Liz Cohen


The border crossings Liz Cohen performs in her work:
Bikini Model—Mechanic
Body Shop—Art Studio
Panama Canal—Phoenix, Arizona
Trabant—El Camino

Three years ago, San Francisco artist Liz Cohen picked up everything and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to live with her mother. She did it so she could work full-time building a car: a lowrider so complicated that even the owner of the shop she works in says he wouldn’t attempt it. And she started with no skills at all and, she says, no mechanical talent.

Now, her “Trabantimino” is almost finished. It’s an East German Trabant 601 Deluxe that transforms, through hydraulics and over the course of about fifteen seconds, into a Chevy El Camino—meaning that it changes from one failed-utopian car, representing socialism, into another, representing the American determination to have it all.

But it isn’t the car itself that’s the work of art, it’s the process and the performance of making the car. For an exhibition at the Stockholm gallery Färgfabriken in 2005, the artist spent three months working on the car and her body simultaneously. The gallery built her a body shop and a gym, and hired her a personal trainer. At the end, Cohen choreographed a bikini photograph shoot. The public was invited to watch it all as part of a series of events called the Gender Turntable.

Because Cohen is breaking into a male subculture, the gender issues in her work are the most obvious. But others are equally important, and arguably more profound. She also purposely violates the first rule of documentary: do not get involved. Cohen, now thirty-four, began her artistic career as a documentarian. She first took a photography class in high school, after her father, a surgeon and an amateur photographer, died in a car accident that left her feeling particularly close to his 1968 Nikon.

After graduating from Tufts University, Cohen set off to shoot photographs in Panama, documenting transgendered sex workers near where her grandmother lived. As she became closer to her Panamanian subjects, they dressed her up, and she slowly transformed into a documentarian-performer.

She dreamed up the Trabantimino during an artist residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany in 2002, and she remains stationed at Elwood Body Works in Phoenix, where she works under the tutelage of master mechanic Bill Cherry. In a group show in January at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Cohen will exhibit the finished car, plus photography, video, and ephemera, and in conjunction, she’ll organize a public lowrider show called Radical Mod. Her next goal is to get the car into car magazines, and to get herself onto the magazine covers as the model representing the car, a scenario unheard of in lowriding.

I first met Cohen in Miami in 2006. Our discussions continued over the phone over several months.

—Jen Graves


THE BELIEVER: So when you started building the car, you thought it would take how long?

LIZ COHEN: I thought it would take six months to a year.

BLVR: And when do you think it’ll be done?

LC: What I’m hoping for is to be done at the end of this year. I mean, the car drives now. I turned over the engine. I finished the driveshaft, which was a year and a half in the making. The driveshaft is the biggest design challenge of the car, because the whole car gets six feet longer—

BLVR: When it goes from being a Trabant to an El Camino?

LC: Yeah. Three of those feet are between the wheels, and since I changed the car from being a front-wheel drive when it was a Trabant to being a rear-wheel drive like an El Camino, it has a driveshaft, which, you know, transfers the energy from the transmission to the rear wheels, makes the wheels turn. So that has to get longer.

That space between the rear axle and the transmission is very small now because of how small the Trabant is, so the driveshaft has to telescope four times. And the driveshaft has to be very balanced, it has to run very smoothly for the car to get speed so it’s not vibrating all over the place. It took me a really long time to engineer how to make that. I talked to a lot of different people, I had to go to a lot of machine shops, and, finally, a year and a half later, I have a beautiful, beautiful spline telescoping-four-times driveshaft.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Jen Graves is an art critic at the Stranger in Seattle. She has also written for Art in America, Newsday, and Variety.

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