Lucinda Jolly interviews Steven Cohen about the exhibition Magog
LJ: Does the reception of your work in Europe - in particular Germany and France - differ greatly from that in South Africa; that is, does it seem to fit more within the European tradition?
SC: Are you kidding? I never really fit any traditions - African, European, male, Jewish or queer; it's actually really quite similar everywhere in the world. Except that in Europe people try to observe the sounds I am making, to hear the images ... In South Africa I am quickly dismissed as a drag queen, a shock artist, a fraud, an arsehole. (Arsehole is right up there in the list of compliments for me - in fact, I do a talk with video excerpts and full works - Maid in South Africa, Cleaning Time(Vienna), Tradition, Living Art etc - called Sphincterography: The Politics of an Arsehole. We are in negotiation to do it in one of the main art theatres of Paris on the Champs-Elysées for four weeks nightly in 2013. Now where am I going to get taken seriously like that in South Africa - where will I be given the right to speak freely about body politics and publicly investigate my work for 30 nights to a paying audience?
I heard some comments such as 'exploitative' at your opening at Stevenson. The comment was made in particular around Nomsa, as if she has no say in her involvement, which I find particularly patronising, even racist, and very typical of certain South Africans.
Yes, I heard that a lot in Grahamstown - talking about Nomsa as if she was a cabbage that I overcooked, speaking for Nomsa and for me, telling us who we are and how we are to behave. Making decisions for other people based on their own very flimsy morality. Protecting Nomsa from me, as if I created Apartheid as a backdrop for making this work. There were similar accusations around Chandelier when I was accused of exploiting the squatters. Yes, I created millions of poor people living in degradation and lack so I could use them to be a glamorous self-indulgent drag queen. They should get a grip.
Is Nomsa a kind of alter-ego?
I don't think so. I over-idealise Noms to the extent that I can't imagine wanting to be her. I love her more than I ever could love myself. I want her to be her, and me, me ... and us together. It's not like I live out a second life as a black woman through Nomsa - now that people would have the right to yelp about.
I am reminded that not so long ago (Victorian times especially) young men got their first sexual experience from the chambermaid - there is always an intimacy between servant/slave and master, whether sexual or power-based. Very often the domestic in South Africa was the real mother to the white child. Was this the case for you?
OK, the sex part is a no-no, not denial, just really it was never part of my fantasy. I was more aroused by other gymnasts and strangely enough by being late, always masturbating while I was being hooted for by the school lift-scheme. Don't know what that says about me, but good thing I grew out of it with all the travel I do. But in making the work I insisted on looking at Nomsa like a man would, like the master would, lingeringly; so everything you speak about is in there. I wanted a hard sexual racist controlling regard, not chocolate-eyed love ... but more like 'I will fuck you more and pay you less, worthless animal bitch' - which was the underlying dynamic I felt in various households when I was growing up. As I matured and became conscientised I was always amazed and horrified that people never saw the domestics, never greeted them or included them or treated them as human - I understand it because I grew up with the South African notion that black people were human-form appliances and units of labour. That's why the nudity is essential in Maid in South Africa: we are forced to see that Nomsa is a person, a woman, with a beautiful body aged by work - her strong back, her clever hands, her calm sage carrying out of demeaning chores. On her knees at over 80. That is why the work is like that; in the editing it felt like creating a bomb - explosives here, some wires there, a fuse to blow it all up and expose the fuckers ... which is kind of how Maid in South Africa works. The image of Nomsa's old tits swinging while she cleans the shit out of white people's toilets is an attack on Apartheid, not on Nomsa. And I am well aware that it is my family home, my shit, she is cleaning. And I take responsibility for it. Today it is me who cleans Nomsa's shit ... not that it's heroic or admirable, it's how it is. I often say I have been blessed to have this relationship with Noms, it's like having a mother without the complications. God, how I miss my complicated relationship with my mother ... Nomsa says, 'Don't think too much because now you are one up', ie alone, when she sees me - as Sophie Perryer said to me the other day - 'being held hostage by my own mind'.
You take huge risks by exposing both your physical body and your soul. Have you ever had experiences where you were in danger?
Well, my body causes me a lot of pain but I ask a lot of it and give so little back ... I'm 50 years old, travelling around the world doing radically strenuous performances, always training and stretching and under-eating and under-sleeping. And going out into public often and getting my arse kicked, spending hours in police stations talking about art. I have destroyed my spine. But I am worried I have broken my soul. I have been yelled at, mocked, spat on, hit, punched, kicked ... none of it hurt or if it did it passed quickly, but the real pain in my life is my fear that I have let down people I love at a time when they needed me. I don't have illusions of being godlike, but I do think we can sometimes save each other and I don't know if I have done enough of that. I don't know if I have loved enough.
What was your greatest difficulty around the work in these two video performances?
Well, the Cradle video was difficult to make because it is a World Heritage Site and very protected. It took a year to get permission to work and film there. An image of Nomsa's bare breasts became a real problem for Maropeng and the work was blocked for moral reasons. Eventually, with the invaluable help of the University of the Witwatersrand, the Origins Centre and the astonishing Prof Thackeray, all was made possible. With Maid in South Africa the problems were different; internal. How to risk it, how to do it full throttle and not self-censor. And of course, how to get it seen and spoken about in art terms, not in personal attacks. In the programme notes for Cradle, I wrote that 'I throw Nomsa out there like that because I ask the same of myself. We throw ourselves out there like that so you can see yourselves through us'. I was asked to change 'throw out' to 'exhibit' with all the clever connotations of World Expo 'natives' on display etc. I refused. I would rather be brutally honest than strategic and smart.
What did you feel particularly worked well for you in these two video performances?
I think that Maid in South Africa is by far the more important and that it is a work which will maintain and increasingly develop its own relevance. I cringe when I watch it and that's how it should be, not because Nomsa is near naked but because I am flooded with all the wrongs that I have done, and all the cruelties and dehumanisations of society that I have wittingly or unwittingly been a part of. When I realise how hard it is for me to see Nomsa exposed, I understand that my family hate my work only because they love me.
Performance-wise, who or what movement has influenced your work the most?
And whose work do you admire?
Look, when I started doing performance it was without influence or strategy or context. I didn't have an art degree, I had a psychology degree and the enormous influences of military conscription and enriching time spent in an asylum. Looking back now there are obvious overlaps with other performance artists but these were never motors for me. I did what I needed to do, and I found a way to transform those oozings into art. I did it with love and joy and complete self-involvement - not referential, not to impress curators or be rewarded with biennales and arse-kissing from celebrity know-a-lots. I admire so many artists I can't begin to tell you, especially the ones who don't admire themselves too much. I laugh at the precious ones who think they are a brand, a brand new brand that we can't do without. They influence me to not be like that ... examples of what not to be are useful too.
I've noticed that many South Africans (in keeping with the American ethos) are very puritanical around nudity, especially with older people, as if old age shouldn't be shown naked ever; they are denied their own eroticisation. Violence here is accepted but not sex or nudity! Would you comment?
Yes, that is true. Most people complain about seeing Nomsa at all, never mind nude or in fetish dogfoot gloves and chains. Her simple near-nude presence is disturbing. We like our old dead. And if not, they should pretend to be - silent, motionless, invisible and preferably locked away somewhere like the deranged. Comments such as 'she doesn't belong on stage' - who fucking belongs on stage, Judy Garland? - sadden me because it's always said with unquestionable authority and moral superiority. Noms and I negotiate her look (fanny flashing is non-negotiable for Noms) and she delights in people telling her she has a great body (specially my bum, she says). For me and Noms the nudity is not at all about sexuality as it is in the minds of accusers - flesh doesn't mean fuck. Nomsa is entirely unperturbed by her own nudity - I will never forget her yelling at the German police who halted our performance on the steps of the Reichstag in 1998 that 'Bums is nothing'.
How does the Jewish community regard you and your performances?
How does the Jewish community regard the Palestinians, how do they regard themselves ...? Those are the important questions. And what is the community, those ridiculous Catholic black-frocked Lubavich extremists hiding a multitude of sins under their skirts, or people like Helen Suzman, Ronnie Kasrils, Johnathan Shapiro? There are many Jewish communities who only united when a big-bad Hitler wolf comes calling. I don't feel guilty about those pointing fingers at me, I don't eat pig but I suck cock, I don't go to Shul but I say my prayers - and I don't claim to be better than them, morally superior or more worthy in God's eye. I don't syphon money out of Holocaust foundation funds, so give me a break if I wear a small dress, big shoes and a man-sized dildo for political reasons.
When I saw the video of Nomsa in your childhood home, the thought struck me how so many madams were terrified that the domestics they employed to perform in some cases extremely intimate tasks, like the washing of smalls, would snoop into their affairs and, worse still, wear there clothes. Was this something you were deliberately bringing across?
No, because much of what comes across is inherent in the situation. I just asked Nomsa to do what she has done for decades, her usual house-keeping ritual. Inside of that banality, that 'normalcy', are all the intimacies and fears you speak of, so humdrum and yet filled with all the terrors and horrors of institutionalised slavery and taken for granted obscenities. I didn't have to insert the worst of the humiliations into the imagery; by simply making the work, they presented themselves.
Do you feel people get your sense of dark humour?
If they can get past the disgust, revulsion, irritation, and insult ... but people don't really understand it when you laugh at yourself and they dislike it when you laugh at them. I don't think they get my sense of humour any more than they get my sense of beauty, but hey, what can I say, I don't get television, or sport, or shopping.
How different are you from your performance persona?
Perfectly explained by the quote in the catalogue Life is Shot, Art is Long: 'I'm not the kind of person who behaves like I do.'
What is your next project?
I absolutely cannot say. The last project, Title Withheld (For Legal and Ethical Reasons) - a title imposed by the law and the threat of litigation, not by an effort to be trendy - has taught me an important lesson: not to shut up, but to be reticent until it is time to speak. Then to scream.
This interview took place via email on 19-20 October 2012