Hard Body

Liz Cohen's infiltrating the lowrider world — and calling it art

After finishing graduate school in 2000, Cohen stayed in San Francisco, where she worked as a photography teacher at the California College of the Arts, as well as at UC-Berkeley. During this time, her interest in lowrider culture began to grow, though she was still far from wanting to build her own car. In 2002, she traveled to her first lowrider show in Fresno, California. She shot about 10 rolls of film. Her idea of becoming part of a subculture, sparked by Lynette in Panama, began to take on a real shape. She paid particular attention to the models representing each car. It struck her that some women commanded, and got, respect. Others, like a woman she photographed having her bikini bottoms pulled back to have dollar bills stuffed in, had no control over the situation.

"I remember being excited and curious watching the different ways people manage themselves," she says.

Cohen works under the Trabant .  .  .
Andy Hartmark
Cohen works under the Trabant . . .
.  .  . and makes sure the Trabant's seats will fit inside its reworked interior.
Andy Hartmark
. . . and makes sure the Trabant's seats will fit inside its reworked interior.

With the idea of building a lowrider and photographically documenting the process now fully formed, Cohen had to overcome one huge obstacle: cost. On her teacher's salary, she was barely able to afford living expenses, let alone a car. When a close friend invited Cohen to do the inaugural show at his gallery Spanganga, she jumped at the opportunity to publicize, and raise money for, her new project.

"I work on long-term projects. I wanted to announce the idea with something that was a piece and at the same time generates money for getting the car," she says. "So we turned the place into a bikini car wash for a day."

She hung prints of the woman she'd photographed in Fresno having her bikini pulled off. For the exhibition, which was part photographic display, part street performance art, Cohen donned a bikini, charged $10 a wash, and had a friend sell hot dogs and Polaroid pictures of her posing with car wash patrons. She didn't make much money at the show — definitely not enough to buy a car to work on — but she says the project foreshadowed what was to come.

"I was thinking a lot about an honest desire for love and affection and how you get people to pay attention and help you," she says. "It's tough to raise money for a project, and it's tough to get shows, so I think the piece was a reflection of what was going on in my life at the time. I was like — 'There you go. Buy this.'"

Though Bikini Car Wash announced Cohen's intentions for the project, she didn't wind up purchasing a car until she went to Stuttgart, Germany, on an artist residency program at the Akademie Schloss Solitude.

She originally thought she might use a Mercedes or a Porsche, since both are manufactured near where she lived during her residency. The Benz was way out of Cohen's budget, and she thought a Porsche was just a little "too luxurious." Leaving the car idea in the back of her mind, Cohen worked on other projects, until one day, while visiting Berlin for a group exhibition she was part of, her dream car putt-putted into her life.

"I was hanging out with this guy, and he was like, 'Check it out. Do you smell that? A Trabant is coming,'" Cohen recalls. "They run on a mixture of oil and gas so it makes a lot of pollution. I was like, 'Holy shit, what is that thing?' I was like, 'That's the car. That makes so much more sense.'"

She persuaded her residency sponsors at the Akademie to pay for the car. After scouring Berlin's version of Auto Trader, Cohen found one she liked: a 1987 601 Deluxe Trabant, for about $400 (the real expense was shipping it back to the States, which Cohen estimates at about $3,000).

To the shock of her German counterparts, Cohen decided to drive the car from Berlin back to Stuttgart.

"For 30 years, they drove these things around. I was sure it was going to be okay," she says. "I had this boyfriend at the time who was freaking out, like, 'Liz, ve can not do dis!' Of course, after I fought with everyone, I was like, 'I'm fucking driving this car.'"

By the time she bought the car and got it on the road, it was dark. And raining. Right away, the windshield wipers broke. By pretending to be a member of the German version of AAA — quite a task for someone who doesn't speak any German — Cohen was able to get some new wipers. Disaster averted, she was on her way, at 40 mph — grinding down to 20 when she headed uphill.

"It took me twice as long as it would normally take to drive from Berlin to Stuttgart," she says. "And it's on the Autobahn."

Although the Trabant's rarity and small body size have caused Cohen several mechanical headaches, she says the project really couldn't have happened with any other car.

"You can pick cars to represent national values," she says. "This car is immigrating, and it's one kind of thing trying to turn into another kind of thing. East Germany went through a big transition [out of communism]. A lot of things fell into place — that transition from a socialist system to a capitalist system and the change in products and values. It seemed like a perfect journey for this car to become an El Camino."

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