Put your Heart Under your Feet … and Walk!
From October 21 to November 17, 2017, Stevenson Gallery Johannesburg will present Put your Heart Under your Feet … and Walk!, a solo exhibition by South African performance artist Steven Cohen.
The exhibition is an intense meditation on loss, grief and absence, following the death of Cohen’s partner and artistic collaborator, the dancer Elu. The work first came into being as a performance piece, which debuted at the Montpellier Danse festival in June this year. Cohen writes:
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: ‘put your heart under your feet … and walk!’
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 11. 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 20 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.
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.
Put your Heart Under your Feet … and Walk! takes the form of an installation of sculptural objects and a two-screen projection. In the first gallery, a myriad pointe shoes – among them Elu’s, literally invoking his absence – are collaged together with found objects. Cohen is an inveterate collector of resonant objects; it is perhaps no coincidence that he has settled in Lille, where the annual ‘Braderie’ turns the city into a giant flea market. It was during these festivities in 2013 that Cohen was subjected to a violent homophobic attack, and immediately afterwards, traumatised, turned to making artworks using the objects he had bought. He wrote at the time:
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.
The objects are embedded with histories, ideologies, beliefs – a flagpole finial, Hitler paper puppets, vintage photographs of atrocities, icons and crucifixes, purses, sex toys, medical instruments, porcelain ornaments, feathers and hair; many of them, like the arms of chandeliers, taxidermied animal parts and model trees, recurrent images in Cohen’s artistic lexicon.
In the second gallery, the physical reality of death is forcefully reasserted with the screening of Cohen’s performative intervention at an abattoir. The first video is dominated by the whiteness of fat and bloodless carcasses, protective rubber boots and aprons; the second is red with blood, life violently taken and unceremoniously drained into a tub along with other bodily fluids. Precariously navigating this hellish scene, and ritually immersing himself in the blood of innocents, Cohen’s performance embodies a deeply felt pain and empathy for all living, suffering beings.
This is Cohen’s first solo show at Stevenson’s Johannesburg space; he exhibited at the Cape Town gallery in 2010 – a mini-survey titled Life is Shot, Art is Long – and in 2012 with Magog, focusing on works made with Nomsa Dhlamini, who died late last year, not long after Elu.
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