Performance detail

Performance detail,
with Elu

Performance detail


Steven Cohen
(May, 1998)

Modus operandi:

One of this year's Vita Awards finalists, Johannesburg artist Steven Cohen uses his body, forced into a variety of costumes, to carry out a series of outrageously provocative performances at public events. These are designed to force his viewers into recognising him and ultimately accepting him for what he is: a Jewish faggot. Beyond the personal, his work is a call for the recognition of all those outside the confines of straight society.

Artist's statement:

"I'm messing with a society that is more shocked by the violence of my self-presentation as monster/queer/unrepresentable or whatever than by the actual violence they live with every day. It's almost as if, because I'm alive and present, I'm more real and more threatening than reality." (Interview with Brenda Atkinson, Mail & Guardian, August 1997)

"I'd like to be a catalyst that provokes transformation in people's thinking; to dislodge them from their fixed state. But my work is also a celebration."

Most recent project:

To mark the opening of João Ferreira's new space in Cape Town (see listings), Cohen and his partner Elu performed the following two-minute pieces:

1. Dog
Elu, who is a trained ballet dancer, is dressed in black, beats Cohen, who has a dildo up his bum. "It's a silly way of explaining bondage and S&M - I'm showing a doglike willingness to perform. The point of the dildo was at whatever cost to the body."

2. Ugly Girl
Picking his way through a grid of tomatoes, Cohen is spotlighted against a John Piper painting, flings a doll down, and blood runs from his mouth.

3. Faggot
"A desperate kind of attraction. I have a sparkler up the dildo, and I am being frantically tugged on a rope. The sparkler is because people are always saying, 'Gay boys are like that, they should have firecrackers up their arses.' But I'm celebrating it at the same time."

4. Jew and Pig
Cohen's slight frame is forced into a corset, and other elements in his costume involve an elephant and bull's foot, a springbok head, crutches. "Most of these pieces work with very real things. The sangomas would love this piece."

Cohen in orange wig and black
frock being escorted away from
Fort Klapperkop
Photo: TJ Lemon
Courtesy: Sunday Independent

And before that:

A couple of months ago, Steven Cohen went to Afrikaans cultural centenary celebrations at Fort Klapperkop, near Pretoria, in support of an aborted Kendell Geers project, and was shown off the premises by neo Nazis in military gear. "I was also in the army. I have a right to be here too," he shouted, as he left.

Untitled 1996
Screenprint on fabric
155 x 126cm

Untitled (detail) 1996
Screenprint on fabric
67 x 187cm

New South African Flag 1996
Screenprint on fabric
150 x 240cm



Yes, my CV is long and complicated and desperately impressive like everyone else's. I've been printing and painting for 10 years ... I've had 4 solo shows and worked on over 50 group shows I've shown in Berlin and Sydney and fucked in Paris ... I've spent thousands of hours making hundreds of artworks, and some of these have found their way into academic, corporate and public collections. Most of all, I have spent my life making art with love and the doing has been its own reward.

One day I got sick and went to hospital and couldn't get up in the morning. I lay in bed for months and watched the calendar go by as if it was a clock. I was 33 years old and in amazing pain. And much as I longed to paint again, I also kept thinking of going to gym and getting some muscles, and a sequined dress and some heels and having wild sex with a boy with a hairy chest. This ambition helped me heal. I'd seen my skin go yellow and my piss go black, and felt the needles in the back of my hands all night. I knew my body was a powerful medium - I couldn't wait to get well and work with it.

Now when I'm tired of canvas and ink, I put down my brushes and put on my make-up and take off my clothes and go out and love the way I've got two cheeks to call both art.

Contact: 011 614-3729

...ZA@PLAY   MWeb

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