Steve Cohen, Three Solos

Review in Issue 21-3 | Autumn 2009

Queer Up North’s introduction to the UK of South African artist-provocateur Steven Cohen was a retrospective trilogy that challenged definitions of dance and the boundaries of audience tolerance.

The opening live performance Dancing Inside Out was a sequence of what felt like challenges to the audience, concerned with complicity in the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and physical repudiation of oppression. Cohen was sometimes clothed, provocatively advertising his Jewish identity wearing a Star of David as a headdress, or stuck to his genitals (a magnifying glass suspended over his circumcision); a prayer shawl; gas mask, and fascistic leather S&M gear; but was mostly naked – dancing loosely, acrobatically and exploring himself using medical amplifying cameras that fed live onto the large screens. The body was a contested site, teetering on grotesquely oversized leopard print heels, stamped by Nazi insignia and penetrated by cameras – a body celebrated inside and out.

The other two pieces allowed for a less problematic audience response, and as such, felt more successful. In the film Maid in Africa, striptease is subverted by the gradual revelation of the 70-year-old body of a South African maid. The erotic gaze is problematised by the camera’s provocative upshots of pendulous breasts, nipple clamped, hanging over a toilet being scoured, and stiff knees in suspenders leaning to scrub the floor.

In Chandelier, Cohen dons a crystal dress and after encountering the audience with his obvious discomfort, screens remarkable footage from his visit, in full chandelier character, to a Johannesburg slum in the hours between dusk and nightfall. Both are powerful excoriations of the racial inequalities of contemporary South Africa, intriguing and playful.

Cohen’s work has caused controversy around the world and is uncomfortable, sometimes offensive, and in many ways naïve. Yet the direct challenge it issues, its integrity and its demand for response makes this important work that deserves to be seen.

Presenting Artists
Presenting Festival
Presenting Venue
Date Seen
  1. May 2009

This article in the magazine

Issue 21-3
p. 26