Eileen Cowin
Art Papers April 2007
by Eve Wood

Eileen Cowin is an artist who sees living as a means to break boundaries, and psychology as a way to confront us with strange attitudes or to implicate us in seemingly self-imposed spatial confinements. Lessons,her most recent solo exhibition, comprises two video installations (Fringe Exhibitions; November 18- December 16, 2006). In the first space, Your Whole Body is a Target, 2006, documents a series of lessons to tackle issues of fear, longing, and self-preservation. In this installation as in her previous endeavors, Cowin gives vision and form to the ache of human existence.

For this work, Cowin hired experts to teach her several new skills. She informs us that "according to learning surveys: 95% of people think learning about new things boosts your confidence. Seven in ten adults think that learning can lead to a better quality of life. 85% of us believe learning will become more important in the new millennium." Armed with this information, Cowin worked closely with a self-defense expert to learn various methods of protection, including inflicting pain on your assailant, walking away, and cultivating the element of surprise. Cowin's earlier works dealt with humankind's degeneration, and with ideas of fate, fear, chance and objectivity. Your Whole Body is a Target pursues this inquiry into the human condition by asking specific questions. How does one appropriate a gesture-be it threatening or empty-to make it one's own? How can anyone living in the twenty-first century claim a communal space? Are our bodies the temples in which we live? Are they scared for the simple reason that we exist at all? Or are we only hiding deep in our skins?

Cowin makes no attempt to answer these questions for the viewer, or for herself. Instead, it is the experience of living that empowers her work and makes her vision so unique. There are no loose ends to tie up here. Nor are there any apologies. Each and every one of us experiences the breath of our lives differently. We are also always at risk in some way-from the literal risk of being accosted when crossing the street to the more diffuse but equally threatening risk of self-alienation.

Cowin plays both roles, embodying the empowered and the disempowered, enacting assault and defense. This video presents disarmingly specific images. In this, it invites us to prepare ourselves to learn our lessons. It also teaches us to fully embrace our lives, to seek out alternative lessons, and ways of being and, more importantly, to live fearlessly and never to cease to ask questions.

In the lower gallery, Cowin's other video It's Chinatown, 2006, investigates the relationship between Chinatown's residents and the ever-shifting demographics of their neighborhood. In this series of series of interviews, Cowin pursues her merciless exploration of human truth as multiple versions of variegated, elusive, and shifting human experiences. Focusing on this neighborhood, she presents a narrative that is ambiguous at times, yet real enough. Any good detective operating in the world of crime will tell you that, if six different people witness the same crime, the details of each story will be completely different. Cowin knows this instinctively. Despite our crimes, be they innocent or deliberate, she makes allowances for our humanity to shine through.