Born 1935, New York, New York; lives in New York, New York

Ira Cohen is a seminal figure in the consciousness-raising, mind-altering counter-culture movement that began in the 1960s. Over the past five decades, he has produced a wide-ranging body of work that includes poetry, audio recordings, photographs, and experimental and documentary films. Influenced by the many years he spent in North Africa, India, and Nepal with several other key figures of the counterculture, Cohen captures in his work transcendent moments filled with potential and being, embodiments of the Sanskrit word Akash, meaning “ether” or “timeless thoughts.”

In New York in the late 1960s, Cohen created his Mylar Chamber, a room covered with bendable, distorting mirrors in which he produced psychedelic photographs of shamans, divas, the rock stars Jimi Hendrix and Noel Redding, and the legendary filmmaker Jack Smith. These melting, vibrant images are featured in his film The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968). An extraordinary visual trip into a mythical land populated by wizards, sorcerers, dreaming plants, and magical animals, with an accompanying soundtrack by Velvet Underground drummer Angus McLise, the film epitomizes the hallucinogenic experiences of the psychedelic era, melding image with sound, color, movement, and light.

In his poetry, Cohen shies away from ornamentation, favoring a style more akin to collage, in which fragments are brought together to create a unified whole. For Cohen, the most important aspect of his poetry remains the subject matter, which is taken from lived experience, not from the imagination. In “Something I’ve Been Thinking a Lot About” (2005), he ruminates on the possible exploitation of tsunami victims, the uncounted dead in Iraq, and the rapidity with which these events can be glossed over and forgotten. In “Cornucopion” (2004), he reflects, after discovering long-forgotten flower petals embedded in the last pages of his notebook, on the passage of time.
Cohen’s engagement with poetry is not limited to the written word, for, following in the tradition of Dylan Thomas and others, he remains deeply invested in the power of reading his poetry out loud. Through this performative act, he gains a deeper connection to the poem and to his audience, a connection that reaffirms a universal consciousness of being as conveyed through image and word.
JM more about this artist in the Biennial Catalogue

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Ira Cohen, photographed by Marco Bakker