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Steven Cohen ‘putting his heart under his feet … and walking’




Cohen has been an interesting thorn in the side of the Jewish community since the 1990s. He’s never been afraid to explore all the tender issues he confronts in being Jewish, gay, white, South African and middle aged.

In 1998, he hosted his first fine art exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. He has since developed himself as a highly respected performance artist internationally. This month he hosts another Johannesburg exhibition. And it will lead you to realise his evolution.

In 2016, Cohen lost his life partner, the dancer/choreographer Elu, to sudden illness. This exhibition is a gesture of mourning. It doesn’t lack Cohen’s typical wryness, but it resonates unapologetically with the aesthetics he’s developed over 20 years.

Comprising three videos and a myriad of ballet shoes, the exhibition is a taxonomy of Cohen and Elu’s collaborative career. As you look at each tableau of used and bruised pink pointe shoes, you recognise talismans from the ethos of South African performance history – of which Cohen and Elu were the centrifugal force from the late 1990s – pushing possibility in an art form with no history yet, in this country.

The combinations of shoes with other things are dizzying. Monkey skulls and a mummified cat vie with medical instruments and domestic tools. Hitler puppets and anti-Semitic propaganda neighbour ceramic roosters and Victorian ashtrays. Ostrich feet lie in the shape of a swastika; a pair of tefillin is strapped around a toy Torah Scroll.

As you walk between each, you see snippets of a career that outraged a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.

The phrase used as the title of this exhibition was said to Cohen after Elu died. When Nomsa Dhlamini — the woman who raised Cohen and became a significant collaborator in his later work – heard that Elu died, she told Cohen to “put your heart under your feet… and walk!” She was 96 at the time.

The first video in this exhibition is one of Cohen having the sole of his left foot tattooed with this phrase. The others manifest how he makes this phrase true.

And effectively, that’s where the aesthetic, moral and emotional pinnacle of this exhibition lies. The video, screened in the second half of the gallery, are named simply fat and blood. They last just over six minutes each and yet, they will touch you in a place you might not have known you had, until this experience.

In them, Cohen brings his grief to a South African abattoir; dressed in a white tutu, with his characteristic head of makeup and butterfly wings, he is filmed dancing his heart out, in wrenching tribute to the loss of life in that sanitised dirty space.

It’s a tribute to the stuff that constitutes what a living being is. It’s like watching a crime, a snuff movie, a manifestation of great religious sacrifice all rolled together. It is art, but it also transcends art, pushing it into the realm of shamanic gesture.

It isn’t easy to see. It’s not meant to be. But it will not let you go.

* This exhibition is at the Stevenson Gallery, Braamfontein until November 17

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