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Steven Cohen on the art of loss


Internationally renowned and frequently arrested artist and activist Steven Cohen has a gallery show in Joburg, his first in the 20 years since he left the city. But lately his trips home have not been happy ones.

‘It’s not a f**king butterfly!” exclaims the normally soft-spoken and polite artist. I have referred, one too many times, to the delicate wings that form a part of his make-up in his latest body of work as “butterflies”.

“They’re moths,” he says. “Atlas moths. The largest of their kind and born without a mouth. It can’t nourish itself, and lives for between 24 and 48 hours … To me, they speak about Elu; about the brevity of life.”

Over the years, Steven Cohen’s radical queer, Jewish public interventions have been filmed and incorporated into often controversial stage works, mostly across Europe, but as far afield as Japan.

In them, every detail of the 55-year-old’s famous make-up and drag creations are always minutely coded with meaning like this; the personal and political stuck to the body.

He wore the moth wings below his eyes, etching beautiful alien cheekbones, to the opening of his show at the Stevenson Gallery in Joburg two weeks ago, and in the heart-stopping new short films on show, Fat and Blood, which were shot in an abattoir in Joburg.

Put your heart under your feet

Elu Kieser, who used the stage name Elu, was Cohen’s partner and collaborator over 20 years. He collapsed suddenly last year at home in Troyeville and was rushed to intensive care. He fought his way back, but would not survive.

Cohen was scheduled to be one of the headliners at the important Montpellier Danse festival in France and Put Your Heart Under Your Feet … And Walk! was his response to Elu’s death. At the opening night, he – wait for it, because there is always a radical act accompanying a Cohen performance – ate a small portion of Elu’s ashes. Eating ashes is illegal in France and, despite a morally-charged 2013 arrest for sexual exhibitionism while performing in protest of homophobia near the Eiffel Tower, he gathered his heart, put it under his feet and ingested the ashes as an ultimate act of ritual mourning. He tattooed the title of the show under one of his feet, on which he wore shoes with childrens’ coffins for heels and, at one stage, donned a frock made of four gramophones.

“They all play the song Dance, Ballerina, Dance, various versions, by Nat King Cole, by Bing Crosby,” he says – it was his and Elu’s favourite song.

The stage was punctuated with ballet shoes, each handcrafted with an object attached, mostly collected from the antique markets that Cohen has shopped at all his life, his finds steadily becoming part of his work. There are taxidermied creatures attached to the ballet shoes, a fossilised cat and Nazi paraphernalia, butchery instruments, dried toads and a crude ashtray … Each is imbued with the same kind of meaning as the Atlas moth wings. Elu’s original point shoes, battered with use, have two miniature gramophones attached.

The shoes also adorn the floor of the gallery show, leading to two rooms that show the films. In Fat, Cohen interacts with twitching, dying cow carcasses. In Blood, he climbs into a vat of cow blood and bile, and performs a terrible mourning.

Elu was found hemorrhaged and collapsed in his bath in a pool of blood.

No Elu

When we meet on Tuesday at the gallery, Cohen is disguised in his trademark sloppy, streety, all-black day look. “Yesterday, it was Black Monday. I had to go and buy a white T-shirt specially,” he quips.

In the gallery, I tell him that I find it all rather sanitised, that I personally struggle to find Elu at the Stevenson.

“It isn’t about Elu. It’s about no Elu,” he replies. “It’s about loss, it’s about absence. The work with Elu I’ll make next. This time I couldn’t make decisions about how to represent him.”

But Elu is there, especially in the ballet shoes.

As a child of five, raised in relative white poverty in Pretoria, Elu begged to be allowed to take ballet classes, says Cohen. According to Elu’s accounts, the response from his father was often violent and it was only after a suicide attempt at the age of 11 that Elu was allowed to dance.

“Ballet is effortless perfection out of agony,” he says.

A poster boy for the underground, Elu’s works as a choreographer were sinewy and challenging to the status quo.

“He added to the vocabulary of dance in South Africa. He was a very prominent fringe artist who showed up unsaleable and dirty and street. He made work with the homeless that in a way wasn’t ‘white’, by circumstance and lack. Elu knew the street and the street equals you,” says Cohen.

Elu famously once danced on point in the Joburg traffic with a gun to his head and wearing a tutu of tyres. It was Elu who first accessed the European contemporary dance circuit, and took Cohen with him.

Meat is murder

The films also remind me of Elu, I say, because there’s a certain fierceness of ideological purity in them. But hunting and man’s commercial slaughter of animals has been a theme in Cohen’s work since the beginning. In every work, there’s a trigger point where some audience members get up and leave in disgust. In Blood, that point is not where the abattoir workers gaze at him perplexed and possibly resentful, the strange white man playing with the death that is their daily grind – though that privilege is something he wants to talk about. It’s not where he dances with blood pouring from a slit throat. It’s where we see a live cow waiting to be killed, a close-up of its perfectly formed eye.

I remember inviting Cohen to accompany me to a menswear show at an early South African Fashion Week. He towered above the fashionistas in freak chic make-up, an elegant frock, impossible heels and a handbag. It was the handbag that did it. It was crafted from a skinned rabbit bought from a butcher, a gold cord attached as a strap. It offended the sponsors and the rabbit-eating, fur-draped patrons so greatly, to see their meat consumption displayed uncooked, that we were turned away and left as security began to circle.

Meat eaters will wince at Blood, but the target is the white capitalist food monopoly.

“I wouldn’t harm a fly, but I would work for many decades to disarm the patriarchy. That maintains my get-up-and-go when I work,” says Cohen.

“I know the polemics of talking on behalf of each other, but who is going to speak for the animals if you don’t? Who? I don’t care if its seen as white, as privilege, as species – I really believe in trying to minimise that impact on another species. It’s the worst part of us, where we let ourselves kill like that … The jump from there to killing humans is quick. I’m not talking about killing to eat, farming to sustain yourself, I’m talking about industrialised slaughter. That’s all the video is about, it’s about consciousness, it’s not about saying you shouldn’t eat meat. It’s about being aware.”

(Pictures: Steven Cohen© Courtesy STEVENSON Cape Town and Johannesburg)

Learning to loss

Cohen is still walking wounded. In this show and in his work Golgotha, he is ritually trading in death. His brother committed suicide, his lifelong photography ally John Hodgkiss died, then his mother and then Elu, followed by Cohen’s mother figure Nomsa Dhlamini. When we meet, he’s just returned from Swaziland to visit her grave.

“I didn’t go out looking for death to market it. It came and I spoke with what there was. I didn’t want a good theme in death. In the 80s, it was good theme apartheid, in the 90s it was good theme sex, it’s always what hurts, what’s hopeless at the time. But at least it’s passing … Really, to be honest, the huge pillars of my life have crumbled. It’s about loss. I’m learning to loss.”

Put Your Heart Under Your Feet … And Walk! is on at Joburg gallery, Stevenson until Friday, 17 November. The stage production has been invited to Dance Umbrella in Joburg in March.