Concept and performer: Steven Cohen
Photos: Marianne Greber
Video: Steven Cohen, Marianne Greber, Joshua Thorson and Jonas Pariente
Editing: Samuel Doux, Christophe Leraie and Steven Cohen
Lighting design/execution: Erik Houllier
Costume Creation: Steven Cohen
Assistant Director video: Jérémie Sananes
Set design: Steven Cohen
Associate Producer: Agathe Berman – Les Films d’Ici, and with the participation of Fresnoy-Studio national des arts contemporains.
Production: Steven Cohen (South Africa and France)
Executive Producer: Latitudes Prod. (Lille)
Coproduction: Autumn Festival (Paris), Les Spectacles vivants- Centre Pompidou (Paris), Ballet Atlantique Régine Chopinot (La Rochelle), Les Subsistances (Lyon), le Centre Chorégraphique National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon (Montpellier), and the network Open Latitudes (Les Halles – Latitudes Contemporaines – L’Arsenic - Le Manège.mons /Maison Folie – Body Mind, Warsaw) with support from the European Union Culture programme, Les Halles (Brussels _ Belgium).
With support from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, DRAC Nord-Pas-de-Calais, of the Africa and Caribbean Department, and of CULTURESFRANCE – Foreign Ministry
Interview with Steven Cohen for the Autumn Festival, Paris 2009
In Golgotha you deal with both death and commerce. How do you link the two things?
This work deals with the deliberate erasing of death in public life and in our daily lives. It is for this reason I am attempting to reintroduce the reality of death into life and the living, to see what happens.
I use human skulls that I bought in a fancy Soho boutique in New York, a business from which the government collects taxes. This for me brings up questions not only about merchandising but about human rights, the ethics of behaviour, about respect. Where do these objects come from? How did they get them, were they sold and then transported? All of this is heavily regulated, to the point of being forbidden in most of the countries on this planet.
For me, the fact that you can actually buy parts of human beings is a barely civilised form of savagery. I was raised in the Jewish religion, and it is unthinkable to look at, to touch, or to sell a dead person. I made shoes from the two skulls, feeling like a criminal at every stage; carrying the skulls in a box on the New York subway, just looking at them, buying them, transforming them: drilling holes in them, sanding them, putting screws in them – and the worse, just imagine – standing on top of them. All of this helped me to test my own limits and to deepen my comprehension of transgression.
The word Golgotha (the title of your piece) has echoes in the Crucifixion, with strong religious overtones …
Golgotha comes from the Hebrew word golgolet, meaning the cranium. Inside each of us is our golgotha, a place for judgement and suffering, where we experience the agony of sacrifice. It is our own Ground zero. For me, however, Golgotha does not touch on religion, more on the spirituality of the human being, about traumatism and loss, a place where the light is so dazzling, burning that it blots everything out. But we must not think of my work as being either religious or dark and one- note. I am more interested in my own anus than in Jesus. And I am always trying to find humour in the darkest situations, whether it be about the Holocaust or a suicide in my own family – finding humour there is not however the same as finding it amusing.
You mention a suicide, that of your brother, a tragic moment in your life. What for you is the link between performance and autobiography?
The suicide was an experience in self-punishment, raising questions about social ethics and punishment – via the reaction of my family, who rejected it violently – and about politics, the law, business, the rituals of grieving, taboos, corporal punishment and degradation, sovereignty and absolute power, domination and sacrifice. My work is functionally more of a speculum than a suture, more likely to generate questions than to offer answer. Is suicide a self-imposed death sentence?
I use human skulls – so which is less moral, selling them or wearing them on my body?
Exactly, you use the skulls like high-heeled shoes, accessories which are a constant in your work, a reference to the gay scene. Are you referring to the theory of gender performance?
I bought the skulls in New York, the symbolic, international city of business. I focused my action on public walks I took in areas primarily business-based, inventing my skulletoes by combining the words skull and stilettoes. I always feel like a kamikaze terrorist of haute-couture, when I am wearing these shoes. There is also an ironic relationship between the hardness of the bones in the skulls and the ethereal fragility of the bits of real butterfly wings I use in my makeup.
If my costumes usually have a rather feminine connotation, I could of course refer to gender performance, but in reality it is only an excuse to perform my infantile pathologies, collecting magnificent shiny objects. This brings out the little girl in me and allows me to explore the power of being a punk princess goddess, whereas normally I am nothing like that. In Golgotha, for the first time in my career, I wear a man’s business suit, a look that is so conformist it blends into the crowd, such that I present just the image of these three skulls, of which one is alive. For me, even though I am out there alone, Golgotha is a group work, consisting of my live body, the spirit of my brother who killed himself, and the skulls of two strangers.
Interview with Gérard MAYEN