Kim Nguyen on Aleesa Cohene

Notes on the underground (the truth is in the dirt)

Situated below the surface of the earth, the basement of a house is a place of deep intimacy and deep anxiety. Its small windows, often concealed with white lace curtains, create privacy yet seem more like claustrophobic exit routes rather than viable sources of sunlight, and the division between above and below ground is punctuated by the moist air that seeps into your nostrils upon descending the stairs. The basements of my youth were dark; brown carpets and wood paneled walls, drop ceilings, and orange lamps, activated briefly by slumber parties or family gatherings. At one time this space was a stronghold for scandalous entertaining―swingers parties and all-night cocktail affairs with mysterious substances and polyester dresses slipping off the shoulders of inebriated women. The only evidence of these activities is the requisite bar in many of these 70s style bungalows, complete with leather stools, mirror tiles, and shelves now absent of liquor, tumblers, or even a crystal carafe, long since drank or broken.

For many, the basement was the site for first sexual encounters and secretive phone conversations barely above a whisper. It is home to relics of the family and traces of a life previously lived―gently used sporting equipment, deep freezes, broken or unused technological devices, boxes of winter clothes, and dusty baby toys alongside secondary furnishings that were demoted downstairs when new items were acquired. The hoarding of these outdated remnants accentuate the anxiety of being below ground, and immediately conjures up other uses of the basement: as bomb shelter or panic room; as danger zone during natural disaster; or as place in which people or things are kept out of light and away from prying eyes. In its temporal confusion and absence of light, the basement is also a humble surrogate for the theatre, making it an appropriate setting to watch an endless stream of forgettable films.

In her video work, Toronto-based artist Aleesa Cohene stitches together scenes from an extensive library of B-movies from the 1970s and 80s, removing images, dialogue, and music from their original contexts to create new affecting narratives. The foundation of her research was formed in her family basement, in which she spent hours watching film upon film, absorbing bits and pieces of stories as she began to explore the parameters of her imagination. Cohene watched television secretly at night, doing one of the most illicit things children do―staying up late. Falling in and out of sleep on the couch, she developed what would later become an intricate understanding of the characters, not as complex personalities but vacant females dulled by emotion, in need of complication. These women, portrayed by the likes of Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Debra Winger, and Kathleen Quinlan to name a few, would collectively become central players in Cohene’s work.

Like many of us, Cohene grew up watching one-dimensional mothers and sisters; hyper-sexualized single women punished for their femininity, and tragic females in profoundly flawed hetero-normative relationships in film and television. Her projects expose mainstream representations of women, often depicted as pathetic, weak, desperate, or pining for a prominent male lead. Her composite characters (generated by merging hundreds of others) challenge these norms as she attempts to reinsert dimension and depth into these empty roles. The process of combining numerous personalities from a multitude of films makes these stereotypes more apparent, yet allows Cohene to remove these women from the constraints of the original conventions. Her characters are linked through an emotional undercurrent, which builds, peaks, and eventually falls while their faces change and disappear.

The unpopularity of the films the artist chooses with their lack of special effects, lush scenery, or polished aesthetics brings even more rawness to the footage that is presented, accentuating a narrative wrought with emotion. In two-channel video installations such as LIKE, LIKE (2009), an endless stream of women that have despaired over and seek the attention and love of men are put in conversation with one another, their desperation and anguish edited into a new painful story of heartbreak. Are these women lovers? The dearest of friends? The ambiguity of their relationship further immerses us in the intensity of these two women, as Cohene creates a space in which we can listen in on an incredibly private exchange. She composes films that mimic how she witnessed them originally―from the intimacy and loneliness of a basement, a place for us to explore our inner experiences of anxiety, guilt, fear, or sadness.

For recent exhibitions, Cohene has introduced an installation component to her video work, painting the walls surrounding the monitors as an extension of the interior and exterior spaces that feature prominently in her films. The colours and patterns are derived from actual items in the source material, producing a situation in which we can physically step into this tumultuous world, into this relationship. We delve deeper, to a point in which we may even just reach out and touch these characters. In their flatness, they look nothing like how we look now, but somehow are reminiscent of how we remember ourselves. In this manner, the work functions like a photograph, capturing a specific memory and point in time while marking the disconnection between past and present. The coloured walls act as mirrors; moments in which the awnings and wallpapers of the film turn into tangible objects in our present, reflecting information back while bringing us to a place somewhere in between then and now―back to the basement, into the dark.

1. In 2007 it became illegal to rent out window-less basement apartments in Fort McMurray, Alberta as the apartments were considered fire hazards.

2. For almost 9 months between 2010 and early 2011, I worked in a window-less basement with improper ventilation. For the duration of my time there I suffered from a sinister result of no natural light: constant fear and anxiety over intruders and the invasion that would lead to my imminent and unheard death

– Kim Nguyen


~ by cineflyer on June 25, 2011.

2 Responses to “Kim Nguyen on Aleesa Cohene”

  1. Where was this originally published?

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