Interview - Steven Cohen

Coq-walking Paris artist: ‘I’m totally normal’

Coq-walking Paris artist: 'I'm totally normal'
"The coq had a major role. He made all the decisions, he was the choreographer." South African artist Steven Cohen performs 'Coq/Cock' at the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Quentin Evrard
South African artist Steven Cohen caused a stir near the Eiffel Tower when he performed with a rooster tied to his penis by a ribbon. Here he tells The Local about the pain of being an expat in France, the symbolism of the coq, and why he’s actually "totally normal".

He raised a few eyebrows around the world for his performance at the Trocadero, near the Eiffel Tower last month, where he danced in a corset and tights, and with a rooster tied to his penis with ribbon.

In this interview, 51-year-old South African artist Steven Cohen, who calls himself a “gay, Jewish monster,” tells The Local how being an expat in France inspired that controversial performance, how France has become more bigoted recently, and what he likes to get up to in his spare time.

About that performance at Trocadero – what happened?

Well, art happened. I didn’t cause a scandal, I just performed. It was the police who created the scandal and caused a fuss afterwards.

Does the performance have a name?

It didn’t before, actually, but since then I’ve decided to name it “Coq/Cock.”


A close up shows Cohen performing "Coq/Cock" in high-heeled platform shoes, tights and a corset. Photo: Quentin Evrard.

Were you surprised by the controversy that followed?

Well, normally the police respond to a complaint by a member of the public, but nobody at Trocadero was remotely unsettled by what I was doing, and yet the police still arrested me, which I found surprising and disappointing.

I have to add that my penis was covered up in bandages, and I was wearing a very beautiful and carefully designed costume.

That’s hardly the average apparel of a pervert, and that’s why I hate being compared to some flasher in a raincoat outside a school.

How did the police treat you?

They behaved like children and bullies. There was a brutality about them. I expect them to do their job, but I don’t expect to be morally judged by them.

It was like being five years old at school again, with all the other boys yelling “Queer.”

When I said I was afraid to go into the cell with my make-up on, they put me in there anyway, and it made them happy to see me scared.

Do you think being gay played a role in the reaction of the police?

Well, I think if I was a 22-year-old woman with big tits it would have gone quite differently, even if I had something attached to my vagina.

Your lawyer has mentioned that ‘Coq/Cock’ was inspired by being an expat in France. Can you explain that?

It was a performance about what I call “national identity ache.” It was a dance about being pulled in different directions, between my home country of South Africa, and France, where I’ve lived for 10 years.


"I could be killed in my own country, South Africa, for doing what I do." Photo: DailyNews7/Youtube

What role did the rooster play in the dance?

The coq had a major role. He made all the decisions, he was the choreographer, pulling me one way and another.

And of course, the coq is a symbol of France. And attaching him to my white, circumcised penis, which represents my identity, was very symbolic.

As was the choice of setting, with the phallic symbol of the Eiffel Tower in the background.

How did you end up in France in the first place?

I was in a relationship with a ballet dancer in South Africa about ten years ago, and he was asked to come to France, so I came along with him.

In the end he got sent back and I stayed, and six months just turned into 10 years.

I lived in La Rochelle at first, but now I live in Lille.


"I’m really quiet and shy. I’m totally normal, sober, and boring." Photo: Festivalextra/Youtube

Why did you stay in France?

I love France. This country is really invested in art, and I’ve been supported here for years, and been able to travel to 20 countries to work, thanks to France.

That’s what makes it so surprising when things like my arrest happen.

You know, I could be killed in my own country, South Africa, for doing what I do.

But it’s disappointing that France seems to be so civilised, and yet homophobia, xenophobia and anti-semitism are so rife here, and it’s definitely got worse in the last 10 years.

In fact, just recently I was beaten up by gay-bashers in Lille – three men who didn’t like my umbrella because I think they saw it as a sign of “faggotness.”

So in a way I feel safer in make-up and with an animal attached to my genitals, because that’s almost like a threat in itself.

Is any of this enough to make you leave France?

That’s a tough one. Everything in life is full of contradictions. The way I reconcile living in France with all its problems is similar to the way I reconcile being Jewish with being gay.

I consider myself a reasonably good Jew, and yet the Torah has instructions on how to kill queers. So for me, reconciling me own identity with my religion is the same as reconciling France with its problems.

I don’t think France is going to change for me, and I’m not going to change for France. So we’ll see how it goes.

Why have you chosen to live in Lille, rather than in Paris, 'with all the other artists'?

Because I don’t do what all the other artists do. I’m nothing like people expect me to be. I’m not some drugged-out, heavy-drinking drag queen. I like to stay at home, read a book and look after my cats.

I’m really quiet and shy. I’m totally normal, sober, and boring, and I live completely alone with my cats, obsessively making art.

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