Steven Cohen’s There’s glitter in my soup! Offers a different perspective on self-portraiture

Steven Cohen’s latest exhibition There’s glitter in my soup! invites audiences into a behind the scenes, post-performance moment. His series of self-portraits, carefully put together with the tape used to remove his make-up, are an instance of relative calm in his three-decade long performance practice. The glitter, the butterfly wings, the eyelashes, imprints of fold lines in Cohen’s skin. The hurt, the intimacy and the physicality of this post-performance ritual becomes present.

Make-up research, Lille, 23/10/2019

The birth of this idea to remove my make-up with adhesive tape came at an elegant museum supper one night 10 years ago, with an accusing glare followed by a rebuke from across the dinner table: ‘There’s glitter in my soup!’I had just finished performing. I was embarrassed. In my bag, I had a roll of duct tape, and I used it there and then to remove the glittered make-up from my face. It was efficient.  There is a real relief in peeling off the eyelashes–eyelashes are pointe shoes for the eyes. After that, the breakdown of the make-up using pressure-sensitive adhesive tape became part of my post-performance ritual.”

Make-up research, Lille, 26/10/2019

This work speaks to the idea of undoing or breaking down and through that creating something completely new. In this legitimising of tape, and particularly tape which would be discarded, as a medium for self-portraiture, something which is usually used to enclose objects suddenly has archival qualities. It is able to preserve the memory of the performance, the physicality of the performance, and the make-up itself.  The tape is also what is able to reveal the make-up from the inside. “It was an absolute by-product of work. By-products of work are work. So when I make a performance all I care about is the performance. But the costume is work, The video is work, the images of the work are work. So now even the junk, the garbage is also work.” This inversion of the use of tape connects to the larger thematic foundations of his career – ideas about disruption, disturbance and the breaking of rules to highlight their sometimes absurdist grounding.

Portrait Series Photoshoot, Lille, 15/8/2019

The tape self-portraits are in conversation with one another across the exhibition space, making viewers break the monotony of moving from one image to the next in an orderly fashion. Instead one follows the imagined gaze of each portrait, mapping out a less structured pathway through the series, transforming the viewer into a kind of performer, dancing between the images. The single oversized photograph of Cohen with his make-up on is a contrast to the self-portraits, highlighting the beautiful outside of what each portrait reveals.

This curatorial intervention involving playing with size mirrors the scale of Cohen’s descriptions and how he interprets his work and career; an oscillation between the boldness of the big, the wild, the dramatic, and the criticality of the miniscule, the intimate, and the delicate. In the same way, his work carries both beauty and vulgarity, inviting one and pushing one away simultaneously. This reaction conjured up in audiences demonstrates a kind of hypnotic response, but also revealing questions regarding pleasure, pain, sensory overloads and overlooks, as well as what is made within the realm of possibility.

Cohen’s understanding of the body is still revealed through these works; the body as an interpreter communicating what cannot be phrased by objects. “I think body says what art can’t. And I know art is meant to say what body can’t. So for me body is everything. But body is also hard to accept.”

In conversation about the exhibition Cohen’s reflections are poetic, metaphorical, contemplative, seductive and inviting, translating my analytic observations into the Cohen visual and descriptive code developed through a 32 year career. Youthful and reflexive, despite his descriptions of himself as a tired granny. The reflexivity that comes from looking down the path of one’s own career, but also through a career that has been building the muscle of reflexivity in conceptualisation. pre-performance, performance and post-performance rituals.

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