Archive: Issue No. 105, May 2006

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Steven Cohen

Steven Cohen and Elu
Uninvited (working with restrictions) 2006
Installation view at Bard
Photo: Chris Kendall

Steven Cohen

Steven Cohen and Elu
Uninvited (working with restrictions) 2006
Installation view at Bard
Photo: Chris Kendall



'Uninvited (working with restrictions): Steven Cohen and Elu'
by Meriel Alisa Shire

Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) is located on the Hudson River two hours north of New York City. It is a liberal arts college with an international reputation for its two-year graduate curatorial program, but situated in an idyllic, rural hamlet, it is still not exactly the place one might expect to find an exhibition of controversial South African performance artists, Steven Cohen and Elu.

'Uninvited (working with restrictions)', curated by Kerryn Greenberg, is one of four MA thesis exhibitions that opened at the Center on April 9th. The exhibition opening was prefaced by a panel discussion featuring Steven Cohen, Jesse Shipley, professor of Anthropology at Bard, and Laurie Farrell, curator at the Museum for African Art in New York. Much of the discussion centered around Cohen and Elu's work and their motivations, while contextualizing their work within a frame of South African politics and history, information many American viewers are unfamiliar with. Cohen responded with his own explanations and emphases, and also compared the responses he generated from audiences in Europe, the U.S., and South Africa. The panel discussion, together with an artist's talk the day after the opening, in which Cohen screened Maid in South Africa, was a wonderful additive to the exhibition. In fact, Cohen's presence seemed almost necessary for a better understanding of the work within the small-town American setting.

The exhibition features the collaborative practices of Cohen and his partner, Elu, with four videos, Broken Bird, 2001, Crawling...Flying, 1999, Living Art, 1998, and Chandelier, 2001-2002, and three digital photographic prints from Limping into the African Renaissance, 1999-2000. Broken Bird, 2001, and Chandelier, 2001-2002, carefully constructed and heavily edited, are given prominence. The two other videos, Crawling...Flying, 1999, and Living Art , 1998 feature clips of performances in public, and gallery and studio spaces interspersed with Cohen talking about the work. Chandelier, 2001-2002, projected grandly on an enormous wall, seemed the starring piece, (as well as the best known) and claimed a large, dark gallery comfortably furnished with black bean bag chairs, giving the viewers an intense proximity to the work.

While sharing the common theme of restriction, the works chosen by Greenberg utilized a variety of ways in order to illustrate this. Some of the performances center around a physical restriction such as Cohen's signature high heels, which prove difficult to walk in, or his dragging a gazelle head while walking on an elephant hoof in the performance Jew. Chandelier, 2001-2002, features the beautiful crystal chandelier dress, which invokes both beauty and discomfort, as the positioning of such a fragile and luxurious object in the midst of extreme poverty gives the viewer the feeling that something is on the verge of shattering. The sound of the crystals clinking together is eerily beautiful yet almost cruel in the presence of people whose makeshift homes are being crushed and disassembled. Some of the squatters seem to see this tension as an incitement, and attempt to attack and drive the artists and videographers from the site. Interestingly, it is the female squatters who protect the artist from their male counterparts, adding yet another layer to the complexities of the performance, as it becomes an interactive piece about race, sexuality, wealth, poverty, and gender. As in almost all of his other performances, Cohen wears a Star of David on his head, a symbol, which adds to the list of identifications he illustrates on his body, those of a white, gay, Jewish, South African man. This action of self-identification is seen throughout much of Cohen and Elu's work and functions to portray the roles and identities of those who are simultaneously persecuting and persecuted.

The artists are always working to reveal something, and by inverting the normalized relationships between art and space, performance and what is deemed 'acceptable' in different societies, the power of objects, body parts, and societal taboos are revealed. When Cohen inserts objects into his anus the discomfort surrounding the politics of sexuality are revealed, causing the viewers to reassess how they think of their own bodies and bodily actions. When Elu and Cohen perform one work in different settings, they raise questions about the spaces where art and discussion are possible, and by continuing to work even when expelled from bridal expos and shopping malls, they show that the performances do not end in the gallery space, but are present within the interactions of art and politics and people in daily public life.

Steven Cohen and Elu are used to working with restrictions. They are also frequently 'uninvited' to the spaces in which they perform, but they have managed to create powerful art about all those experiences. In that light, perhaps one of the most moving pieces in Uninvited (working with restrictions) was Elu performing Broken Bird, 2001, in which he moves about in an improvised dance wearing ballet point shoes, one of which has an ostrich foot attached to the end of it. Elu truly evokes beauty and panic as he leaps and jumps among pigeons on the street, and struggles to escape inside a wrecked airplane shell. His movements are both enhanced and crippled by the ostrich claw, creating an entirely unique kind of performance, which centers around his adaptation and appropriation of his new foot. It is the discovery of new possibilities by working with restrictions.

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- Meriel Alisa Shire is an Anthropology and Film student at Bard College.

April 9 - April 23, 2006

Center for Curatorial Studies
Bard College
NY 12504-5000
Phone: +1 845 758 7598
Fax: +1 845 758 2442