S t e v e n
C o h e n
put your heart under your feet ... and walk!
Steven Cohen and Elu after the premiere of I wouldn’t be seen dead in that! in collaboration with Ballet Atlantique/Régine Chopinot, at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2006. Photo © Milena Skriabine
Texts by Steven Cohen
When I told my 96-year-old surrogate mother Nomsa that my life partner Elu had died, and I asked her how I could continue life alone, she said â€œput your heart under your feet ... and walk!â€?
Elu was born in the poisonous womb of the patriarchy at the height of apartheid in racist homophobic South Africa. From the age of five, he begged to learn ballet, and he was physically abused for expressing that. But he never ceased to insist, attempting suicide at age eleven. Only then did his parents accept that he must dance or he would perish. Elu spent his life doing that, first learning classical dance, surviving violent social stigma, and later expressing his ballet training, and his psychological wounds, in his uniquely woven vocabulary of contemporary dance, fragile and strong like spider-web thread.
Elu and I met in 1997, fell in love and shared our everything for the next twenty years. We loved beyond words, we lived and worked together, we fused. We fought with each other but never against each other, with each other and against the world. Our weapon was our art. The first time I saw Elu dance, I literally physically ran away - because I knew that I had seen a sacramental vision. Elu means ‘beautiful’ in native American, Elu means ‘elected representative’ in French, Elu means ‘life’ in Estonian - but Elu means much more than all that put together to me. Elu is my angel; not a light happiness-spreading fairy, a real angel beautiful but terrifying in his integrity ... a fire-breathing truth telling lifechanging gifted being of God - bearing messages through art. This work is an expression of accepting my destiny in not dying alongside Elu, an experiment in how to deal with survivor guilt in an effort to keep my amputated heart still beating, in how to bear tribute to our lives so richly danced in poverty.
I will let the dead bury the dead and I will make vital art in celebration of the life we shared sometimes flying high, sometimes crawling on the boulevard of broken dreams (our shared favourite song). Whatever we lacked, it was never belief in each other and in our creative expression. ‘put your hear under your feet ... and walk!’ is a work about passion without asking for compassion, and about the weight of a load of emptiness carried alone. It is about a lost soulmate and an inescapable life sentence in the cell of Little Ease. Elu’s legacy is my moral compass with which, through art, I will find my way back from the divinity of our creative life, through the hell of loss, to the purgatory of now. Beware! The outsider artist couple is coming in, one dead, one living for two.
Elu’s final wish expressed to me on his deathbed was “I want to be with you forever.” And so it shall be. “I will always love you Elu, you are buried in me, I am your grave. And forever is so much shorter than we thought!”
put your heart under your feet ... and walk! (tattoo), 2017 Digital video, sound, duration 1 min 8 sec
The performance work ‘put your heart under your feet ... and walk!/à Elu’ was made in three countries: South Africa, where Elu and I both come from; France, where Elu led us to, and where I am now because of him; and Japan, where Elu wished for but never got to and where I was performing at the moment he died. From being buried alive to bathed in blood, from ingesting cremains to radiating light, from sacrifice to survival and from worship to blasphemy, from Eros to Thanatos and back again - there is nothing I will not attempt in paying homage to the art that Elu and I made in the past and which I am now making for the future, nothing too strong and nothing too strange. The work is an original mix of performance art, visual art, dance, video, fashion, sound, sculpture, installation and forms with no names and unfamiliar faces. Its unifying features are where ballet (the leitmotif of Elu’s life) meets art - and the way in which soulmates choreograph the annihilation of being forced apart in the interim between life and afterlife.
put your heart under your feet ... and walk/Ă Elu Montpellier Danse festival, Montpellier, France, June 2017
The carbonic gas of the fog machine is so strong for me ... when I breathe it in, there isn’t what I need. My lungs panic. No oxygen, a lack, breathing without air, a missing. So too in life when deep loss is resident – always a dissatisfying breathing in. It, like the work, like us, can’t last. Lack in life is constant in varying degrees, sometimes six foot thick, sometimes low and swirling, sometimes static, occasionally soft, always there but not, present only in its absence.
Last weekend was Braderie in Lille - I was so happy - Saturday I did from 6am to 4pm astonishing then coming back to the house Sunday midday three men came up to me as I was opening the front door - said they were police and wanted to see my ID, I said fine, but show me your ID first please, respectfully ... they didnâ€™t look like police to me. One grabbed his cock and said, this is my ID QUEER and then grabbed my parasol breaking it in half while the other two started kicking and punching me. The one with the umbrella pieces tried to stab me in the face with it, but I put my arms up so they got well cut instead - parasol whipped is a whole lot less glamorous than pistol whipped ... when I saw the hatred in their eyes, I suddenly realised they really meant to hurt me so I went crazy, flipped, really just mad, screaming FUCKOFF so loudly and repeatedly I didnâ€™t even realise it was coming out of my own mouth until it stopped ... psychotically, I flailed like a madwoman and managed to kick one in the chest (was aiming for his face but he leaned back and then he retaliated with a last kick that has left me limping) ... I was so convincingly MAD that they actually ran away ... so I let myself in the house and sat on the floor and cried, ashamed at my lack of strength and dignity ... disappointed in myself, embarrassed to be a victim, shocked and numb and failed - the only resistance I managed was out of desperate terror not courage ... and I should have seen it coming - there have been more and more small incidents warning me, verbal abuse, bell rung in the middle of the night, night after night, shit on the door handle.
After that incident I was scared to open the door again so I missed the second part of the Braderie and hated myself for being afraid. Just sat for hours. Terrorised myself all night, spoke to no one except myself ... harshly, even rebuked myself for getting old ... luckily Eric arrived this morning so I wept all over him (he was cross and shocked at how I looked, cut and bruised) - when he hugged me it was like coming back to life. Realised I haven’t touched or been touched for months. Of course, I’m being blamed for having a parasol, it’s the miniskirt of gay men. Only, they beat me because it’s a gay umbrella, not just an umbrella. I’m back to normal now. I don’t hate me. I hate Lille. I hate the hatred. And I’m angry. I refuse to go to the police and get treated further badly and photographed badly. The police are the same animals in a uniform which gives them a nice bumline but doesn’t hide their homophobia/ xenophobia. I have no faith in that system. I’m going to make some more art instead. I worked all night on bizarrely beautiful ballet shoes with animal hooves attached. Some shoes being eaten by monstrous dried fish. My first day at the Braderie I scrabbled insanely for ballet shoe fitting animal parts, it was all pre-thought-out ... but I didn’t know it would save my sanity in a long shocked sore sleepless night full of bruises and blood I didn’t wash off. I might have cut my throat. It was that kind of night - the kind where you have been brutalised so badly you want to take it further. Making art stopped me breaking me.
All works put your heart under your feet … and walk!, 2013-17 Pointe shoes, found objects
For me objects are not dead matter. Objects are alive. Objects have got spirit and soul. In Japan, if you have a doll, you can’t throw it away; you have to take it to the temple to be consecrated and sacrificed, because you have imbued the object with life, with love, and it’s no longer dead matter – it has a soul. I feel that way about objects. I think that objects carry energy and have energy. It’s not just the energy attached to the objects, it’s also the energy in the object. These objects are personal objects, most of them, and for me they also represent rituals, like the time Elu gave me that because we had a fight, or to remember an anniversary … For me all that is in the object, and that’s why I work with objects – it’s not like plaster or concrete; it’s things with stories, with histories, and with secrets.
La Chaise dâ€™Elu Chair found abandoned in the street after Braderie, with the marks of several repairs; stained glass angels
Cascade Murano glass chandelier arms
Scales, plastic grapes, ribbon â€“ 1970s kitsch from my parentsâ€™ home in Orange Grove
Exile! My ancestral birthright! I feel like I never chose it, but I let it happen and thereâ€™s only a squawk of difference between those two. I have been in (and out of) France for fifteen years now, not quite the barefoot wandering Jew ... more like the heavily made-up high-heeled Golem on tour, but I only ever think of South Africa as home because who, how and what I love have always been there.
Voila! French flag finial, silkscreened tricolour flags
It is hard to focus on what to do rather than reflect on what cannot be undone.
Poise Hoof on wooden base
Value Wooden trophy base
Limbs Scapulae, possibly from a fish
Vertebra, fossilised tooth and horn
In France I am the ghost of me. Always longing, never belonging.
That time in Austria Buck hoofs
That time in Poland Buck hoofs
That time in France Buck hoofs
Recovering from the death of a soul mate and life partner can be one of two things â€“ a wound that heals over time, or a disease that installs itself and worsens. I think what makes the difference is the choice of movement.
Cow horns (from the performance I wouldnâ€™t be seen dead in that!, 2003-6)
The shoes are all particular and have their own weight and balance and quirks and faiblesse ... Some like to lie down, some will hang, some want wall, some stand, some are skeef and some donâ€™t want to know at all ... They are shoes and objects with enough energy attached to them to have opinions about themselves.
Intersectionality Little brick red boots
I find myself being rammed by dodgem cars of ancient realisations.
Cloven Victorian photos in frame
Currency Victorian purse
See the sadness come like sundark ... today it got me as I was walking in the road and I howled like a dog with a bicycle spoke in its lung.
Eluâ€™s shoes Music boxes (My Way, from Eluâ€™s performance monkpunk, and La Marseillaise, from Coq, performance in development)
Ghost Glass chemistry apparatus
Eternity Engagement ring napkin holder
I miss most the touching that said what didnâ€™t have to be stated.
American folk dollâ€™s body
Bird, Victorian beadwork
Art Deco beaded purse
Plume from ceremonial outfit
19th century photographic prints of found skeletons and skulls
Turn-of-the-century mutoscope Kinora flip films, one showing a white man laughing, the other a military parade inspection
After three decades of risking every kind of safety and security in the name of art, I begin to question how much more make I have in me, and what are all these globby bits I trail that were once firm and focused. I still believe in art very much and try to make myself not, but not is not my destiny.
Prosperity Toad purses
Home is now nowhere but in my head and heart. It is the only place that I am not without my dead loved ones.
Cerebral Papercraft hand assembled from 297 pieces, a gift from a Japanese artist
Manual Anal probe (three modes)
Italian porcelain teacup
French Vallauris ashtray
Some of the shoes have been saved for years, even decades, and have not been immune to the ravages of time. Some of them have been danced with in rehearsal and sweated soft, called â€˜deadâ€™ pointe shoes; some of them have only slight wear because they had a 20-minute life, used in performance only, once ... the performing so much briefer than the endless readying.
Paradise Devilâ€™s claw seedpods
Volition French 1960s hair colour sample swatch
I keep getting stuck in corners of my mind and I canâ€™t get out ... I only realise later that I have been facing away from the door.
Lyrical Tube fish
For me one of the most emblematic objects is the gun that somebody threw into the sea a hundred years ago, which got covered with barnacles and shells, and then came back out of the water to tell its story. And its story is in a language we donâ€™t speak â€Ś
Guilty Revolver retrieved from the sea
Hang Meat hooks
Bereavement walks barefoot.
Shade Art Deco dollâ€™s umbrella
We killed the flame Napoleon III antique candle snuffer
As much as I miss the books I read and loved in the burned library, it is the ones I never read, that I was saving, that got lost before I had a chance to read them ...
Martyrdom Wooden icon and mounted photograph
TouchĂŠ Fencing foil
Appropriation Kwa Mai Mai Market sandals
It was interesting to be hated for the work I am making. The people hated me because I am a Jew, a queer, a drag queen and English-speaking, South African ... but the final straw was a little pair of Mai Mai shoes â€“ for them that was proof of witchcraft. So, beyond and above anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, was racism.
Exile is when you find it difficult to speak in the language you think in, when the smells are unknowable and the constellations are upside down. Exile is when your mind is not where your body is, when your heart is separated from itself, when you long to be away from people because they remind you of who you arenâ€™t.
Whimsy Japanese craft fish â€“ a gift from a transgender bar owner. In Japan a given thing is to be cherished
Vintage fascinators from the Braderie de Lille
Vintage fascinators from the Braderie de Lille
The heartâ€™s mind insists on some reflection.
Voracious Pike snout
Gris-gris Trench art (church shaped from a bullet), engagement ring
Death is strong in the way it makes us stop fooling ourselves and start being ourselves. I realise I have to stop confobbling myself, which is something I donâ€™t know what it means, but I know I have to stop that lack of meaning.
Melancholy Monkey skulls
Shell ashtrays, from a ceramic tea set with applied beach sand
We lost each other bit by bit, under time, neither to blame nor blameless.
Shell salt and pepper pots
Shell salt and pepper pots
Bound Barbed wire from 1940s sign â€˜Achtung minenâ€™ and wedding posy cord
In grieving, everything about movement is distorted ... it is impossible, then sometimes slow, then suddenly super rapid ... Time becomes capricious rather than constant.
For me the making is the best part. The making is the moment the world disappears, no one exists. I start with recollections of Elu and intense emotion, but soon Iâ€™m forced to concentrate on how to drill through ceramic, or how to fight metal, and in that moment everything is resolved, in the doing.
Right angle Furniture moldings
Pasta cutter (bought thinking it was a fabric marker)
19th century upholstery tools
I keep fit to bear being hated.
Pressed metal skull and crossbones from crucifix
Lucia Ware deer
Duel Pistol with curved barrel (sold as stagecoach revolver for shooting backwards at highwaymen)
Things fall apart, I knew, but I was surprised by the way they explode, disintegrate, vanish, flash and fizzle, go dark ... and stop.
The objects speak. The objects decide which ones are useful, which ones to reject. They call me, they present themselves. They say, look at me, want me.
American folk doll
Coy Art Deco papier-mĂ˘chĂŠ and wax dolls
Ceramic lobster condiment box
I try not smoke too much because dreamland is the only place we have left to meet.
19th century American folk dollâ€™s head
‘Just hold me’ 19th century American folk doll’s arms
Encrusted chain retrieved from the sea
Tradition Facsimile Torah and tefillin
In making the work I have come to realise how much I miss me.
Often I would get up at 3am to work because I couldnâ€™t wait anymore ... Being at work in tribute to Elu is as close as I can get to being with Elu. And because it makes the world disappear, the world is less empty.
Temple balls Japanese Buddhist temple bells, miniature violin
Through Elulessness, I am learning Eluness.
Winged Millinery feathers
Imperative Candlestick with Tablets of Sinai
Etiquette 19th century dance card and powder compact
Paris Ornamental rooster
Movement is life, is change. No change is disease.
Voyage Ornamental galleon
Stranded Ornamental anchor
I am numbed by the intensity of feelings I have about going back to South Africa for the Elu show ... because it is really an Elu no-show. What is left of that is a place so dark that I canâ€™t go there, but I have to, because what I need is left there in that dark place. It is a repository of my future; a short-term donâ€™t-stay-too-long place.
Baggage Metal crucifixes, thread
Abject Lace fragments
Elu was so not-Facebook. He couldnâ€™t lie or cheat or steal, not even brag. He survived everything except himself, a self scarred from the hurt they inflicted on him for wanting to dance, which meant wanting to be gay, which meant wanting to be satanic in 1960s SA. There was in Elu a fine part-man, so much smaller in me.
National-identity-ache at dinner and diaspora blues for breakfast.
Progeny Model trees (headgear from the performance Cradle of Humankind, 2011-12)
Japanese pipe-cleaner figurine
Genealogy Model trees (headgear worn at Black Milk: Holocaust in Contemporary Art exhibition, 2014)
Coq/Cock Rooster bottle-stoppers
Service Japanese silicone â€˜face slimmersâ€™
Sand shark jawbone
Making the work comes with all this sticky recollecting which is non-therapeutic in the extreme ... like fingering old wounds and agitating them into festering.
Fragment of herbivore jawbone
The real danger of grief is to just get stuck, to get petrified and stagnant. You have to keep moving, and this is my movement.
Christ! The Red Shoes Wood and metal crucifixes
Stain Little Devil 1950s plaster figurine and AWB insignia
Iâ€™m happy to harm a patriarchy, but I wouldnâ€™t eat a fly.
Regard 1920s doll with cloche hat
Treif Ashtray with ceramic lobster on shell base with pearl
Temporality Brass figurine from a clock, dated 1825
Oy vey, Jesus Christ Pewter Christ
The terrible things in my work are the things out there, the things I find.
Kawaii Japanese gollywog
Racism and rot Black Americana toothpick holder
British Hitler pull-string puppets
Nazi Arbeitsbuch (workbook)
â€˜Porte-bonheurâ€™ ballet shoes, jewellery box ballerina, mirror with Madonna, crucifix
Suckle ‘Porte-bonheur’ ballet shoe
Sometimes I sob and howl my pain to the sky when tectonic plates in me shift.
Upholstery tack hammer
Meat and bone Meat cleaver and bone saw
Vigour mortis Mummified cat
Grief unlived can lead to feeling mummified. It is hard and dry and like ashes with form. It scares, yes, in its non-wet, non-hot, non-aliveness ... itâ€™s as if it died impossibly slowly over time, imperceptibly, cell by cell. Itâ€™s like a document of itself.
Installation view, Stevenson, Johannesburg, October 2017
In my head I had this idea that washing in blood is purifying. It’s very Christian – washing in the blood of Jesus. Jews don’t do that. But in reality it was about being contaminated. The man at the abattoir said he can’t let me go in there because it’s full of bacteria. But it was a risk I was ready to take, because life is bacteria! Even though I had been sick I was happy to dive into the bacteria, in the hope of becoming another person … which never happens, you know.
put your heart under your feet â€Ś and walk! (fat/blood), 2017 Two-channel digital video, sound Duration 6 min 5 sec (fat); 8 min 37 sec (blood)
Installation view, Stevenson, Johannesburg, October 2017
Steven Cohen was born in 1962 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and lives in Lille, France. He has performed extensively on the festival circuit, at such venues and events as Montpellier Danse; the Festival d’Automne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Festival d’Avignon; Munich Opera Festival, Bavarian State Opera; Festival Escena Contemporánea, Madrid; Bozar, Brussels; Oktoberdans, Bergen; and Canadian Stage, Toronto. Cohen participated in the 11th Havana Biennale (2012) and the first Aichi Triennale (2010). Notable group exhibitions include Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, Seattle Art Museum and Brooklyn Art Museum (201516); Chercher le garçon, Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne (2015); Josephine Baker and Le Corbusier in Rio – A Transatlantic Affair, Museu de Arte do Rio (2014); Black Milk: Holocaust in Contemporary Art, Museum for Contemporary Art, Roskilde (2014); My Joburg, La Maison Rouge, Paris, and Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (2013); Revolution vs Revolution, Beirut Art Centre (2012); No Fashion, Please: Photography between Gender and Lifestyle, Vienna Kunsthalle (2011); Dada South?, South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2009-10); and Under Pain of Death, Austrian Cultural Forum, New York (2008). From 2003 to 2008 Cohen was an associated artist of the Ballet Atlantique/Régine Chopinot in La Rochelle, France. He has participated in residencies at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and the Center for Performance
CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 403 1055 email@example.com www.stevenson.info Catalogue 90 November 2017 Published on the occasion of the exhibition put your heart under your feet … and walk! at Stevenson, Johannesburg, 21 October – 17 November 2017
Research in New York, and conducted workshops in Body Scenography at CIFAS (International Centre for the Performing Arts), Les Brigittines, Brussels, and Haute école des Arts du Rhin, Strasbourg, among other institutions.
© 2017 for work: the artist © 2017 for text: the authors Text Steven Cohen, with extracts from conversations with Lerato Bereng and Penny Siopis Cover put your heart under your feet ... and walk/à Elu, Montpellier Danse festival, June 2017. Photo: Pierre Planchenault Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Photography Pierre Planchenault (performance), Mario Todeschini (exhibition) Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town
Published on Nov 30, 2017