Steven Cohen’s performance-art piece Chandelier on stage in Toronto sheds some unintended light
Here’s a question for you: ever wanted to see a micro-example of pervasive racism on a Canadian stage? Well, if you ask me, Canadian Stage’s Spotlight South Africa festival has the perfect show: Chandelier at Berkeley Street Theatre.
Performance artist Steven Cohen describes his work thusly: “by my moving in a chandelier-tutu through a squatter camp being demolished-and filming it–that’s what I’m doing…a digital painting of social reality…” Essentially, Cohen is attempting to “shed light on what is seldom seen, by creating amid destruction.”
I found that Chandelier shines a light on something, just not the struggles of the squatter camp in Newtown, Johannesberg. Instead the audience sits through a half-hour video, filmed in 2002, of Cohen wandering through Newtown dressed in his chandelier costume. In my opinion the show smacks of the absolute worst kind of so-called ‘enlightened’ and ‘progressive’ performance, using a black community, with their day-to-day existence, as props for a white man’s art.
In the words of my guest, Lou, “Are you serious? Are you kidding me?”
To me, there is so much wrong with Chandelier and I find myself riding waves of anger, frustration, and embarrassment as I try to express where everything went wrong. Was it Cohen’s original idea? Canadian Stage for deciding this is appropriate for an audience in 2015? Is it that some of the audience gave it a standing ovation?
I found Cohen’s work insensitive, focusing on the significance of his performance in the midst of homes being systematically destroyed. He is complicit in the destruction around him because rather that bringing attention to the destruction of people’s lives, he is emphasizing his own artistic-vision.
Because it’s mostly a film (Cohen makes a brief appearance in costume at the opening of the show) there is an even uglier critique to be made. How much of the performance art is edited? Staged? Are we watching genuine interactions? Or is Cohen and his film assistant Elu Kieser encouraging certain parts of the film? Are they crafting how we see the people of Newtown?
As the sun sets, Lou pointed out that the performance art came to an end pretty quick. Cohen still pristine in his costume wanders away; the screen fades to black. He, the audience knows, gets to go home, take a shower, go to bed. Newtown residents in 2002 were likely not so lucky.
Chandelier is, in my assessment, less a debate generator and more an embodiment of paternalistic racism. The only insight is in how far society still has to go before we call something what it is.
- Chandelier runs until April 25th as part of Canadian Stage’s Spotlight South Africa festival at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
- Show runs Thursday April 23 at 10:15pm, Friday April 24th at 7:00pm; tickets are $20 and can be purchased online here, by phone at (416) 368-3110, or at the box office at the Berkeley Street Theatre.
- Chandelier is part of a special performance, Intermission Volume V: Trans/Formation at 10:15pm on Saturday April 25th. Information on show and tickets can be found here
Photo of Steven Cohen photo courtesy of Canadian Stage