TAXI-008 Steven Cohen

“Performance art is internal and intrusive — it is like surgery without anaesthetic. Static visual art is like anaesthetic without surgery.”

Steven Cohen is a pioneering artist whose work provocatively confronts issues of identity. Best known for his live performances, Cohen appears not only on stage and in galleries but also, uninvited, in public spaces. His work deals with outsider identity, using his own and others’ bodies to create ‘living art’ that references sculpture, contemporary dance, drag and performance art. This book is a comprehensive introduction to Cohen’s work, from his silk-screened canvases and furniture to his ‘living art’ performances. The essay and extensive captions, written by Shaun de Waal and Robyn Sassen, provide a conceptual and theoretical framework for approaching Cohen’s art, while tracing its development over time. The numerous colour reproductions selected by photo editor John Hodgkiss reveal the brilliance of this large body of work.

Shaun de Waal is the literary editor and film critic for the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg. He has published a collection of short fiction, These Things Happen (1996), and the graphic novella Jackmarks (1998). Robyn Sassen is a freelance arts writer and academic, who contributes to a range of print and electronic publications. She is currently completing an MA degree in Art History at the University of the Witwatersrand, focusing on Cohen’s work.

Jillian Carmen is the author for the educational supplement published with TAXI-008 Steven Cohen.


By Shaun de Waal and Robyn Sassen.

In 1997 Steven Cohen made a significant gesture of origin for his work as an artist. On his show Camp concentration was a photograph taken of Cohen at age six, in a girl’s bikini and make-up, with his hair tied up in a ponytail: The artist as Miss Margate. This act of childhood cross-dressing, with the artist-to-be posing proudly for the camera, draws a direct line from Cohen’s childhood to his work as performance artist, where the gay tradition of drag is employed and subverted as part of his artistic practice. The photograph places autobiography in Cohen’s oeuvre as an important personal archive; it offers his life, his history and his social context as a way of reading his artistic production.

Cohen’s work, whether object-based or performed, tackles a wide range of issues in South African society, but always with the highly individual touch of an artist working out of and with himself and his world. His distinctive choice of imagery in the silkscreen works speaks to a social matrix with a history of apartheid, state repression and poverty, and he extends into the performances he calls “living art” a concern with identity issues related to Jewishness, homosexuality and race. It is for these latter works that Cohen, who calls himself “a queer Jewish freak”, is best known (and frequently controversial) in South Africa and abroad, where he is increasingly recognised as one of this country’s most innovative artists. Cohen has pioneered performance art in South Africa, and given it his own particular spin. In such works, his own body and its painstakingly constructed adornments are the medium, though the videos that record and rework these performances are artworks in their own right and provide Cohen with yet another medium. His witty, provocative “living art” references sculpture, contemporary dance and the Western tradition of performance art from the 1960s onwards. He creates his pieces both in “art spaces” such as galleries and contemporary dance platforms, and, entirely uninvited, in public spaces such as city taxi ranks, horse races, sports events, black townships and national election voting queues. It is as if Cohen were saying: Look what happens when Miss Margate grows up and goes out to meet the world.


Full Colour. Softcover. 96 Pages. 10.7 x 8.3 inches,
Authors: Shaun De Waal and Robyn Sassen
Editor: Jillian Carman
Design and layout: Carina Comrie and Adele Prins
Photographic Editor: John Hodgkiss
David Krut Publishing Co-ordintor: Bettina Schultz
French Translation and Adaptation: Catherine Lauga du Plessis
Dutch Translation: Loes Nas
IFAS Book Officer: Xavier Person
Scanning: Man Repro
Printing: Keyprint
Paper: Millenium Matt 137 gsm
ISBN 0-9584496-9-4
© The authors, the artist, and David Krut Publishing, 2003


TAXI-008: Steven Cohen, available through David Krut Publishing