Performance artist Steven Cohen is used to generating controversy and getting attention. He has paraded through a squatter camp in high heels and a chandelier tutu, defecated on stage and inserted numerous objects into his rectum, all in the name of art. What he did not expect was to get into a legal battle over his work in, of all places, France.
In September, Cohen was arrested after he walked around the Trocadero in central Paris with a rooster attached to his penis. In the performance piece, entitled Coq/Cock, Cohen says he was making a statement about dual identity—he is a South African living in France, a gay man and a Jew. He was charged with sexual exhibitionism.
"For me it had nothing to do with sexuality. It has to do with gender identity and politics of the body," Cohen tells Vocativ from his home in Lille, outside Paris. "It’s actually the very last thing I thought would ever happen in Paris and in France, which is a country that is supposedly a place where we make art. It’s supposed to love art," he says.
Cohen has performed his work all over the world, including at festivals in Paris, Germany and Japan. Stevenson, the gallery that represents him in South Africa, describes him as an artist who stages interventions in public spaces and galleries to draw “attention to that which is marginalized in society.” To Cohen, it’s all about grabbing attention. “I think what’s the point of making work if no one is going to see it,” he says. “I’m an artist and my job is to change consciousness and through that maybe hopefully social circumstances change.”
Cohen’s lawyer says he faces a year in jail and a €15,000 fine (about $20,000) if convicted. He is due to appear in court in Paris on March 24th. Cohen is not backing down. “Art is the last area we have to talk about difficult things,” he says. “I am not pleading guilty to anything because I am not guilty…I’m insisting on my right to make art in a way I want to make it.”
As for the rooster, which Cohen named Frank, he’s now living a quiet life away from the public eye. “He’s on a farm where he will live for the rest of his life,” says Cohen. “He won’t end up being eaten, like every other animal in France…”