SOMETIMES THE RAW howl of loss is the only thing possible. Sometimes it is more potent than any words which are in danger of teetering anywhere near the threat of idle platitude. Sometimes the raw gesture, the unthinkable act of personal anger and sadness in the wake of loss is more appropriate than the mannered one that is societally acceptable. If you have watched a loved one degenerate into base matter through illness, before they vanish from your life, part of Steven Cohen’s current exhibition will hit you in the solar plexus and it won’t let go until you have howled that memory back into subservience. put your heart under your feet … and walk! is a potent and utterly beautiful tribute to Elu, Cohen’s life partner who passed away suddenly in July of 2016. It resonates unapologetically with deeply personal references and a brutality of fresh and alarming aesthetics which Cohen and Elu developed over the last 20 years.
In many ways, this exhibition seems deceptively modest in size. It comprises three videos and a room full of ballet shoes. And as such, it is an informal taxonomy of Cohen and Elu’s rich collaborative career. As you look at each different installation of used and bruised, torn and smashed pink pointe shoes on their little podium, you recognise snippets and talismans drawing from the rich and taboo ethos of South African performance history – of which Cohen and Elu were the centrifugal force from the late 1990s – effectively pulling and pushing at the sense of possibility in a medium that had no history yet, in this country.
There are monkey skulls in ballet shoes, hunched like demons; there’s a mummified cat strapped to a shoe. Hitler puppets and anti-semitic propaganda vie with ornamental roosters and Victorian purses. There’s an anal probe and a startling array of sex toys and domestic tools, not to forget an elephant’s tail, a pair of purses made of real toads and a pair of phylacteries strapped over a rolled up Torah Scroll.
There’s a piece of Vallauris pottery in direct and shattering reference to Cohen’s unforgettable work Golgotha (2009), which too, dealt with loss – that of his brother. And as you ponder each tableau, each combination of values with the ballet shoe pinned or sewn, nailed or enfolded around the historical reference, you see in your mind’s eye, snippets of a career that was almost thwarted by a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.
Cohen speaks and writes of the Elunessless of his life, since the passing of Elu. But when you enter this space, there is something so richly personal, so irrevocably about the dancer himself, that it feels that Elu is present. Immortalised. Dancing with his characteristic sense of anguish and self-belief, in these shoes, or those. In pain and in joy.
The eponymous phrase that serves as the title of this exhibition was uttered to Cohen after Elu’s passing. It was uttered by Nomsa Dhlamini, the woman who raised Cohen and became a significant collaborator in his later works.
Cohen explains in the gallery’s flyer when he told Nomsa – who was then 96 – that Elu had died: “I asked her how I could continue life alone, she said ‘put your heart under your feet … and walk!’” The first video work that you encounter in this exhibition is one of Cohen having the soles of his feet tattooed with this phrase. The rest comprises a real manifestation of how he is making this come true.
And effectively, that’s where the aesthetic, moral and emotional pinnacle of this exhibition lies. The video works which are screened in the second half of the gallery space. Named simply fat and blood, these two works have a duration of just over 6 minutes each and yet, as you sit there in the darkened space and the abjection of these images infiltrates your head and your heart and your ability to breathe fluently and your mind’s sense of smell, they will touch you in a place that you might not have known you had, until this experience. And when you emerge from having watched them, you will be stilled. And silenced. And it will feel like hours, aeons, have passed.
In these works, Cohen brings his grief to a South African abattoir, and dressed in a white tutu, with his characteristic head of makeup and butterfly wings, he is filmed dancing his heart out, in wrenching tribute to the loss of life. It’s a tribute to the stuff and muck that constitutes what a living being is and a paean to all that in the world that must be. It’s like watching a crime, a snuff movie, a manifestation of great religious sacrifice all rolled together. It’s the kind of work that is art but transcends art and pushes it back into the realm of spiritual gesture.
It isn’t easy to see. It’s not meant to be. But it is devastatingly potent and will not let you go flippantly. Above all in this quintessential gesture of tribute and mourning, of horror and celebration, Cohen’s aesthetic remains intact and doesn’t begin to touch the slippery mess of sensationalism that pervades the grimy commercialism of our world. Indeed, you might be told to see it, for sensationalist reasons. But if you’ve looked properly, when you have emerged, you will be a different person. As you might have been when you visited Deborah Bell’s recent exhibition, or Minnette Vári’s.
- put your heart under your feet … and walk! by Steven Cohen is at Stevenson Johannesburg in Braamfontein until November 17. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.