Article written by Amanda Storey & contributed by Marina Koslock
The tiny foyer of the Berkeley Street Theatre bustled as ticket holders waited for the doors to open, sipping on South African wine and munching on biltong (a signature snack of the country). Chandelier was about to begin, a 30-minute, multimedia performance by controversial artist Steven Cohon.
As one of the final installments of Spotlight South Africa, a three-week festival hosted by Canadian Stage, Chandelier promised to be one of the most unorthodox and striking of all six productions — and it delivered. Through a strange and deeply moving performance, Cohen created a window through which Canadians could peer into the colour issue that still exists in South Africa, shining light onto the tough subject that many people wouldn’t want to see or discuss.
The show began with Steven Cohen himself entering the brightly lit, stark-white stage adorned in a glimmering chandelier tutu and ornate face paint. The artist wordlessly stumbled across the stage; stopping to strike poses as he went. This silent introduction went on for about 10 minutes as Cohen kept everyone entranced not only by his appearance, but also by the question of what this bizarre, beautiful presentation might be about.
The artist was eventually lifted into the air by a pulley and the lights went out, letting his illuminated costume cast patterns across the walls as music suddenly thundered. After returning to the ground, the artist walked up the stairs through the audience, still stumbling, relying on the star struck onlookers to assist him in climbing all the way to the top platform. Once Cohen reached the back of the theatre, the audience’s attention was directed to the stage again, where a large screen began showing Chandelier, a short documentary film Cohen produced back in 2001.
Chandelier was filmed during the destruction of a squatter camp in Newtown, Johannesburg. Dressed in the same sparkling ensemble, Cohen enters the camp. His wobbly steps and bewitching presence have a similar effect on the people of the camp as it did on his Torontonian audience. Confused and amazed, the homeless citizens belonging to the camp were temporarily distracted from the horror surrounding them as they observed this strange creature walking and posing amongst them.
The film’s last scene is a shot of three of the camp’s residents, one of whom is a young woman. She tells the camera that Cohen’s presence “was like Jesus.” Once the film ended, the Berkeley Street Theatre audience sat stricken. From start to finish, the entire half-hour presentation had been deeply moving in an unexpected and bizarre way, which is Cohen’s common style of inflicting a message.
After the performance, audience members were invited to a brief talk with Cohen, during which the artist further discussed the work and the meaning behind it. Colour privilege is still very much alive in South Africa, even now, over a decade after Chandelier was filmed. Cohen, being born “into whiteness,” says he has always carried the heritage of the chandelier — a symbol he uses for the European heritage that exists in South Africa.
“By my moving in a chandelier-tutu through a squatter camp being demolished, and filming it, [I’m creating] a digital painting of a social reality, half beautifully imagined, half horribly real,” says Cohen. “Where Hollywood glamour meets concentration camp horror.”
Cohen, who was trained professionally in psychology, says his intent for this project was to give a voice to the people of Newtown. In all his works, Cohen tries to use performance to hand power to people, and then analyze their reaction to his vulnerability versus their newfound power — a “power switch.”
Chandelier, in all its weird and meaningful artistry, did exactly what Cohen meant it to. It effectively made an impact on its audience, who were left deeply pondering the issues they were just exposed to through his performance. Cohen, whose bold public statements and controversial artistry have become famous (particularly Cok/Cock, his “uninvited public intervention” in Paris that ended in his arrest on charges of sexual exhibitionism), wanted to painfully and beautifully bring awareness to this horrid part of humanity that so often goes unnoticed, and using unique and memorable artistic methods, which he successfully accomplished.