1. Making Visible

2. Underworld

3. Underworld II

4. Licking the Skull

5. Flaming Creatures

6. Loving the Alien

7. The Kumbh Mela

8. Video

9. Sacred Monsters

10. Signed Poetry

11. The Portrait Mask

12. Larvatus Prodeo

13. Famous Faces

14. Scarification

15. Light

16. Played for Real

17. Dissolution

18. Simulacra and Catastrophe

19. Projections of Consciousness

20. Significance

21. Human = Image

22. Visit Anticrya!

23.  Nebuchadnezzar

1. Making Visible

"the future I saw already forming in the darkness"
     - Ira Cohen, Notes of an Alchemist

In Kathmandu in 1979 Ira Cohen photographed the Tibetan Buddhist cremation of his friend Angus MacLise, poet and original drummer with The Velvet Underground. The latent image reveals the burning pyre transformed into a monstrous head with MacLise's exploded skull as the eye: an anguished apparition of rage and loss as "unsatisfied cravings fly out of the pyre". This is Photography as Alchemy, the unveiling of hidden truths, the art of making visible. We think of the photograph as a record of the past, but the image may contain a prophetic significance which the photographer has divined and made apparent by an act of sympathetic magic. Man Ray discovered the same latent power of the camera in 1922 when he photographed the Marquise de Casati. From a blurred, poorly-lit negative there appeared an astonishing "Surrealist version of the Medusa : the snake-mad Marquise with three pairs of glittering, staring eyes. The Marquise was enchanted, recognizing, as Man Ray put it, that he had "portrayed her soul". This kind of marvelous chance - the fortuitous, significant moment charged with seductive menace - cannot be called to order. Like Man Ray, Cohen creates theatrical tableaux, striking and dramatic situations where "the right moment, the kairos of desire", as Roland Barthes described it, may be courted and captured on film. In his poem 'Camera Obscura', dedicated to Man Ray, Cohen writes: "It is shapely desire which shows the significance of the image / struggling to unveil itself / in the startled mirror."





2. Underworld

"These our actors,/As I foretold you were all spirits, and/Are melted into air, into thin air..."

     - Prospero, The Tempest

Cohen photographs the street magicians, religious devotees and divine gurus of North Africa and India: the 'otherworid'. And he makes portraits of the subcultures of New York, London, Berlin and Amsterdam, the seminal writers, artists and performers of the counter-culture: the 'underworld'. These are worlds of ritual disguise and esoteric fabulation and Cohen's subjects are all actors in a great spiritual drama, a masquerade where the "truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks" (Wilde). Warhol documented his own kind of underworld -an endless amphetamine party where aspiring Superstars paid homage to dead B-movie stars and acted, directed and 'lived' their own movie. (That old 60s whining complaint: "You're spoiling MY Mooooovie!"). Warhol gets the hysteria and the screaming egos of performers who are always acting on camera, but it is all surface, sybaritic style, drug-injected megalomania: the Oblivion Boys and Girls burning up the future faster than they burned down the past...over and OtJT. Philip K. Dick in his epitaph to the 60s wrote of this kind of act:

"It is not different from your life-style, it is only faster. It all takes place in days and weeks instead of years...and then the punishment is beyond belief." There is only a very superficial resemblance between Warhol's images of the underground and Cohen's, but the comparison is enlightening: Warhol obsessively films any moment, and then every moment, whereas Cohen searches for what Baudelaire called the numen, "the emphatic truth of gesture in the great circumstances of life", the profound moment of "hysteria frozen, eternalized, trapped...pinioned by a long stare". And in Cohen's images there is something more than the invention and presentation of self at stake: here the mask and the mirror and the pose become ritual devices in the primal act of magical projection, the attempt to communicate with other worlds. These are images from an Eleusinian Mystery the actor is an initiate in the ancient ritual, not some junkie on the nod.

3. Underworld II

"The thousands of mirrors that reflect me... phantoms resembling me..."

     - Nabokov, The Eye

The Eastern adepts and Western initiates of Cohen's photographs enact the ritualized performances of the seer, the creator, the possessed, the venerated 'other.' As in Japanese Noh-Theatre and Indian Katha-Kali, it is an extremely stylized, hieratic performance which is simultaneously an entertainment and the expression of psychic power: these actors seduce us, and yet they are entirely caught up in the re-creation of their archetypal roles. Spellbound, entranced, they are sealed off from us, their gestures frozen behind a wall of glass. Roland Barthes compares portrait photography to the first theatre where actors removed themselves from society in order to perform the role of the living dead. The sitter becomes an initiate making the ritual journey through the underworld, and the photographic image confers membership in a Cult of the Dead. Barthes describes the image as "a kind of primitive theatre, a Tableau Vivant, of motionless and made-up face beneath which we glimpse our mortality." Ira Cohen's photographs make us aware of the mortality of the subject, and the death which resides in the photographic medium itself. His sitters, 'the living dead', may turn away from us, lost in trance, or may gaze back at us with a look of recognition or detachment... they are all doomed, in the true underworld of the image. In 'The End', Jim Morrison sings: "He took a face from the ancient gallery and he walked on down the hall..."

4. Licking the Skull

"The photographer must exert himself to the utmost to keep the photograph from becoming death."

     - Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

The ritual celebration of creative powers is also a confrontation with death: behind the saddhu's mask of ash, in the celebrated writer's gaze. Death lies, too in ambush in the photographic negative: the image promises an escape from the ravages of time, sealing the sitter off from the future and from death...But it also and immediately becomes the memento mori, reminding us that the sitter, in Peter Conrad's phrase, has "resumed the long-drawn-out business of dying". What is this image if not the already-dead? In one image, Cohen shows us a man licking a skull with his long, living tongue, both mocking and embracing the definitive memento mori. Likewise, Cohen is exuberant, surreal and witty: he plays with the image = he plays with death, recognizing it, taunting it, holding it at bay.



5. Flaming Creatures

"The only people for we are the mad ones...burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles..."

     - Kerouac, On the Road

Jack Smith's early 60s underground movie Flaming Creatures is a pandemonium shadow-show, an orgy of high camp, a ritual reenactment of Olympian myth: an unholy, rapturous homage to bad movies and the Dionysian spirit of ancient Greece. Smith and Ira Cohen were friends and they clearly share a similar aesthetic, creating a theatre of transformation and bizarrerie where actors from a subterranean world revel in self-creation and rococo excess...luxurious, sinistral. Warhol tried to make his own versions of Smith's masterpiece, but by and large all we get is a Maria Montez drag show, interminable hysterics, dull neuroses, pallid versions of Smith's demonic orgies and death trips. Stephen Koch: "The cryptic, obsessional flimmaker and aesthete Jack Smith transformed this invisible, secret world into a cinematic sinuous and violent as Warhol's was withdrawn and still." Cohen's images do not focus on sexual ambivalence and hermaphroditism as Smith's do, but like Smith he reveals the ancient ritual beneath the surface. Ken Kelman: "the realm of myths and echoes with ancient ritual transpires in no setting, no place, no time...perverse pleasures, violent joys and dark raptures..." Kelman recognizes that Smith's film transcends parodistic titillation, that it is always more than a pastiche of the vampire movie, the Black Mass, the Roman Bacchanalia, the celebration of the kitsch, camp pantheon. Kelman: "The writhing figures which ornament this timeless place with splendid blacks and whites are reminiscent of Milton and Dante...myth is piled on myth and none insisted upon. It is an inferno where these creatures flame: but their fierce joy makes it a paradise, too...these are not only suffering mortal sinners doomed...but also triumphant gods, enjoyers of immortality...As gods transform themselves, they too have this power..." Transvestism in Smith's work signifies something more than sexual ambiguity: like the ritual disguise, the masking and marking of the body, and the distortion of the image in Cohen's photographs, it testifies to the powers of ritual transformation and divine initiation, frozen by both artists "into friezes of memorable graphic power". Here is the energy of the libido and the psyche, daimonic and 'beyond good and evil'...and here is the trance, the meditation on mortality. Cohen and Smith follow the imperative of the Russian formalists, described by Amy Taubin: "Art is about 'making strange' ... the self resolves its terrors by plunging deeper within." Cohen and Smith play with surfaces, with cult images and the dramatis personae of the underground... and then they make it strange with the great archetypes, in the old underworld. Kelman: "Fan the Flaming Creatures. They're there in back of your eyes."


6. Loving the Alien

"believing the strangest things, loving the alien"

     - David Bowie

In North Africa and India Ira Cohen photographs a spiritual theatre which exists despite the photographer: here the fantastic does not require his powers of invention. Philippa Pullar wrote of the Kumbh Mela, the great Indian religious festival, in 1977: 'It was as though I had entered a theatre, I sat back...and watched the play of life passing before me. I moved from being active to passive." Ira Cohen's imagination and invention are evident in his portraits of Western subjects, but in North Africa and India he is more passive, recording the ancient ritual as it passes before him. A recent retrospective of Cohen's photographs at the October Gallery in London continually alternated his images from East and West and made this distinction quite clear: there are places and times which oblige the photographer to become a witness to other, just as there are occasions when he may actively pursue and create it. Always he is culturally bound. Cohen's position is complex since he photographs a counter-culture which for forty years has been immersed in ideas and images of the East: if his work records and preserves cultural difference, then he also explores that area where the boundaries blur, get broken and cultural identity becomes ambiguous, problematic. At this time of increasing fascism and nationalism, these images are a welcome reminder that other cultures may be recognized, respected and learned from. Cohen's work is a visual history of those artists who have sought to "escape the prison of the frontiers"--words from an old Resistance song which must be learned over again, in countless tongues.

7. The Kumbh Mela

"Eighteen million people!"

     - Philippa Pullar, The Shortest Journey

Ira Cohen has photographed and filmed the Kumbh Mela, the oldest and largest religious fair in the world, which dates from the 7th Century. The Festival occurs every three years, rotating between the holy places of Ujjain, Nasik, Hardwar and Allahabad. Millions of people gather in a ritual of purification and adoration: miraculous cures take place-and homage is paid to naked saddhus and the great yogis who have walked from their retreats in the Himalayas. The Kumbh Mela is the triumph of awe and faith over reason and Cohen's films challenge our trust in vision, our belief that what we see may be readily understood. Can the Kumbh Mela be understood by rewinding the video and freezing the frame? Can the camera reveal the meaning of this ritual, the eye comprehend such magic? A swami may produce a crystal lingam from his mouth, symbol of Siva-Sakti, or an orange suddenly appears in the palm of his hand "out of nowhere", or vibhuti ash streams endlessly from his fingers...such manifestations may be shown, but can we really see them, comprehend their significance? For once we experience the powerlessness of media to convey an event of such size...the miraculous escapes the camera's "all-seeing eye". As Eliphas Levi, The Last Magician, advised, we must suspend our disbelief, liberate the imagination, and enter the ritual spectacle. The Kumbh Mela cannot be experienced from the outside. Cohen's films provide us with hints and guesses, but we cannot enter the unfolding images. "Eighteen million people!"

8. Video

"Do not attempt to fast-forward while rewinding"

     - VHS manual

Brian Eno has written about the way television conditions us to expect dramatic changes of image in a temporal sequence. Violence and hysteria in increasingly rapid bites. "You sit still and it moves. How to make something different, that can be seen again and again?" Cohen's videos of the Kumbh Mela suggest a way: despite their fantastic, exotic content - which Eno associates with the desire for increasing speed in the bombardment of images - they unfold in real time, without the intrusion of rapid editing or commentary. The soundtrack is the chanting of bhajans, the beating of drums, traffic noise, the real time music of the Mela. Even after several viewings the mystery and magic of these images remains, one can look and walk away and return and give oneself up to the image. it is the fascination of the image over the domination of the image, an escape from what Umberto Eco has called Paleo-T.V. where we are told about the world, and Neo-T.V. where we are told about the media telling us about the world. Cohen's films should be available on video, so that we can let this extraordinary culture of difference and seductive magic unfold before our eyes, and in the background to our lives: "It sits still and you move". The 'alien' replay over the demagoguery of the channel change.

9. Sacred Monsters

"Magic is in itself nothing but a will, and this will is the great mystery of all marvels and all secrets and is brought about by the being's appetite for desire."

     - Jacob Boehme

Cohen's portraits resemble stills from a Welles movie: the grand guignol masquerade of Mr Arkadin, the noir decadence of Touch of Evil, the distorting mirror phantasmagoria of The Lady from Shanghai. Each image is like one moment from an unfolding drama and, like Welles, Cohen gives us the fantastic and excessive disguise which conceals some hidden truth. As Joseph McBride has written of Welles: "The assumption of a false face is a necessary ritual for the Welles hero. He has a 'secret', something to hide..." For Welles, the art is always deception, "the original fake", and its fascination resides in our desire to tear away the mask, to see the corruption, the humanity, the mortality which lies beneath. Like Welles, Cohen delights in human potentiality and the power of self-creation: among his sitters we see the great, charismatic artists of our time, sacred monsters of Nietzsche 's "ancient sovereignty of the ego". Human, mortal, nevertheless Cohen relishes their status: he photographs them with appropriate, Wellesian, theatrical effect. William S. Burroughs as King of the Cobras. Charles Henri Ford as an Arabian Prince. Welles thought they had the right idea about death in Mexico and India: make a great festival of it, a feast. Taste it and consume it like a decorated sugar skull. Make death a sensual theatrical performance. And play your part to the hilt, to the end.

10. Signed Poetry

"Two deaf signers were inspired by the children's game 'Double Personality'.. the effect is reminiscent of the many-armed Hindu God, Shiva."

     - Klima and Bellugi, Poetry Without Sound

The ritual drama is the primary art form from which other arts and aesthetic artifacts emerge: masks, poems, myth, images, dance. Ritual drama depends above all upon gesture, the physical expressive language of the body itself, the visual sign. Born to deaf parents, Ira Cohen learned to spell with fingers when he was only one year old. Finger spelling is not a distinct language in itself but a derivative system based on written and spoken English, but Cohen is undoubtedly aware of Ameslan (American Sign 1anguage), a manual-visual language used by the deaf in order to communicate with one another which is an entirely self-referential language system. The National Theatre of the Deaf in the U.S.A. had developed Ameslan as an expressive, dramatic, and poetic form which recalls the ancient religious dramas of Greece, Japan and India where the gesture is paramount. Jerome Rothenberg has described this Signed Poetry, as it is called, as "a kind of writing in space...a primary form of communication without reference to any more primary form of language for its validation...a realization of the ideogrammatic vision of Fenellosa." Signed Poetry does not pantomime or mimic other languages or things and actions in the world: it is a form of communication which must be learned in order to be 'read' and understood. Here the sign is composed of "a hand configuration, a relationship between two hands, a particular orientation of the hands, a particular orientation with respect to the rest of the body, and actual movements of the hands" (Klima and Bellugi). Such a language, where physical movements are controlled in order to signify, but also flow expressively, creatively, revealing the poetic imagination, makes us suddenly aware of the power of the gesture. When we look at images like Cohen's, where the photographer has seized and frozen certain poses and the body is caught, suspended between movements, we attempt to 'read' the gesture as a sign, to understand our fascination with a particular pose. As Roland Barthes writes: "Mapplethorpe has photographed Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. Wilson holds me, though I cannot say it the eyes, the skin, the position of the hands... The effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name: it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself...a floating flash." The photograph is neither a self-contained, interpretable language of signs (as Ameslan is), nor a mere pantomime of understood human gestures...we recognize in the image something which cannot be expressed in any other way, which cannot be given a precise verbal definition. The fascination of the photograph at which we gaze is partly the result of this impossibility of explaining away the language. The image haunts us because it cannot be 'reduced' to words: it refuses to be codified, fixed, possessed. Mysterious gesture, unfathomable sign.

11. The Portrait Mask

"And I saw in my dreams a man whose face was my own but it was not me?"

     - Terry Wilson, 'D' Train

Cohen conjures an entire repertory of poses and devices to signify the problematics of image and identity. A hand is raised to simultaneously ward off and acknowledge the intrusion of the camera. A face is severed, half light and half darkness, or confronts the camera with eyes hidden or closed. The face in the mirror looks back at us, or is caught at the moment a mask is removed, or is about to cover the face. Narcissism and the projection of self, but also blindness and forgetfulness of self. Continually Cohen plays with the desire to conceal, and the desire to reveal. It is a tantalizing game, both calculating and mysterious, as the human image is removed and adopted--a game played by photographer and sitter together, who conspire to entertain and unnerve. But it is more than a visual puzzle, the play of illusions: it calls into question the human image, the nature of identity. Ajahn Sumedho: "We're sitting in a room full of karmic formations that we conceive to be permanent personalities. We carry these around with us because on the conventional level of thought we regard each other as permanent personalities." Cohen's images reveal the endless rehearsal of self, its chameleon transformations, its precarious constitution according to a certain look, a particular light, the significance of objects which create and confer a history, a value, a talismanic import. Always photography is the medium through which one recognizes oneself as another. "Better hang onto yourse-e-elf.

12. Larvatus Prodeo

"I advance masked"

     - Descartes

"I advance masked" was Salvador Dali's key maxim: his own mask became so fixed that he would never be able to remove it. "It was all an act. He was nothing at all like that. But once he started he could not stop," said Dali's sister. But of course Dali was exactly that: the self-created, the self-exploited, happy to admit to his own onanistic egocentric gratification in his performance of "the Divine Dali". For over half a century he spoke of himself in the third person: why not, after all he was that third person whose life on the media stage he was compelled to live some point there was no 'other' Dali at all, only his own monstrous creation becoming the media's creation by osmosis. The portrait photographer whose subjects are artists and writers necessarily contributes to the personality cult which has replaced the art work in the selling of culture: the reproducible image of the artist as both manipulator and victim of media. Increasingly, talking heads speak of themselves Dali-like in the third person: they are speaking on behalf of their phantom selves, creations of light "even better than the real thing". A portrait by Cohen will inevitably take its place in this media circus of the unique, the cult of the world famous. But his images are ironic as well as iconic: the disguise and fabulation involved make evident the process of creation in the human image. Something other than self-promotion emerges from these paradoxical performances of the self: recognition that all is Maya, the world of illusion (don't get taken in) and at the same time the desire to become the Other (remember me this way).

13. Famous Faces

"Fame...what's your name?"

     - David Bowie

The photographer must find a way through or around all the accumulated images which he between himself and the famous subject--otherwise, he is reproducing an existing image from the subject's repertoire, rather than creating an alternative image, his own version of this persona. The famous are different from you and me: they have their picture taken more often (or not at all). Cohen's photographs suggest something of this process of removing the mask which the sitter wears, a mask made by the projection of many hundreds of images through time onto the face...But then what can he do except add his own image to the show? Neal Cassady: "To have seen a specter isn't everything, and there are death-masks piled, one atop the other clear to heaven." The famous sitter arrives with his image already in place...and his image, and his image, and his image, and his image... It is like the film described by Andre' Breton in 'Nadja' in which a man "had found some way to multiply himself and invaded New York by means of several million self-reproductions. He entered President Wilson s office followed by himself, and by himself and by himself... This film, which has affected me more than any other, was called The Grip of the Octopus." It is the octopus grip of fame--and reproducibility--which cannot be thrown off. Welles: "Even when the legend starts to die some other damned thing comes along. Some other damned image reproducing itself into infinity until, as Michael Gira puts it, white light at the mouth of infinity swallows us, and all our images, forever.




14. Scarification

"Let me tell you the story of LOVE and HATE..."

     - Robert Mitchum shows his hands in Night of the Hunter

In Cohen's photographs we see the body reflected in mirrors, made-up and tattooed and fetished in costume and jewelry... disguised and physically marked or coloured...stripped or decorated to excess. These are more than fashion statements: it is clear that they have a ritual significance by the way they are shown to us by gesture and pose. They are forms of scarification, esoteric insignia which are part of the ritual by which the initiate enters another state of being. They possess both a protective power and signify that the initiate is already 'marked', that the spiritual journey has begun. Paradoxically, the masked and scarified body is the image of the 'opening up' of the self, so that the 'light' in the body and soul of the initiate may shine forth. Walter Benjamin believed that the photographic act destroyed the aura of the subject, but Cohen proves otherwise and reveals the 'light' that is ritual's task to open the camera itself takes on a function of ritual, confirming the initiate's spiritual awakening. The radiance of the image signifies 'human light', beyond clear-cut meaning, rational analysis. Andre Virel has written of the wall which the initiate must break through as "finer than the silvering of a mirror, and deeper than an abyss", which perfectly describes these photographs which continually play upon surface and depth, deception and transcendence. Scarification conceals in order to 'open up' just as the mask signifies immanent revelation: and Cohen's images work in the same way. Here, literally, is the light of humanity, before it is extinguished.

15. Light

"Remember the Bardo Thodol. If you do not have the courage to face the clear light then you will find yourself on the planes of the senses...or in demonic worlds...after all, some of us seek this in the movies."

     - PirVilayit Inayat Khan, Toward The One

The esoteric schools teach consciousness of the aura which is emitted by the realised human being. In Sufism we are instructed that the body has no edges, no frontier, it is luminous and radiates light. Duane Michals has made photographs which attempt to convey this mystic light, to make visible the aura of the subject. In images like The Human Condition, The Illuminated Man, and The Voyage of the Spirit after Death, he shows the body entering and disappearing into white light, becoming all light... Cohen's photographs seem to refer to the same esoteric tradition, but in subtle ways which reveal the sitter as the transmitter of this 'light of the spirit', something other than the manipulation of the image. We see stages of the ritual initiation which 'opens up' the subject and makes this light apparent. At the same time, the photographic process itself takes on a mystical, initiatory significance: the act of making an image becomes a ritual, esoteric practise. In his commentary upon the Verse of Light (Quran 24:35), Ghazali considers the niche, the lamp in a glass, the Blessed Tree and the oil of the olive as symbolizing the structure of the soul. It is also a process which the act of photography mirrors as it attempts to express the spirit of the sitter. The niche is "a place of gathering inwardly": it is a focal point, an aperture through which one passes into another world. The glass is "part of the materiality of this world and has a definite dimension", but is also symbolic of the imagination which transcends this world: light passes through it, and is changed, as though a lens. The lamp is the light of intelligence and sentience which, as Laleh Bakhtiar puts it, "recognizes the Archetypes, the Divine Names and Qualities": just as the photographer lights and reveals the history of a human face, and shows its spiritual nature. The Tree symbolizes meditation and the radiation of thoughts: a meditation which transcends place and time, which confers that look which cannot be expressed in words, where memories and mortality meet in a moment of abstraction, Barthes' "floating flash". The oil of the olive is "the spiritual heart, Active imagination and Active Intellect, the spirit of God within us...self-luminous with no external source...the oil which would shine, even if no fire touched it." (Bakhtiar)

This is the photographer's desire: to express the subject's unique self, the 'divine spark' of creation, the essence. Cohen's images explore the spiritual significance of darkness and light. In Sufism these are the great archetypal symbols: darkness is the annihilation of ego and all images (fanä), and light is the consciousness of Divine essence in the phenomenal world (baqa'). There is a continual spiritual movement between the two which we can recognize in Cohen's photographs: the individual consciousness disappears in darkness, to be reborn in light...a light which paradoxically dematerializes the subject. Symbolically, the subject is "drawn into the picture not as a body but as a being of light...this is the moment to see things clearly, before darkness or light makes the image invisible to the eye..." (Inayat Khan) Peter Hujar made portrait photographs where he asked his sitters to meditate upon death, to contemplate their own mortality, so that he could capture that look. But this set-up is not necessary for Cohen: the look is implicit in the photographic process, and made explicit in the image. Here aspects of being are revealed which at other times remain unconscious, hidden, to both sitter and photographer. We are held by these luminous faces and mortal bodies as they pass through the ritual of darkness and light, always caught at the threshold between annihilation and becoming. What is gleaned `inside' is projected 'outside' , as images of enlightenment, moments of illumination.

16. Played for Real

Confessions of a Mask

     - title of Mishima's first successful book

Mishima played with the image as he played with death: but who, finally, was more serious, more committed to fulfilling a certain role? In his photographs of Mishima, Eiko Hosoe shows the writer enacting the myth of his own life. The pictures were staged as meticulously as Mishima's suicide--or vica versa. In fact, when it came right down to it, Morita had a few problems cutting off Mishima's wasn't at all so stylish as in Eiko Hosoe's images of Mishima 'acting death' was clumsy, messy, agonizing. But it's clear that the photgraphic process served as an adequate rehearsal for the ritual blood-bath, as did Mishima's hit movie on the same theme, `Patriotism'. Eiko Hosoe and Dali's photographer Phillippe Halsman are the photographers closest to Cohen's aesthetic, where theatre and 'reality' become indistinguishable, and imposture and imaginative projection of the self become, finally, the truth of the self. We begin to see, through the work of these photographers, that the image is not only a record of, but a blueprint for the life which is acted out on film and then played for real. Images as markers along the way, and then perhaps, at a certain point, as with Mishima, they may even direct the path to be taken. Images on the road to Thebes. Mishima was entranced by Eiko Hosoe's pictures, possessed by them, head over heels in love with death and in particular with his own death which these images both prophesied and recorded: the photograph as memento mon ahead of time. Mishima had been fascinated by the photographs showing the torture in 1904 of the Emperor of China's murderer: skewered on a stake, he was slowly cut to pieces, limb by limb. These were the photographs which also obsessed Georges Bataille. We can be in little doubt that both men were fascinated and aroused not only be the spectacle of ritual amputation, and the torturers' happy grins, but by the presence of the camera: as if the entire horrific execution were being specifically staged in order to create these images. It is then only a step to creating one's own images of the self in mythological and ritual mortification, in order to procure the Real McCoy. Future events cast their shadow before. In a sense, this is the true power and magic of the photograph: to make it happen. It is no coincidence that so often the protagonists of Cohen's photographs appear as sleepwalkers, untouchable, inviolate, proceeding with the performance according to unconscious dictates...they are possessed by the image, in trance, it is happening and there's no way back... What is left is the photograph, in Mishima's case an image which Margeret Yourcenar has brilliantly evoked as the Photography of the Void: "On the carpet two heads placed one next to the other as if they were skittles...Two severed heads 'gone to other worlds where other laws reign...Two stones, rolled along by the River of Action, which the immense wave has for a moment left upon the sand, and which it carries away."

17. Dissolution

"Freak Extras appeared on the plate exposed in my camera...and gave one the impression that some design has been executed..."

     - F.W. Warrick, Experiments in Psychics

Cohen's colour photographs are reflections in sheets of mylar, images of reversal and transformation, the human form in fluid metamorphosis. These images split and coalesce and vibrate in phantasmagoric configurations, suggesting both the flux of psychedelic consciousness and the reconstitution of physical matter at the atomic level. Henri Michaux, in The Major Ordeals of the Mind, writes of this "disorganizing flux, the frenzied surge which overflows in every direction, which cannot be controlled, retained or contained..." Cohen's photographs do in fact frame and fix this delirium to an extent, which Michaux saw as the function of the artist who has been there, and brought back evidence: "For someone who knows how to deal with it...there exists a possibility of transforming the scattering, dissipating, dislocating, devastating, breaking, tearing, disco-ordinating convulsiveness into an ally, into the prop, the support of a future radiance and illumination, the very springboard of transcendence...". Every few years we exist in a new body, down to the last molecule, and in these hallucinatory photos we see ourselves as shape-shifters, fugitive apparitions of life which dematerializes all around us, every day, in secret. We are, in Deborah Levy's phrase, the 'Beautiful Mutants'. It is as if Cohen, recognizing the quality of pose and arrangement in his black-and-white portraits, at some stage felt compelled to shatter the image of contained consciousness, fixed body, permanent personality. His mylar pictures reveal to us another world, an anti-world of anti-matter where sub-atomic particles spin in reverse orbit to the world we think we know. As in Cohen s swirling, vertiginous movie The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, the human form becomes pure image--stretched, twisted, continually in the process of appearing and disappearing. These mutations and metamorphoses of body and consciousness resemble psychic 'spirit photography' of the l920s, La photographie Transcendantale. F.W. Warrick in his compendium of "the supernormal clairvoyant image", published in 1939, commented: "Miss Stead, I am afraid, frightened off a good many readers by the title of her book on the subject, namely, Faces of the Living Dead." Significantly, Cohen refers to these mylar images as astral projections" and clearly they have emerged from the outer regions of photography itself - etheric spectres of the Image, psychic apparitions and alien visitations. This is the photography of the séance, and the quantum photography of other worlds.

18. Simulacra and Catastrophe

"Let It Come Down"

     - Paul Bowles

Cohen's photographs operate according to the "successive phases of the image" as defined by Jean Baudrillard in his essay 'Simulacra and Simulations': "1. The image is the reflection of a basic reality. 2. It masks and perverts a basic reality. 3. It masks the absence of a basic reality. 4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum." Disguise, fabulation, revelation and disappearance: Cohen's subjects are caught at strategic points of this complex process where the self confronts itself, recreates itself, hides behind the mask of Other, rubs itself out, disappears entirely, becomes nothing but image. This theatre of masks is like Brion Gysin's Last Museum of Reproduction and Replicas, built on a California fault line by Interdead Interrational, just waiting for the earth to shake and open up and swallow it all down. Cohen's mylar shots suggest that the earth is already trembling, splitting open: they are like the images described by Baudrillard in his essay "Fatal Strategies" which are of the same nature as fission... undulatory, spasmodic and radical mutations.. .the terrain is sliding..." For Baudrillard the world of the image has passed a `dead point' into a NoMan's Land where history is no longer real or possible: as Hassan-i Sabbah's razor puts it, "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted". Baudrillard's apocalyptic scenario combines the proliferation of simulations with the destruction of the earth itself as our vision is shattered: "erratic and horizontal drifts, Interstitial collapse.. .mental seismic ruptures...subterranean deities threaten a collapse into the void." Cohen's work--his 'Fault Line Photography'--appears prophetic of this kind of "fissile universe" where the electronic media circulates at the speed of light "but beneath this acceleration something is beginning to slow down absolutely. Perhaps it is us…" Baudrillard imagines "moments of stillness when no image would reach us", or the images fade as we glimpse them because the speed of light has become variable: "light travelling at the speed of continental drifts, like continental plates sliding on one another creating seismic movements that would distort every image and our sense of space." The death which resides in every photograph here manifests itself as the hallucination of catastrophe, suspended apparitions of slow-time disintegration... As Michael Roll has said, we begin to make visible "a sub-atomic normally unsensed universe" which "interpenetrates our heavy, slower vibrating, physical universe" and cracks appear in the old material world.. .Cohen's portrait photographs correspond to Baudrillard's ideas of Simulacra and the reproduction of the image. More importantly, his mylar pictures are hallucinations at the edge of annihilation, catastrophic dematerializations of the image, a process which Baudrillard describes as "like the perfect simulacrum of our own death". It may be that Cohen's mutations of the human form, "the slow refraction of faces and gestures like the strokes of a swimmer in heavy water", are the perfect simulacra of the human after the `dead point' of erased history…. disembodied ghosts of the image machine, they materialize only to disappear before our eyes.

19. Projections of Consciousness

"The artist makes images in order to put things out there, and get reflections..."

     - Picasso

In his mylar images Ira Cohen again challenges the belief that what is seen can be grasped, possessed, understood. The human form, masked and scarified in other images, is here entirely is liquefied and spills over into some realm beyond limited human vision. These images are like the trips described by Monroe in 'Journeys Out of the Body'... It is no longer a question of "Who are we? Where are we going?", but "What are we? where have we gone?" Looking at these disembodied, seductive terrors is like observing someone else's heightened, hallucinatory consciousness. These our actors turn out to be Trocchi's 'Cosmonauts of Inner Space' and they really have "melted into air, into thin air..." The film-maker Jordan Belson has said, "I've always considered image-producing equipment as extensions of mind. The mind has produced these images and has made the equipment to produce them physically... it's a projection of what's going on inside, phenomena thrown out by the consciousness, which we are then able to look at…" Cohen's 'astral projections," as he calls them are manifestations of consciousness put out there, where we can pick up on the reflections. The first photographs were called 'sun pictures' , but these 'astral images' are light years away from that old earthlight. They're like anamorphoses from another planet, but we don't. know how to recompose them, even if we wanted to. They astonish us.

20. Significance

"Number 9, Number 9, Number 9..."

     - The Beatles

How far can you go? = What have you got? It all depends.. upon the image, and upon you. Beatrice died on the 9th day of the 9th month of the year - the year in which the perfect number 10 reached its 9th completion in the century: 1290. Dante first saw Beatrice when she was 9 years old. 9 years later Dante wrote his first sonnet in her honour. She had first greeted him in the 9th hour of the day...and so on. Obsession, mania and paranoia may be seen in Dante's fascination with the recurrence of this number, but such interpretations miss the poet's critical analysis and synthesis of the number: his 'discovery' that the root of 9 is 3, and therefore "Beatrice herself was a 9, that is a miracle whereof the root is nought but the marvellous Trinity"--the promise of Resurrection. It is more than the repetition of a mere number which leads Dante to a profound truth, the Greek Meaning of Beatrice's existence: obsessive signification becomes synthesis and revelation. The artist creates a world from a singular obsession and this in turn lends itself to a continual process of fabulation and interpretation… are struck by details, make connections, identify resemblances, and pick up on the signs and portents…constructing our own particular understanding of the work. It's 'out there', and then it's on the screen inside the mind...subject to endless recombination in the search for our own personal significance. The search is like the one described by Borges, the journey through a labyrinth, at the centre of which lies...a mirror. Looking at Ira Cohen's photographs, we experience what Barthes has called 'the punctum', the detail which shocks or distresses, which arouses our tenderness or our fascination... partial objects, fragments of movements to which we "give ourselves up", instinctively. These details will reveal their true significance in time, according to a certain pattern or shape which they combine to describe. An untouchable raises a hand to the funeral pyre... rain drips from an umbrella...a spiral coiled snake tattoo on the shoulder... It is the creation of worlds upon worlds, in concentric rings, endlessly, according to the laws governing desire, second sight, and poetic truth.




21. Human = Image

"Am I That? Am I? Am I? Am I?"

     - Brion Gysin

Cohen's achievement throughout his experimental visual art is to reveal other ways of seeing and being in the world. His photographs show the relation of the terms 'human' and 'image' in the expression 'the human image'. What is it to be human? How does the image operate. As Gysin observed, it is better to have a body than not to have a body, but we are 'Here To Go', and we cannot take our bodies--and our images--with us. Cohen photographs the escape from, and the search for identity... the body scarified and mutated as human beings search for transcendence, an escape from mortality, a mortality which finally the image confers, makes absolute. It is a paradoxical performance: we separate 'humanity' as a quality from its 'mere' representation, but Cohen's photographs suggest that you can't have one without the other. Cohen finds the image that fits like a glove, inseparable from the human is one moment from a life of continual change and metamorphosis, but it fixes that significant, profound moment and allows us a glimpse of the mortality beneath the mask. Truth is here that mask for real, that mask which, as Luisa Valenzuela has said, will one day "devour our skin".

22. Visit Anticyra!

"The momentary pictures gleam and fade / And perish, and the night resurges..."

     - Robert Louis Stevenson

Ira Cohen's photographs propose a theatre which takes the world for its stage, where actors act out their parts as they go along. As Ken Kelman has written of this kind of performance: "those who acted these pleasures and raptures must, looking at themselves in black and white, have known themselves transfigured." Here the photographer is literally in the business of "redeeming life from darkness", which Kerouac beheved to be the purpose of art. Marianne Faithfull: "You realise that the state we should be in is perfection, that we're not in it, and the reason we're here is to find it." Cohen's pictures show us the search for such perfection, but also acknowledge the vanity of this pursuit. Marianne Faithfull: "I think it's very important to stay in the world and do things, but I think it's a beautiful thing, death.. ." Endless possibility… certain mortality. Cohen's images are necessarily part of that process of bringing the world to us, and simultaneously distracting us from it. J.G. Ballard : "We need images of things on film so that we can see them. Film is an extension of our central nervous system. Seeing things 'first hand' is no longer enough for us." Or even possible for us: the images pursue us, images which can reveal the marvellous, and images which turn the brain to mush. Martin Stanton: "Negatives are in between you me and it. Move or go back. here we are just passing through." Life measured out in images, images, images...our dreams constructed and edited like the images of film, and we wake when the video clicks onto automatic re-wind. But still we recognize the alchemy of the image, literal and metaphoric: as Barthes says, "the loved body is immortalised by the mediation of a precious metal, silver (monument and luxury) - and this element of Alchemy is alive." It is the living image which so fascinates us in the black-and-white photograph the image of alchemical transubstantiation. What is certain is that we recognize the image as another world, where everything is possible, and through which we can live vicariously: the subjects of Cohen's photographs enact mythic scenarios on our behalf, and show us the magical projection of the psyche into alien lands, and times. A Greek proverb, taken over by the Romans, was applied to anyone who acted strange, dreamers with weird ideas, misfits who refused to put their shoulder to the wheel: "He should visit Anticyra, that one!"... "Send him on a little trip to Anticyra... that should fix him for sure." Anticyra was a real place--near Mount Parnassus--dedicated to Artemis, sister of Apollo, a specialist in dangerous drugs: she was depicted carrying a burning torch, dressed entirely in black as Robert Graves says, "an Earth-Goddess with Underworld affiliations", a witchy girl in widow's weeds who went into the underworld to score. Anticyra was bleak and desolate. Underworld priestesses guided the rituals and administered the drugs and poisons (white and black hellebore, the vomitory and the purgative) to the apparently crazy, the socially 'maladjusted' who were sent to Anticyra for 'the cure'. It was a place of exile, but also of psychic renewal and transformation: the rituals and the narcotics which were intended to turn the revolutionary dreamer into a solid citizen in fact conferred upon him the signal status of 'Outsider' and initiate of the Mysteries of Artemis. Looking at Ira Cohen's images, we become witnesses to the persistence of this ancient ritual of descent into the Underworld, and see the 'untouchable ones' in quest of other lives, other ways of being in the world. A distant, ancient cry echoes down the years: "They've Anticyra....really, it's the only place for people like that!"

23. Nebuchadnezzar

"here comes success..."

     - Iggy Pop

Ira Cohen is a visual artist and a writer in a culture where versatility is distrusted. No-one is supposed to be able to do several things, and do them all well. In the art world success means carving out a little niche and chipping away at it for life like a convict on Devil's Island. Brion Gysin suffered from the vested interests of galleries which considered him a writer, and publishers who thought he was a painter or something like that. As Burroughs said, Gysin was not appreciated because "he did too many things". Burroughs had the same problem with his paintings: "L'ecrivain. He's a writer. They didn't even want to look at the paintings." Today 'multi-media artist' means state-of-the-art sound and image technology in an air-conditioned gallery , but the artist who is inter-disciplinary and works across different media will have a hard time of it. On the other hand, who and what determines the artistic and material success of the image? Who are these critics, exactly, and what do they know? What does that price-tag really signify? Does a place in some prestigious collection or major gallery guarantee the value of the image? We have a pretty good idea what all this comes down to: more of the same, but not too many, and remember you have to pay it all back, one way or another...see you around, in the market-place. Just the same, it would be good to see these photographs by Ira Cohen--a photographer, poet, film-maker, publisher--given their critical due, not to mention a chunk of gold from the vaults. But as the actor James Woods once said, "Nebuchadnezzar is hiding somewhere in Los Angeles, but you can only get him on his answering machine."

Ian MacFadyen
London 92

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