‘Can I ask you a favour?’ Steven Cohen asks, as we sit on the floor amongst almost a hundred pointe ballet shoes. ‘Can you put lots of you into what you write? Because there’s hardly any of me left.’ I was concerned about writing on Cohen because I felt like everything I could possibly think to ask him had already been asked by someone else, and, like, in a way, it must be exhausting for him. He follows it up with, ‘I don’t have the answers that they want. What does it mean to you?’ I tell Cohen that I actually want to hear more about the human element behind the production, how he feels now, and how he felt while making the work, and he responds by enthusiastically whispering, ‘Fuck yeah! Don’t leave it to me to undo [my art].’
‘Put your heart under your feet… and walk!’ at Stevenson Joburg is in many ways what one has come to expect from his work. Beautiful, intense, shocking, sad: it made me feel an incredible range of emotions. The thing that struck me most deeply was the confrontation of loss and grief, of a love that exists somewhere without a place or space left to send it.
The first exhibition space is filled with innumerable pink pointe ballet shoes. In context of his loss of his life-long love Elu, a ballet dancer, it’s hard not to feel heartbroken at the sight, yet simultaneously the shoes evoke a sense of joy and play. There is something about shoes – the way they tend to immediately represent the wearer, life and presence. And absence. A profound absence. ‘It’s weird,’ Cohen says, ‘to see my whole life splayed out on the floor.’
The shoes are all augmented with other objects, with dead old ladies’ flea market kitsch that Cohen has accumulated over his life. There is a sense of treacly nostalgia in the objects, but the combination with the shoes, and the sheer volume of the sculptures suggests a performative element. I imagine Cohen sitting in his apartment in Lille, France (the ‘Boksburg of France’ according to Cohen) screwing and gluing all the objects onto Elu’s shoes. One can almost feel the labour behind the making. Cohen’s shoe obsession is pertinent – in all of his performance works he wears vertiginous heels that inhibit his movement and clearly cause an immense amount of discomfort. The already devastatingly uncomfortable ballet pointes here are rendered unwearable by the amendments to their form. Ballet pointe shoes exist in a dichotomy between the grace and beauty of a performance – the precision and lightness – and the pain, the blood, the suffering that comes with practice in tortuous shoes in order to achieve the verisimilitude on stage.
The pair that strike me are Elu’s dirty practice pointes with little music boxes glued to them. There is something deeply haunting about the combination, a snippet of memory attached to the short ghostly tune played on one of these tiny hand-cranked boxes. Cohen’s work can feel like voyeurism. ‘The shoes are resonant with what you don’t see in the performance,’ Cohen says. ‘And there is actually a difference between shoes like rehearsal shoes and performance shoes. Performance shoes you wear for 15 minutes, rehearsal shoes you wear for hundreds of hours. The difference is immense for me. And I’m more interested in a saturated, dirty shoe like Elu’s with the music boxes. They are completely cooked because he never had money and he used them for like five years.’
The shoes remind me of funerary votives. I’ve studied Chinese burial objects from the Han dynasty for years, so it’s in my frame of reference, but each little personalized shoe looks like something that Elu might need in the afterlife, or that Cohen wishes for him to take along. There is a sense of time and labour in these sculptures that feels like a ritual task of exorcising memories and grief.
Thematically the attachments on the shoes vary from religious memorabilia, ceramic ashtrays, weird creepy AWB crap, tree roots, animal bones, chandelier crystals, lace, beads, and a mummified cat. The quotidian, the profound and the absurd, all together, reading like a memoir.
The shoes are placed on very low plinths that barely separate them from the floor. It makes them feel more personal, instead of physically elevated into art objects by tall plinths alone. They transgress the space between the art and the human. Like shoes scattered on the floor of an untidy bedroom, they make the space and the shoes themselves feel lived in and loved. A simultaneous mourning and celebration, the shoes sit with me still.
There are also videos of a performance piece in an abattoir. Cohen said to me that he wanted to do a performance where he was died on because essentially, he’s been working through the fact that Elu ‘died on him.’ Quite literally and figuratively. Cohen stated that Elu hemorrhaged all his blood into the bathtub, and the abattoir work was about going into that.
‘I don’t feel like I have the same body at all, since Elu died, and I thought it was because we shared a body and he took it. That’s why the work has to be real, visceral… tactile. I have to be in the blood, it couldn’t be all visual and aesthetic and associative. I even got it in my mouth by mistake, and I would never do that [on purpose], but I was glad [in a way] because I really know what it feels like to be died on.’
I tell Cohen that it was very difficult to sit through his abattoir work. He interrupts me with a heartfelt apology, one that clearly comes from a space where he understands not only how difficult it is to watch it, but how difficult it was for him to experience it. The closeness and human engagement, the contrast between the workers and Cohen is what I can’t get out of my mind – Cohen sees the animals, but the workers don’t: they just see Cohen, they are seemingly completely desensitized to the horror of the abattoir.
Cohen hardly had to do anything to elicit the disgust that I felt watching the slaughter of these cows. But somehow, watching him writhe in the blood beneath a dying heifer was more than I could handle. We are so desensitized by violence and gore we’re exposed to through media but the scale and the stark reality of this scene was harrowing.
Cohen is concerned with exploitation and erasure – he is as concerned about the people working in the abattoir as he is with the animals that are being slaughtered. He speaks about his privilege of going home and washing, going home to a hotel space. Cohen is worried about exploiting the people in his situations and videos. He speaks about vigilance, and that he has grown to care deeply about ethics. He says that everyone wanted to know where he filmed it. About this he said, ‘I think that when people can’t deal with the issues they go to the technical aspects, because it takes out the risk of exposing ourselves. We are so loathe to expose ourselves. Me too!’
The video has an aesthetic quality that, if you get past the content, is incredibly beautiful. Cohen spoke about the beauty of the fat, the whiteness, and the beauty of the redness of the blood, its viscosity and the ‘pornography of it.’
This work is human, and gentle and that there is so much more than the shock or disgust that most people will feel and which is often played up by the media. The reaction to Cohen’s work is often extreme and it can be violent. After images of Cohen out of costume were published in French newspapers recently, he was physically assaulted. It makes me feel like we have to be more careful about how we receive and perceive things. Often people are too interested in the spectacle of Cohen, and they end up not engaging with the artwork.
Cohen ends off by saying that ‘Being looked at is fucking hard. It’s really unnerving, so I hate that, that’s why I always try not have pictures of me out of character.’ Using your body as your work really exposes you. People cannot tell the difference between the character and the human behind it, they cannot separate the fact from the fiction. He says about his art, ‘I challenge them, me, the system, the constructs, everything. If a work doesn’t scare me I don’t do it. So if I’m a bit more brave, it’s like, don’t use that against me.’
This exhibition is a homage to bravery. There is an immense courage in using your body and your personal things to create art about loss. It is brave, when you are grieving to just get up every day and carry on with the hope that someday it will hurt a little bit less. One day you won’t feel like a husk, like an empty shoe that will never be worn again. And one day your grief will just sit present within you, instead of consuming you.