Steven Co­hen, best known per­haps for an in­ci­dent in Paris in­volv­ing a rooster and his pe­nis, has a new show, full of blood and shoes, in­spired by and ded­i­cated to his late part­ner


Blood, bile and the ge­nius of Steven Co­hen

● Steven Co­hen the per­for­mance artist is larger than life. He crawled on his knees with gems­bok horns as footwear when he queued to vote in the 1994 elec­tions; he wore a tutu-like chan­de­lier at­tached to a corset as he teetered on heels around the Red Ants dis­man­tling an in­for­mal set­tle­ment in Johannesburg in 2001; he seem­ingly emp­tied his bow­els while sus­pended above his part­ner Elu dur­ing a dance fes­ti­val; and he tied a live rooster to his pe­nis at the Eif­fel Tower in 2013, for which he was ar­rested and found guilty of sex­ual ex­hi­bi­tion­ism.

And these are just some iconic Steven Co­hen mo­ments.

So when I fi­nally meet this, um, dare one say, crea­ture, who blurs the lines be­tween life and art and does al­most un­speak­able things as part of a show, it is fas­ci­nat­ing to dis­cover he is al­most un­recog­nis­able, but just as en­tranc­ing, off-stage.

He has been liv­ing in France since 2002 when his life part­ner and artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tor Elu was head-hunted by Bal­let At­lan­tique for a six-month res­i­dency. Co­hen later be­came an as­so­ciate artist with the com­pany.

It is Elu’s death last year, or more pre­cisely the ex­hi­bi­tion in­spired by his loss, that now brings Co­hen back home. Ti­tled Put your heart un­der your feet . . . and walk!, it opened at the Steven­son Johannesburg yes­ter­day where it is on show un­til Novem­ber 17.

Motto for mo­ti­va­tion

The ti­tle refers to the re­sponse of Co­hen’s sur­ro­gate mother, Nomsa Dh­lamini, then 96, when he asked her how he was go­ing to sur­vive with­out Elu (whose adopted name was an acro­nym for “Ele­phant Lion Uni­corn”).

“How do you func­tion in the face of in­tol­er­a­ble grief? I think the big­gest mis­take is not to keep mov­ing. Rigid­ity and pet­ri­fi­ca­tion are the enemy of life,” says Co­hen.

No won­der he has Dh­lamini’s words tat­tooed un­der his left foot, the stronger leg which sup­ports him when danc­ing.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, as well as the ac­com­pa­ny­ing piece of the same ti­tle that pre­miered at the Mont­pel­lier Dance Fes­ti­val in June, is not about Elu. In­stead, in­sists Co­hen, “it is ‘to’, ‘for’ and ‘be­cause of’ Elu”.

He likes the head­line of the French news­pa­per Le Monde’s pre-Mont­pel­lier in­ter­view with him, “Steven Co­hen dances the vi­o­lence of ab­sence”. Ge­orgina Thom­son, artis­tic di­rec­tor of South Africa’s Dance Um­brella, who saw the piece in Mont­pel­lier, de­scribed it as “like watch­ing po­etry in mo­tion”.

Glo­ri­ous gore

Elu died af­ter a six-week ill­ness that be­gan with him haem­or­rhag­ing in his bath. This im­age in­spired the video pro­jec­tion that forms part of the ex­hi­bi­tion: Co­hen bathing in blood at an abat­toir. He says he wanted to “wash my­self”. “I was guilty of wash­ing in the blood of the in­no­cent. I am speak­ing also of in­jus­tice and suf­fer­ing and ethics.” In­tel­lec­tu­al­is­ing aside, it was also trau­ma­tis­ing, he says. And dan­ger­ous, as the blood and bile and vomit in which he is seen lux­u­ri­at­ing con­tain harm­ful bac­te­ria.

The other part of the ex­hi­bi­tion is shoes. Bal­let shoes, many of them Elu’s, which Co­hen has adapted in var­i­ous ways.

The idea that they will be on the floor, rather than art on walls, rather tick­les Co­hen al­though he won­ders about their per­cep­tion.

“To peo­ple out­side the art world they are go­ing to look as far from art as Ken­dell’s brick,” he says, re­fer­ring to artist Ken­dell Geers’s 1988 art­work in the Joburg Art Gallery — a brick with a pho­to­stat of a three­para­graph news re­port pasted onto it, about a mother and her five chil­dren in thenBo­phuthatswana who died from the smoke caused by a hot brick they put in the bed to warm it.

“The brick is very im­por­tant but peo­ple say it’s just a brick. Peo­ple will say these are shoes. But it will be like see­ing Elu’s life flash­ing be­fore my eyes.”

In true Co­hen style, every­thing is lay­ered with mean­ing. Even the At­las moth fash­ioned onto his face in the abat­toir scenes has been cho­sen for its beauty yet brevity: it has the largest wing­span of any moth but, lack­ing a mouth, a very short life span.

Ge­n­e­sis of ge­nius

Arts critic and aca­demic Robyn Sassen, who did her fine arts mas­ter’s the­sis on Co­hen, says he has five qual­i­ties: “He is ho­mo­sex­ual, he is Jewish, he is white, he is South African and he is mid­dle-aged. All of those things — par­tic­u­larly be­ing gay and Jewish and be­ing skinny and short and red-haired as a child — meant he was dis­crim­i­nated against and bul­lied, so when he de­vel­oped as an artist, he came out in ev­ery pos­si­ble way.

“He is a shock artist but there’s depth and in­tel­li­gence. He is not just do­ing it for pure sen­sa­tion­al­ism; there is a mind be­hind that.”

The Co­hen I meet is the mind and the pas­sion, sans sen­sa­tion­al­ism. He laughs about how Geers, who lives in Bel­gium, in­vited him to give a talk at the fine art mu­seum there. He ar­rived at lunchtime and, help­ing him­self to a sand­wich, over­heard Geers com­ment­ing that the home­less had sim­ply pitched up to par­take of the food.

“I said: ‘Hello Ken­dell,’ ” he re­lates, in a dra­mat­i­cally res­o­nant tone.

“I don’t dress right. This doesn’t go as chic,” he says, ges­tur­ing to his clothes, which in­clude Ja­panese split-toe worker shoes and a some­what tatty para­sol.

“I love my in­vis­i­bil­ity,” he says, al­though he does agree to be pho­tographed with­out his para­pher­na­lia.

One of the few other pho­tos of him “naked” like this is of his lawyer and him ar­riv­ing at court in Paris. He wanted to go in drag but his lawyer ar­gued he didn’t live in drag and that the ba­sis of his de­fence was that it had been a per­for­mance.

Quite a lot to de­clare

The City of Paris bought the five-minute video of his per­for­mance for its mu­nic­i­pal col­lec­tion. The video in­cluded his ar­rest. He hoped he could get the sen­tence an­nulled, but the lawyer re­minded him what he had done was il­le­gal; the mer­its of it be­ing good or bad art was not in ques­tion. “How ironic,” he says. “I am so old for what I do. A 55-year-old man and I have dil­dos, high heels and makeup. Do I have a prob­lem with cus­toms!” he says with a smile.

“I am so or­di­nary and shlenky,” he says, us­ing a word he says means unim­pres­sive but which is likely to be a Co­hen in­ven­tion.

“In France they are al­ways so shocked. They are wait­ing for this 9ft drag queen, fire com­ing out of its mouth.”

And so, in a way, was I.

I am so old for what I do. A 55-year-old man and I have dil­dos, high heels and makeup. Do I have a prob­lem with cus­toms!

Pic­ture: Alais­ter Rus­sell/Steven­son

Vis­ual and per­for­mance artist Steven Co­hen at the Steven­son gallery in Braam­fontein, Johannesburg, where his show Put your heart un­der your feet . . . and walk! is on un­til Novem­ber 17.

Co­hen wore a chan­de­lier as he teetered on heels around the de­struc­tion of an in­for­mal set­tle­ment in Johannesburg in 2001. Pic­ture: John Hogg

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