the pipe grid.
The other task was figuring out why MoMA would be the institution to house this work. That question really troubled me until I found out about this shared trauma of fire. A fire in 1958 birthed MoMA’s Conservation Department. Until then, their conservators were independent contractors. They would take carts around and work in the hallways. Sheldon and Caroline Keck, well-known conservators at the time, trained a younger conservator, Jean Volkmer, who ended up being MoMA’s first chief conservator.
THERE WAS a long process of building trust with Jacob’s Pillow. In our first conversation, the director, Pamela Tatge, suggested an official site visit. When I returned, the whole campus was covered in snow. I met with Norton Owen, the director of preservation, and about five minutes into our conversation, I knew he had to be a performer. I thought Norton’s title sounded mythological, out of Harry Potter or something—Professor of the Dark Arts and Preservation. That’s how the two MoMA performances got their titles: Preservation and Conservation.
Norton was a student at the Pillow in 1976, and in his words, he “just kind of never left.” He worked in the box office. He was the director of the school for a time. He had all sorts of roles, but it was not until 1990, which was the year that the theater opened, that Sam Miller gave him his current title. At the time, there was a big movement around dance preservation and documenting and digitizing dance. Part of this had to do with developments in technology, but I think scrambling to hold on to the form was also a response to HIV/AIDS and the loss of so many dancers and choreographers.
I say “gut level” very intentionally; there’s a sympathy I have for this injured theater.
Preservation is mostly about Jacob’s Pillow. The performers are people affiliated with the institution, many of whom were there in the 1980s leading up to the building of the theater, originally called the Studio/Theatre, which is where my exhibition gets its title. Norton brought me to meet Ann Hutchinson Guest, who died eight months later. She was 103 and the world’s foremost expert on labanotation, a system of symbols for recording dance. It was this conversation with Ann that led me to decide to use a stenographer to record my own performances.
The difference between the studio and the theater is an important one. Vinny Vigilante, who’s the current director of technical production at Jacob’s Pillow, says that the difference between a studio and a theater has to do with its weight-bearing capacity. Is MoMA’s own studio a theater? I think I’m asking it to perform as one, and I’m testing it very literally when it comes to its load limits, its tension grid’s capacity to bear weight. It’s an engineering feat that MoMA’s studio can handle the dynamic load of the Pillow pipe grid. In supporting this dependent theater, the studio kind of becomes one.
On a formal level, my willingness to accept the pipe grid into my repertoire of materials was shaped by my having an intestinal illness. I have Crohn’s disease, which inflames the bowels. It’s under control for the time being. These were pipes on fire. I say “gut level” very intentionally; there’s a sympathy I have for this injured theater. And the impulse wasn’t “I have to save this thing,” just “I want to work with it.”
CONSERVATION mostly features performers affiliated with MoMA and deals with the material aftermath of the Jacob’s Pillow fire. I ask different professionals in conservation how they would approach the installation elements if they were to come under their care, and each person answers a little differently. I have a wood specialist and a metal specialist but also an architectural conservator who works for the National Park Service. I’ve been speaking quite a bit with Lynda Zycherman, the metals expert in the sculpture conservation department at MoMA, who is painfully aware of the inevitability of the breakdown of these materials. She tells me that the pipes require a very low humidity, 30 percent, whereas the humidity in the museum is around 50 percent. I asked Lynda about how the pipes will age.
“In a hundred years,” she said, “these won’t be Swiss cheese.”
What about a thousand years from now?
“Oh,” she said. “These won’t last a thousand years.”
—As told to David Velasco