ARTsouthAFRICA spoke with Steven Cohen, pioneering South African performance artist, before he travelled to Canda to participate in the Spotlight South Africa Festival. Cohen, whose work provocatively confronts issues of identity, enacted one of his best known performances, Chandelier (2001), in which, dressed in dizzying heels and an illuminated chandelier tutu, he interacted with residents of a squatter camp in Newtown, Johannesburg.
This interview appears in full in the ‘Painting’s Not Dead!’ Issue (13.4) of ARTsouthAFRICA – on shelves at a store near you! You will also be able to read this exclusive content in the June Digital Issue (FREE download here for Apple and here for Android).
Chandelier appeared alongside a number of other well-known works by artists from South Africa at the Spotlight South Africa festival in Canada from 8 – 28 April 2015. The festival is a result of a partnership between the National Arts Council of South Africa (NAC) and Canadian Stage in Toronto.
ARTsouthAFRICA: Firstly, congratulations on being selected for the Spotlight South Africa festival! Which aspect of the experience are you most looking forward to?
Steven Cohen: Thanks, but congratulations should go to the National Arts Council and Canadian Stage – I didn’t invite myself, for a change. I’m really looking forward to representing the South African artworld, which has always had a schizoid love/hate relationship with my work. I have no desire to be looked at, but I do want the work to be seen – I made it for that. And it interests me to be revisiting an ancient work in the process of saying goodbye to it.
According to the National Arts Council, there is also a valuable skills transfer aspect to the festival – are you going to be involved in any of these initiatives?
By going there, by being and doing, I will pass on a very valuable and particularly South African approach to freedom of artistic expression and the exploration of marginalised identity politics through actions of radical beauty.
I’ll show them, not how it’s done, but how we do it. Staying afloat as a South African artist is a particular skill. There were talks of make-up workshops, but I declined on the grounds that I am not Ru Paul. And other than merciless self- questioning, I am not sure that I have any skills that the Canadians need. Rather, I am aching to do performance art workshops in South Africa on a concept of ‘body scenography’ that I have developed – about treating the body as a stage.
When asked about repeating Chandelier, you said, “I can’t do it again. [I’ve made] the performance many times, but the performance is only ever a reflection of that… day [in Newtown in 2001]. [Chandelier is] a video documentation. I don’t know if it’s video [art] or dance… I don’t even know if it’s art. But I think it was an incredibly special moment and [it’s] a day that re-lives itself in my life… and for that I’m very grateful to the people who, unwittingly, became part of the work.”
Why continue to enact multiple performances of what was ultimately a singular experience? What does each enactment of Chandelier mean to you?
Each live act of Chandelier is another breath of life in the exquisitely drawn out process of dying. And each new enactment of the performance aspect and the showing of the video artwork CHANDELIER is an original experience, because it is a fresh audience. What might feel seen to me is new to them.
It’s like saying, ‘Hello! I’m so and so from such a place where this and that!’ It’s not because I’ve done it so many times that I never have to do it again. It’s often introducing parts of art-me and aspects of the country I come from to Steven-Cohen-and-South-African-art-virgins.
How has the work developed in the decade since it was conceived?
The work itself has not changed, but the reading of it has transformed as the world has developed in the past decade. It’s now in an antique language and an ancient aesthetic. Even the video format 4:3 is the gramophone equivalent of present visual technology. But the issues the work speaks of – discrimination, dislocation, inequality and racial confrontation – have only heightened; they have hardly vanished or become irrelevant in SA or internationally. The live performance aspect of the work has become much more delicate as my body and the chandelier-tutu take on the strain of aging and start to disintegrate, but if anything, the significance and the poetry of the work have intensified with the fragility brought on by time and wear.
“I’ve faced (the public), not as a rebel, as an outlaw, as an arsehole; never a hero, only as art.” You made this statement to Charl Blignaut for an article in the Times in 2011 – are these perceptions garnered from audience reactions to your work, or perceptions that you think the audience may have of you?
That comment was both a reflection and a prediction and it is a mix of perspectives; a lot of how I see myself, a bit of how the audience sees me. And, of course, not forgetting the authorities – governments and structures that like to think they own us – which don’t see me like that at all. They simply see me as a pervert out to corrupt their benevolent control. It’s actually evolved and legislatively I’m now seen as a full-blown cock fucker rather than just a skanky arsehole; on record as a criminal, not just an outlaw.
Speaking of criminal records, you attracted international attention for your performance Coq/Cock (2013) at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, for which you were arrested on charges of ‘sexual exhibitionism.’ This certainly wasn’t your first run-in with the law – you’ve been plucked from a shopping mall in South Africa, escorted out of a train station in Japan, and thrown to the ground and handcuffed in France once before. Do you have any plans to grapple with the authorities while in Canada?
I’m not in Canada for performance art or public interventions or anything dangerously real. My involvement with the Spotlight South Africa project is part of my saying farewell to the stage. And I never actually ‘plan’ to co-sign my work with the authorities, it’s usually the inverse; they seek me out to dance with me. The duets we have done are a consequence of their desirings.
How do the translocal dynamics differ between performing Chandelier in Africa as opposed to Europe or North America? How does the context change the work? What differences have you observed in the audience’s reaction?
The context changes the reaction to the work, not the work itself – the work is the work. Obviously I had intentions when I made it, but now that it is done, I never try and control reactions to it and, of course, I accept that it will mean different things to different people at different times in different cultures. I have noticed that there is a certain unwillingness to confront racial privilege and social power issues when the audience is predominantly ruling class; then, typically, there is an impulse to ‘culpabilise’ rather than empathise or take on responsibility.
Yes, your work invariably draws attention to that which is marginalised in society, beginning with your own identity as a white, queer, Jewish, South African male. You have said that you disguise yourself in order to be able to express yourself – what is the relationship between authenticity and theatricality in your work?
I try to introduce authenticity onto the stage and into galleries and theatricality into the public interventions in reality. I pretend to really be me, and in that process, I usually succeed to become so. For me, the two aren’t necessarily exclusive but rather each usually has aspects of the other, and the trick – like in baking or chemistry – is to get the mix right.
And finally, this issue of ARTsouthAFRICA uses ‘Painting’ as a thematic point of departure, so it seems fitting to ask – to what extent does the act of painting your face elaborately, and effectively disguising yourself in doing so, function as an art form in and of itself?
I don’t see painting my face as disguising myself as much as becoming myself, it’s simply a technique to get the art in me out and activated – it’s make-down for un-dance and it’s real for the time it’s there. I am that thing I decide to be, during!
I explored this issue twenty years ago, when I bought (literally, paid for) my page in South African Painting Volume One – and insisted my way in, using the image of me with a made-up face, holding a blood splattered doll, and with a dildo stuck up my ‘there where the sun often shines,’ from a work called I Was Fucked Up My Art. Of course, the editors tried to evict me but I fought them like the heel-slinging street art bitch that I am. And Kendell Geers sprang to my defence, pointing out that my face was painted and met every pre-requisite of that definition. Kendell also pointed out that there was no requirement for a painting to cover the entire canvas. My performance work is as much painting as it is dancing, theatre, activism, actionism, poetry and opera. And it’s immaterial to me whether it’s considered multi-disciplined or undisciplined. The only thing I insist on is that it is art!