‘Feared and revered’: Zen Cohen’s new exhibition at Public Space One explores queer history and cultures

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The Gatekeepers

Public Space One — Open through July 4
Gallery hours: Thurs. 1-8 p.m., Fri. 1-4 p.m., Sat. 12-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m.

Workshop: Embodying Totemic Personas

Public Space One — Saturday, June 22 at 12 p.m.

Violeta Luna as Madonna Our lady of the Syncretic Heart with Conchasanta. — Zen Cohen

I’ve had a recurring dream since I was a teenager about an ocean contained in a room. In the dream, I always try to peel back the layers of my experience with the water; to experience it in a more authentic way. I had this dream again for the first time in a long time, and it must be because I’ve been thinking about Zen Cohen’s art.

Cohen, who recently moved to Iowa City from San Francisco, creates in the realms of video, performance art, photography and sound. All have been at play in the ongoing creation of her video and sound installation The Gatekeepers, on display in Iowa City through July 7 at Public Space One.

The Gatekeepers is an enormously atmospheric experience portrayed on two video screens, reinforced by shifting music and sounds. Throughout the installation, a series of personas comes to life through costumes that incorporate ceramics, bright fabrics, feathers and detailed body paint. These personas engage the audience from a backdrop of sights and sounds ranging from ocean waves to forest to otherworldly spaces. Layers of visual texture and slow, intentional movements add to the meditative and ritualistic vibe of the show.

Cohen started The Gatekeepers roughly four years ago and arrived at the current iteration in collaboration with performers Walker Fisher, Violeta Luna, Chiron Armand and Yunuen Rhi. Together, they created the installation to explore “infinite possibilities” when it comes to experiencing the world, Cohen said. She sought to explore queerness and “transcend binaries,” such as male versus female.

“There are so many ways queer folks identify or express themselves,” she said. “Queer culture is so vast.”

Cohen said the project also celebrates the earth and the value of sacred spaces guarded by indigenous communities, like Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She said worries about the encroachment of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the tribe’s space weighed heavily on her mind during The Gatekeepers’ creation. She sought to transmute these worries through creativity.

“I think this project really was born out of deep concern for the state of humanity,” she said.

Cohen was also inspired by the history and culture of gender fluid shamans. In 2008, a conversation with Malidoma Somé, a West African Elder, author and teacher from Burkina Faso, introduced her to the concept of queer shamans in tribal communities who are revered for their gender fluidity and ability to exist in multiple worlds at once, guarding the gates between them. Juxtaposed against American norms that have polluted the queer community with hate and violence, she was attracted to this association of queerness with power and respect.

“I was really moved by that,” she said.

Cohen brought these ideas home and explored them with fellow artists and friends, many of whom identify as queer and have expertise in healing practices. She said some were quick to point out that queer shamans’ power is often coupled with ostracization that pushes them to live “on the outskirts of the village,” a complication that added a layer of complexity to her exploration.

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“They are kind of feared and revered at the same time,” she said.

Aspects of Cohen’s own history in theater and performing arts played a role in The Gatekeepers as well. As a young child in Southern California, Cohen was active in ballet and a youth theater company, following in the footsteps of her grandmother, a performer, as well as her sculptor father and all-around artistic mother.

As a young adult, she explored a potential acting career in New York City, but said she was quickly appalled by the “unreasonable expectations” she faced as a woman in terms of body and physical presentation. By shifting into a role behind the camera, she was able to take control of her own identity and create her own reality.

Cohen eventually ventured back west to attend the California College of the Arts, where she began exploring video in earnest. From there, she received her Master of Fine Arts at the University of California, Davis.

Recently, she and her partner, Drew Cameron, bought a home in Iowa City, near Cameron’s family and roughly equidistant from Cohen’s parents on opposite coasts. She said she looks forward to starting a year-long teaching position in August at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.

Cohen said she loves the “amazing culture and community” around the University of Iowa. “I’ve really enjoyed meeting people here and getting to take advantage of all the culture assets that the university brings in,” she said.

Cohen hopes to find more artistic collaborators in the local area during a workshop from noon to 4 p.m. on June 22 at Public Space One. She invites participants to pose for photos depicting their own personas with props and costumes of their choosing. The artist said she also welcomes feedback on The Gatekeepers through her website.

Yunuen Rhi as Coyolxāuhqui. — Zen Cohen

My own thoughts about my experience of The Gatekeepers are fraught by the necessity of words. I know I’m not the first writer to cross over into visual arts and feel this strain. Nor am I the first to be so meta as to bring it up in my writing. Were I to cast words aside and convey a psychic pulse about the show, it would be full of saltwater, delicate flowers, rusty tree bark and wet, gritty sand.

As I watched, the personas each seemed to carry an implied story through motion and symbolic objects, like a jeweled skull that, to me, signaled an end that loops back to a primordial beginning. I was awed by the personas, but I was also oddly detached, perhaps, as a writer, craving a more explicit narrative to give me entry to their experiences.

My takeaway was the urge to experience earth’s infinite possibilities. To garden without gloves, stop taking cicada sounds for granted, or somehow feel a rabbit’s heartbeat in my palms. To let my dreaming mind take over as Cohen’s ocean images fill the screen, unconfined by room or words.

I don’t identify as gender fluid or transgender, so I can only imagine this urge to escape in the context of over-simplified, trauma-inducing gender norms. For those hurt by these norms, or anyone limited by injustice, I hope Cohen’s art inspires a way out — or at least one more step towards a life unconfined.

Holly Thayer, poet and fact finder, is still trying to figure things out. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 266.

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