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Steven Cohen’s bitter, tender lament

Wearing killer shoes, Steven Cohen flirts, as you might expect him to, with taboo; deep sadness is also part of the repertoire of Golgotha, his newest work. It may be the most unusual mourning gesture you’ve seen, but it also firmly coheres with vanitas symbols, used since the European Renaissance.

Golgotha debuted by invitation at Paris’s Festival d’Automne at the Pompidou Centre this month. It reaches way beyond cheap notions of the skull as conceptually sexy, vaunted by artists such as Damien Hirst.

Being invited to show work in this space is a singular honour for anyone, let alone a South African émigré who has also invented himself. Alongside mainstream distinctive local artists William Kentridge and Robyn Orlin, Steven Cohen has become a regular Pompidou invitee. Golgotha is his fourth appearance in the centre; shortly after its formal opening, Cohen was invited to perform there again in 2011.

The work’s cornerstone is the skulls. They’re real human skulls, built into morally and physically unstable sandals. A white, male, middle-aged, queer Jew, Cohen has for 20 years been probing hate. His art aims to speak about offensiveness offensively. It has kept blood pressure up, interest perked.

Golgotha engages all the stage elements Cohen’s used previously — the segueing of video, photography and live performance, pushing the body to extremes, nudity. The piece is polished; it’s also less about sexuality than vulnerability.

In Golgotha Cohen goes where he’s never yet dared — he touches death. From the work’s outset, the videographer shows us Cohen’s living body. It’s white, male and ageing. It is defenseless and wears a frock of wedding crowns, velvet and mirrors.

Then the work splays: a wide collation of music, props, costumes and gestures become the piece; in context everything fits. Using Hope There’s Someone by Antony and the Johnsons, Craig Armstrong’s Wake Up in New York sung with Evan Dando, Mandoza’s Cyborg and songs played on a wind-up gramophone player, Cohen wears shoes made of horseshoes at one point. He dances with a dollar-covered pogo stick under strobe lights at another. “I know I hurt you … You know you hurt me too,” Armstrong’s song declares. “I want to get hold of you,” it imprecates the listener to meet the singer. And then the work’s context jolts you. It’s Cohen calling to his lost brother.

He dons a 1930s Russian pilot suit — designed to withstand G-force, its boots weigh 30kg. Each. Cohen’s ragged breath, in negotiating with this costume, is amplified. The boots destroy Vallaurises, high-kitsch porcelain objects from southeastern France, popularised in the 1950s. They’re on stage in the pattern of a crucifix. It’s terrible to watch their destruction; worse than the more obvious horrors. Golgotha never descends into maudlin, but hangs restlessly, awkwardly, unpredictably.
It relentlessly pushes the music’s connotations inside out. The Negro spiritual Glory, glory hallelujah becomes a dirge to 9/11.

In the footage Cohen walks through the Ground Zero streets of New York, towards Trinity Church. He wears a business suit, his head’s a mask of butterfly wings, his sandals defined by human skulls.

In other footage a stock exchange ticker tape juxtaposes a perusal of shelved stock at a Soho shop in the Chanel and DKNY strip. It’s called Evolution, a place for the obscenely rich to buy unusual household decor, including genuine human bones.

A United States government video of an electrocution is the work’s pinnacle of horror. It plies into Cohen’s awkward aesthetic, vetoing glibness. Cohen conjoins an aural “idiot’s guide” to the kaddish, for one who has to say it but has lost Hebrew, with a virtual crucifixion scene. Uttering nothing and juxtaposing much, as is his wont, Cohen says volumes.

The enormity of Golgotha‘s immorality embraces its unequivocal brilliance; its summation, embodied in the concept of Golgotha as a New Testament reality hanging on an ancient Hebrew framework, is devastatingly subtle. This work is a coming of age for Cohen: his engagement with his brother’s suicide is as bitter and confrontational as it is tender.

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