Dancing with Nothing but Heart

[20 August 2003]

By Robyn Sassen

The genre of performance art has yet to really catch on with conviction as a serious art form in South Africa. Most mainstream audiences hear “performance” and think “performing”. Such audiences might become furious when they see conceptual manoeuvres on stage, as opposed to go-go girls kicking high, or perhaps ballerinas en pointe.

Researching the work of locally-grown performance artists, Steven Cohen and Elu, who are currently in France on choreography residences with the Ballet Atlantique, has, for me, been an education in the ways that “performance art” gets addressed across the board. These two performance artists are extraordinary because while they remaining ostensibly within a South African ethos, their work bears the stamp of international performance in terms of its often outrageous but aesthetically sophisticated confrontation with values of culture, sexuality, and other historically determined hot spots.

Cohen and Elu are the focus of a South African art book, at the moment, issue number nine in a series ostensibly about artists with a history of scant local print coverage. “Taxi”, the rubric under which these art books run, is a project that has two agendas: to give the artist coverage and to address the artist’s work to school-going children by way of an educational supplement.

The trick is to do it in such a way that a healthy counterbalance is met. Taxi must make the book sufficiently tasteful, well written, and beautiful for the adult buyer, as well as present the artist as sufficiently and objectively interesting for the teacher or child; thereby offering enough conceptual content to encourage in children an appreciation of culture and a growing sensibility. Looking at the work of Cohen and Elu with its splendid sense of aesthetic perversion, its sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of a bigoted society, and its direct purchase into elements of the abject, a number of issues strike one, which perhaps for the child, will put Cohen and Elu on a plinth alongside such cultural explosions such as Eminem — but on a level a tad more challenging.

Cohen and Elu come from two different sides of an art spectrum. Cohen was academically trained, with a loose focus on visual art (by way of a recreational silkscreening course in which he enrolled while AWOLing from compulsory South African army service in the mid-80s). Cohen has a more or less intact Jewish identity and a white English speaking socio-political face. Elu comes of dance origins, having established a respected reputation as a contemporary choreographer and with Afrikaans political structures and pagan culture as his framework. Cohen and Elu began collaborating in 1997, and their work has developed from public confrontations to full-scale productions of conceptual development.

Through their performance art they have dealt with the legislation of sodomy, addressed the smoking of marijuana, contemplated being trained to behave in the world by learning the “tricks” that society expects, and confronted homophobia and anti-Semitism. Their early work bears titles that immediately challenge codes of behaviour and social etiquette: “Cry the Beloved Cunt”, “I Was fucked Up My Art”, “Jew and Pig”, “Faggot”. Their bodies are vehicles for their meaning — the anus becomes a signifier evocative of both homosexual congress and filth that is taboo on many cultural levels in the most profound sense. The Star of David, a time-hewn mainstream symbol of Jewish identity, has been a device used on the tip of a penis, a garment worn as a headdress and then stripped off and tossed into an audience, and an insignia slapped upon the artist’s chest with blood.

Their more mature work, it is true, is about a more complex confrontation of values that address hunting, persecution, hatred and pre-determined socio-cultural values and expectations, and nominally don’t make the school marm cringe. But visually and actually, these “mature” works are more confrontational and provocative than the earlier pieces. They represent development that in many respects was encouraged by critical hysteria and a total lack of public funding or acknowledgement, even when they appeared at dance festivals and art showcases. No art should be made in a time of plenty they philosophically proclaimed, from their almost derelict home in an economically down-trodden suburb of Johannesburg.

And so “Tradition” presents a coprophiliac act being performed by men and women; German pornographic footage, as background to a work which involves dancing on a trapeze, with Cohen dressed in gemsbok horn heeled shoes and Elu dancing in a ballerina’s tutu, en pointe, but the skirt is short enough to reveal his naked genitals. The work involves the use of enemas and douching, but all this considered, it is rendered surprisingly aesthetic.

“Limping into the African Renaissance”, a play on words spoken by our Prime Minister at the turn of this century, comprises the use of a prosthetic leg and a large white penis on the head of an elderly black woman. “Dance With Nothing but Heart” presents a naked male dancer, with no stage lighting or music, dancing to an audience with the fresh heart of an ox in his arms. “Chandelier” contains a white man dressed in a French-derivative chandelier, in an informal settlement, and the video footage of the work ponders on the reaction of the poor black people in this space to such a spectacle. “Tristesse” presents a male dancer performing amongst a lot of newspaper headline posters, the kind of which are daily displayed in our streets, shouting out the ludicrous developments of the world from this side of Africa. The dancer in this work is dressed in a traditional tutu, but has blood on his body as an additional adornment.

Then there’s “I Wouldn’t Be Seen Dead in That!” a complex anthology of poetic gesture and explosive dance about persecution and hunting using Yiddish song, fetishised high heeled shoes, and cod-pieces made of quail and taxidermic specimen, to elaborate their point. It’s their first work with the La Rochelle-based Ballet Atlantique and with all its French finery and additional dancers, it still reeks of South African sensitivities.

These are works about complicated values that inform the contradictions which make a South African identity so interesting and replete with social challenges and the need to redefine or explain oneself (or apologise?). These are works that bravely reach into the sensitive places of an identity and press on the more painful spots. These are works which need to be keenly addressed by young minds without that set of morality that make them cringe in the face of “rude” words or abject conditions, and explore our world through the prism that Cohen and Elu cast.

But will this happen? It is, after all, just another day in Africa with all the contradictions that make this place seethe with possibility and un-possibility. Cohen and Elu allow their work to slip into the rubric “un-ballet” or “anti-ballet” at times. This allows them to deal with their understanding of aesthetic tradition in both art and dance and their acknowledgement of difficult challenges in making art with meaning when everything else seems to have been done before.

Considering this complicated, violent, beautiful art makes me feel as though I’m crouching on the side of the cornerstone of local art’s values. It’s a strange place to be in: art over here still doesn’t have the potency or the currency that popular culture enjoys. I’d be delighted to know that this book will overturn children’s values, but what is more likely is that it will be shunned from schools and marginalized by educationalists. Already talk of selling the book neatly sealed up in shrink-wrapped plastic with a sticker proclaiming the possibility of sex, prejudice, violence, and language that might be offensive, looms horribly close.

Elu and Cohen are still many years ahead of their time in South Africa. The French understand their work, as do the Estonians, even the Americans — they are being invited all over to perform their show. It’s just their own people who seem so outrageously backward.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/sassen030820/