Unafraid. That’s how you understand South African-born performance artist Steven Cohen when you look at the prolific body of work he’s created in over two decades.
In the 1990s, he teetered into the domain of Afrikaans homophobic rugby lovers, wearing a corset, impossibly high shoes and a tiny handbag. This was Ugly Girl, an archetype he developed as a part of his award-winning performance debut Living Art. Men poked him, looked up his dress, felt his body, made lewd remarks. In another performance, he was chased away from Pretoria’s Fort Klapperkop during a celebration of the anniversary of the Great Trek. The assailants? Fierce white men armed with muscles and hatred. His garb? A long black dress with a prominent Star of David.
Cohen, engaging very directly with the complexity of being Jewish, gay, white and male, as well as with the politics of hate, loss and ageing, has been upbraided in a commercial bridal show and a horse race; he’s been condemned and lauded, as he has frightened impromptu audiences and redefined what seems permissible.
Based in Lille, France, he’s come head-to-head with French law, accused of indecent exposure. He’s the reason why many a dance festival has raised its hackles and shut its doors in the face of his ideas, but he’s been sought after to perform anyway.
Cohen came of age at the appalling height of apartheid and alongside his dance collaborator and lover, Elu (1968-2016), with audaciousness, changed the parameters of contemporary dance in South Africa.
Above all, his work is compelling and beautiful in a way that shatters rules. There’s a heady mix of humour and sadness, of fierce intelligence and reluctance to skirt controversy in them. Cohen, born in 1962, has, since the late 1980s, charged with abandon into terrain where the world was more comfortable to tiptoe and whisper.
So what is it that has made a practitioner such as Cohen so deeply important to audience members, fans and critics, and to the discipline of contemporary dance itself, all over the world?
‘It is about un-dance,’ he once told an interviewer, echoing the sentiment of the Dadaists, nihilist European artists after the end of the First World War. But he didn’t start his career as a dancer – or an un-dancer.
A medical student at Wits University for a few days, before he changed his mind and studied literature and psychology, Cohen acknowledges the body was always central to his understanding of self. When he was in his 20s, a neglected glandular fever condition forced him to reflect on his mortality. His sexuality was pointed out for him by his peers when he was a child – they recognised him as different, making him grist for a bullying mill.
A mandatory stint in the South African Defence Force in the 1980s redefined his perspectives sexually and intellectually. Among other things, Cohen’s army service was a time of Alice in Wonderland and photographs of wounded feet, of magnified vermin and the Voortrekker Monument. Like German collagists Hannah Höch and John Heartfield before him, Cohen used the platform of political rhetoric and grotesque anachronism as a platform for his canvases.
He silkscreened works, using rudimentary means of transferring photographic images to his screens. Filmic pictures of Frankenstein vied with giant penises. Jewish symbols redefined themselves in the folds of pornographic smut. The works featured concatenations of images from all over the place – ones that fought one another ideologically, intellectually and visually.
One thing led to another, and the flat canvases grew conceptually into furniture upholstery – giving new life to period furniture Cohen found in junk stores: abandoned by Johannesburg’s elderly. Louis XIV and Art Deco chairs became unlikely neighbours in the mishmash of stylistic possibility that Cohen created from his semi-detached house in the down-at-heel suburb of Troyeville, as he played with discordance, exploring the limits of the heart, mind and soul.
A further leap in his working methodology took the images from furniture on which the body sits to the body itself in performance, allowing him to understand himself as more than an upholsterer or a maker of pictures that people could close their eyes to, if they wished. Thus Cohen emerged as a guerrilla performer, upsetting the galleries’ or dance establishments’ understanding of what art is or could be.
You might think of Cohen and consider the work of American supermasochist Bob Flanagan, or that of the grandmother of performance culture Marina Abramović. You would not be wrong in understanding these seeds of Cohen’s thinking, but in order to grasp the full impact of his work, you would need also to foray into the burlesque traditions which tiptoed into nudity, and into traditions of dance as protest, and into a reflection on what authentic emotion means.
Cohen is not an actor. He doesn’t construct contexts in order to whip up controversy – that happens by itself. The element that arguably holds audiences at attention when they hear his name, is rawness. There’s an outrageous sense of realness that makes Cohen’s work what it is – continuously influencing younger performance artists, but never looking self-consciously back.