South African performance artist Steven Cohen — who made international headlines when he was arrested in 2013 for leashing a rooster named Franck to his cock near the Eiffel Tower — is performing in Toronto.
“I had to promise the Canadian embassy I wouldn’t do anything horrible while I’m here,” he says, with a mischievous smile. “And then a man phoned to make sure: he asked, ‘are there any animals in your act?’’’
No animals. Instead, Cohen will put on a performance called Chandelier. He’s the headliner of Intermission, the final party of Canadian Stage’s Spotlight South Africa, a three-week festival of South African art and culture.
Chandelier combines live performance with a video screening. In 2001 he dressed in big, strappy shoes, was painted silver, wore a chandelier attached to a corset and visited a community of homeless people in South Africa. At Intermission, he’ll wear the same outfit, and perform while the video of that event screens.
“It looks like nothing, but it’s complex and demands a lot, being in those too-high shoes and wobbly chandelier,” he says. “The magic of theatre is not showing that [difficulty], but I’m not making theatre, I’m making performance art, so you see me struggle.”
Pain is the point. He made that 2001 public intervention into that squatter camp in order to contrast opulence with squalor — to highlight what was happening to the people there. Apartheid was over, but people weren’t getting the homes and jobs they’d been promised.
“The moment we arrived, so did the government to destroy the camp,” he says. “They were being evicted to build the Nelson Mandela Bridge, ironically. Apartheid as a system in the form we knew it is finished, but the crime against humanity continues.”
Intermission is meant to be a light-hearted event; attendees will enter to low-key tunes, enjoy a South African barbecue in the courtyard or get a makeover from a professional makeup artist stationed inside, and later on the music gets louder for a dance party. Somewhere in the middle of all that frivolity Cohen gives his melancholy performance.
“It’s so party pooper, my work. It’s not happy-making. As much as it’s about light, it’s dark,” he says. “But I’m motivated to do it [at Intermission] because I like contrast. I like being in the wrong place at the right moment.”