Steven Cohen in court for performing in front of Eiffel Tower with a cockerel tied to his penis.

The South African performance artist who was arrested on September 10 last year for “indecent exposure” after dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower with a cockerel tied to his penis is on trial this week in France.

Steven Cohen’s work entitled “Coq/Cock” involved him donning feathers, platform shoes and long red gloves, and walking up and down in the Place du Trocadero with a rooster attached to his genitals by a long ribbon. Police arrested the colourful artist and held him for nine hours of questioning. The cockerel was apparently unharmed and has now retired to the country.

Cohen, 51, was born in South Africa but has lived in Lille for some years. His work is frequently controversial but has been included in important art shows. Most recently his performance art work “Sphincterography: The Tour – Johannesburg (The Politics of an Arsehole)” was part of the 2013 Festival d’Automne in Paris. “To some people, what I do is magical, and to others, what I do is criminal,” he says.

“I made a work using French national symbols – the cock, the Eiffel Tower, the Folies Bergère – as well as a very South African approach to using public space with political consciousness,” says Cohen of the piece in question. “I used my penis because it’s me. Everything about me is inscribed in my penis – white, Jewish, male, gay. It’s about gender identity – it’s not about fucking.”

Cohen told the judge that no one lodged any kind of complaint and even a group of passing nuns simply moved along. “It was not the penis that was the focus,” Cohen told the court, emphasising that the State’s charge of sexual exhibitionism is inappropriate and puts his work "on a par with flashing in a raincoat outside a school."

The court’s job is apparently to determine if the crowd were watching voluntarily or if any of them had Cohen’s performance forced upon them. The president of the court sought clarification as to whether any part of Cohen’s penis was on display. “A microscopic part, about five to six millimetres,” was the artist’s reply.

Cohen argued that what is at stake is an artist’s freedom of expression. “If you condemn me it will be bad for France,” he said. The president of the court however maintained that it “was not the court’s job to judge the artistic value of the performance. We are not art critics,” he said.

Judgement will be given on May 5. Meanwhile Cohen faces a fine of up to €1,000 if found guilty.