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Q&A with performance artist Steven Cohen

21 April 2015 - 02:15 By Andrea Nagel

The National Arts Council is partnering with the prestigious Canadian Stage in Toronto this month to present six local productions, showcasing some of South Africa's leading performers, writers, directors and choreographers in a three-week Spotlight South Africa festival.
In Chandelier, Steven Cohen - while in vertiginous heels and an illuminated chandelier tutu - interacted with residents of a squatter camp in Newtown, Johannesburg, as it was in the process of being destroyed.
Much of your work is based on shocking your audience. In general, people are so desensitised these days - does this challenge you as an artist?
My work is never as shocking as the fact that people are so desensitised.
You define yourself as a white South African, gay, Jewish male. How does the Jewish aspect of your identity come into the 'Chandelier' piece?
Historically, Jews have been discriminated against, experienced dislocation and been perceived as dirty and unworthy, much like homeless people have.I discreetly referenced this by wearing a Star of David made of nails on the back of my scalp. But it's like with ice cream, you don't always manage to get all the different flavours into one cone.
How much did it cost to make your 'Chandelier' costume? Was it difficult to carry it around?
It cost me everything I had and could borrow. The chandelier is less heavy to bear than being a white South African is.
Did anyone try to rob you or did you feel threatened at any stage?
Rob me of what? I feel more threatened in the privileged suburbs where every advantaged person has a proprietary air.
What's the funniest thing someone said to you during the performance?
Probably something funny in one of the 11 official languages of South Africa that I, as a typical white South African, didn't understand - which is really sad.
Any plans to do something as a different household fixture?
Maybe some time soon as an emotional dustbin.
Has performance as a medium of expression become more widely understood and appreciated in the last few years?
No, it hasn't become understood nor appreciated, only accepted. It has become fashionable, and when something is fashionable it isn't questioned, just followed . the ''gotta get some of that in our museum" approach.
Who do you rate as a performance artist and which is your favourite work?
The wild man on the traffic island on the highway with a book and sticks in his jersey. He's not doing it to get invited to a biennale. He's doing it because he consciously feels like he must, without knowing why.
Why did you relocate to France, and is your identity still bound up with South Africa?
I didn't. It's true that my body is there much of the time, but my mind wanders a lot and my heart is always here, at home...

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