Saturday, February 15 — Saturday, March 15
Curated by John G. Hampton
Co-presented by Trinity Square Video, Pleasure Dome and The 35th Rhubarb Festival in association with The Art Gallery of York University and Vtape
Essay by Jon Davies
“Our bodies are sculptures formed by society’s expectations.”
– Heather Cassils
Cassils: Compositions surveys the recent work of Los-Angeles based Canadian artist Heather Cassils. Cassils works primarily with their body as material, in both an art practice – encompassing performance, photo, video, watercolour and sculpture – and through a day job as a personal trainer. Cassils’ oeuvre acts as a vital body of trans-feminist research and practice, drawing on the legacies of feminist and queer artists from the latter decades of the twentieth century to reflect on the dynamic malleability of post-binary gendered bodies and identities today. Cassils sees the production of trans bodies as a performative practice, and the artist’s work draws on histories of conceptualism and body and media art. However, rather than creating positive images of trans people “surviving and thriving” (to borrow a phrase used and then deconstructed within the AIDS activist movement), Cassils is more interested in the stubborn materiality of flesh and how bodies refuse to be brought into line with our desired identities; the artist’s body is therefore in a continual state of becoming. Cassils’ work is all about the – often exhausting – labour that goes into producing gender. It functions as an embodied, grassroots critique of so much performance theory that celebrates the fluidity and intangibility of identity. In actuality, you have to work extremely hard to get the body you want, and society’s strict binary rules around gender are traumatizing and limiting. As Cassils’ collaborator Julia Steinmetz has succinctly put it, the artist “uses a mastery of techniques of the body in order to achieve desired performative and sculptural effects,” registering the “intense emotional valence of enacting the desires and fantasies of the psyche on, in and through the materiality of the flesh.”
The four pieces in the exhibition Cassils: Compositions began from live performances by the artist, but do not function as performance documentation per se. Instead Cassils is interested in how the themes or ideas behind each performance can best be translated from the live event into a mediating audiovisual experience that a visitor will have in a gallery space (or, in past projects, online or in a publication). Here the works come into view to visitors one at a time, taking shape on monitors, in different kinds of projection installations, and in a soundscape in the pitch dark. The artist conceived the installation as an exquisite corpse: “this ‘body’ of my work dissected and strewn over the walls, playing with size and scale, forcing the viewer to back up, move closer – heighten their senses.”
Cassils is interested in exposing the mechanisms of how bodies are fashioned. The video Hard Times (2010) begins with behind-the-scenes footage of the artist preparing for the live performance, dressing in costume as a female competitive bodybuilder – orange-tanned, she sports a singlet and a blonde southern evangelical-style wig that epitomizes the phrase “the higher the hair, the closer to God.” Cassils dons a special-effects prosthetic mask that suggests the bodybuilder’s eyes have been ripped out of their sockets. The resulting persona is straight out of a horror movie, a zombified athlete whose ontology is pure physicality – directed towards producing a polished surface image of masterful, muscled perfection. Veins bulging, her body is her moneymaker as she towers above the audience on a platform – the goddess of the “hard times” of the global financial crisis – ascending to the heavens as the video’s sound crescendos with an ominous, gut-churning drone that viscerally echoes Cassils’ own bodily tremors. This monstrous woman burlesques the recessional aesthetics of doing “more with less,” squeezing every calorie of energy out of her body to create a spectacle and to perform for her public – stripped-down, fully visible, an object of value. The perfect body falls apart, however, as the bodybuilder uncontrollably shakes in the process of holding onto the difficult, nervous system-overloading poses she is required to enact. The beast’s violent trembling provides hard evidence of just how unsustainable the mantra of bigger, faster, better really is in the age of austerity – an impossible ideal. The artist has noted, “to inhabit Los Angeles is to live on a film set – indeed, to inhabit any city whose culture is defined by the mass culture of consumption is to find oneself defined by the images one consumes.”
The bodybuilder’s plucked-out eyes conjure the Greek mythological figure of Tiresias, whom Cassils embodies in the eponymous 2010 performance video installation. Tiresias is a blind prophet who was transformed from a man into a woman for a period of seven years. Cassils’ performance takes the stress positions of Hard Times even further, as the artist holds their body up against a block of ice carved into a perfectly sculpted, life-size neoclassical male torso. As Cassils stoically holds still against this frozen form – it appears almost like a vest – the artist’s body heat slowly melts away the ice-etched, idealized body image over several hours. The ice becomes akin to a lens – translucent, it mediates our view of Cassils’ naked torso, which is gradually exposed as the prismatic ice drips onto the floor. As solid becomes liquid, the water catches the light, resulting in a dance of shifting textures and forms arising from the points of contact between the two bodies – one hot, one cold, the female body Cassils was born with and the idealized male form. While the heat of the artist’s body “wins” – ending up as a fragile husk collapsing into shards, the construct of masculinity here is ephemeral and dissolves if it is not constantly maintained – the phantasmatic form physically takes its toll on Cassils with the damaging threat of frostbite and hypothermia. Tiresias is ultimately about the extreme, self-endangering labour required for Cassils to achieve a hard male body.[i] The artist has noted that achieving this body without hormones or surgery is a Sisyphean task, and that if the process were halted, this masculinity would quickly slip away. The video installation presents Cassils and the ice torso from the waist up, life-size on a floating Plexiglas screen; this framing is intercut with close-ups: skin reddening against the ice, goose bumps forming, rib cage rising and falling. The piece is accompanied by a new score featuring Cassils’ brother – an opera singer, his voice is as rigorously trained an instrument as the artist’s ripped body is – performing a crescendoing Winterreise by Franz Schubert, as well as the sounds of the water dripping from the ice torso to the floor, and of birds (Tiresias interpreted birdsong as one of his clairvoyant activities).
Hard Times and Tiresias were both clearly informed by Cassils’ work with the collective The Toxic Titties[ii] and specifically the activist intervention into one of notorious art star Vanessa Beecroft’s performances that involved hired women posing like mannequins in geometric formations to produce living and breathing sculptures for many of the world’s top museums. With Beecroft Intervention, Cassils and a collaborator were employed as performers for a 2002 Beecroft piece at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, and engaged in a parasitical performance where they unionized the other participants and thereby increased their wages. While one could glean an ostensible feminist politic from a Beecroft performance, Cassils’ was much more pointed – foregrounding class and labour relations. One cannot help but also note a difference in terms of agency in Cassils going from standing stock still for Beecroft to developing their own durational performances that push understandings of bodily limits, gender and the desire for transformation.
Fast Twitch//Slow Twitch is a component of Cassils’ multifaceted (and widely disseminated) project Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture (2011). Inspired by American artist Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1972) – which documented Antin crash dieting and losing weight to “carve” her body as a sculptor would a block of marble – as well as Lynda Benglis’s now-canonical Advertisement (1974) – where the artist presented herself naked and greased up with a large dildo in an Artforum ad – Cassils’ project reimagines these practices for a twenty-first century rife with technologies for bodily manipulation and social media narcissism. For Cassils’ project, the artist followed a strict regimen of extreme consumption and rigorous exercise to bulk up and build muscle mass, gaining 23 lbs of muscle over 23 weeks through discipline and control. By the end of the process, Cassils simply could not sustain it: the artist’s body tore through clothes, muscles aching from being perpetually shredded and built up again. In an homage to Benglis, Cassils teamed up with photographer Robin Black to create “pin-up” photographs of the artist’s mega-ripped body to be circulated on Tumblrs and other popular gay male Internet platforms as a kind of spectacular image-virus throwing binary gender and tropes of the fetishized body into crisis with a self-described “LadyFace // ManBody.”[iii] Fast Twitch // Slow Twitch is a large-scale double projection showcasing “process” on the left and “product” on the right. The video juxtaposes time-lapse footage shot from different angles (echoing the serial photographic documentation of Antin’s carving, and further back, Eadweard Muybridge) of Cassils getting “cut,” with abject close-ups of the artist’s body under its training duress: face in a “maxing-out” daze, back bursting through shirt seams Incredible Hulk-style, mouth tearing at raw steak as meat is converted into energy and back into meat – Cassils’ – once again.[iv] One memorable sequence flash-cuts between a crotch shot of an iron-pumping Cassils with a chicken’s legs being ripped open before being devoured. While the pin-up photo (reproduced in the antechamber of the Trinity Square Video gallery space) fixes Cassils’ body in an iconic, potent image, Fast Twitch // Slow Twitch captures how the work of the body is never done, always changing and in a state of transition.
The spectre of trans people lost to murder and suicide – a population at far greater risk of violence in our society – haunts Cassils’ work as the artist exposes their body to the most extreme acts. Trans people are subject to a heightened degree of visual scrutiny – when not passing, they risk constantly being judged and questioned as to their “real” gender – which makes the invisibility at the core of Cassils’ 2012 project Becoming an Image particularly powerful.[v] In this performance, the audience, the artist and a hired photographer gather in a completely darkened room around an enormous and extremely heavy block of clay. Cassils attacks the block with all their bodily strength, transforming the mass with punches and slams that the audience can hear, but can only see when the photographer’s flashbulb illuminates the scene. The performance is violent and elemental – giving form to the formless through brute force and the transfer of energy from one body to another. Each fleeting, stroboscopic still image burns a different view of the performance onto the mind’s eye of each audience member – thereby refracting the performance into a hundred pieces. For exhibition, Cassils has produced a cast concrete version of one of the pummeled clay blocks as an homage to trans people taken by violence (The Resilience of the 20%, 2013), but in Toronto has chosen to install a four-channel sound installation entitled Ghost (2013). The work plunges visitors into the dark, placing them in the position of the clay block as a grunting and groaning, slapping and sparring Cassils engages in a full-throttle onslaught all around us. (The sound of Cassils’ heartbeat in the mix, however, also places us intimately inside the artist’s body.) The invisibility inherent to the piece comes to the fore here, and it is also worth noting that Becoming an Image was originally performed in the context of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in LA as a reflection on the missing trans people whom the archive claims to include but who are largely invisible in their holdings. The work is haunting, and it embodies what is at the heart of Cassils’ practice: the force of will required to transmogrify a body, and the dynamic alchemy that occurs when two bodies make contact and transform one another in the process.
[i] I remember discussions in queer/trans circles of old where it was argued that FTMs had an easier time passing as cisgender men than MTFs as cisgender women because the disciplinary regime of femininity was so much more elaborate and therefore policed than masculinity was. Men’s bodies were not objects of attention and scrutiny until the intensive metrosexualizing of mainstream pop culture that began in the mid-1990s, which has seen men too become increasingly commodified.
[ii] Working with the Inside Out Festival, I had the opportunity to curate a small exhibition entitled The House That Lust Built that featured The Toxic Titties’ work alongside fellow LA artist William E. Jones here at Trinity Square Video in 2008.
[iii] Steinmetz calls Cassils’ body here a “beefcake transmasculine form.”
[iv] My notes from viewing this piece include the words “apocalyptic meatscape.”
[v] Cassils’ strategic invisibility here reminds me of curator Nathan Lee’s compelling recent e-flux essay “Becoming-Undetectable,” where he builds on the history of gay male sex practices and HIV/AIDS by analyzing the relatively new, post-treatment HIV-status of “undetectable” (where one has a viral load so low that it cannot be measured). He reflects on what is at stake for queer subjectivity, kinship practices and representation when we have recourse to this identity of “undetectable.”
Jon Davies is a curator and writer based in Toronto. His writing has appeared in publications such as C Magazine, Canadian Art, Fillip, Little Joe, No More Potlucks and Cinema Scope, and in 2009 he wrote a book on the Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey film Trash for the series Queer Film Classics. He is currently the Associate Curator at Oakville Galleries.
Heather Cassils is originally from Montreal and now lives and works in Los Angeles. Cassils received an MFA in Art and Integrated Media, from the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles (2002), a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art And Design (1996) and is one of the founding members of the performance group the Toxic Titties, (2000-2010).
Cassils has received funding from the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant (2014), Long Term Support for Visual Artist Grant from the Canada Council of the Arts (2012-2014), the Visual Arts Fellowship from the California Community Foundation (2012), a Visual Arts Fellowship from the California Community Foundation (2012), an Artist Research Grant from Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (2010), Franklin Furnace (2009), and from the Conseil des Arts et des lettres du Quebec (2006). In 2004 Cassils was a resident at the International Artists Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS) as well as at the Banff Center For the Arts in The Future of Idea Art Residency (2006). Cassils was featured in OUT magazine’s Top 100 people to look out for (2011), was listed by the Huffington Post as one of 50 Transgendered Icons as well as one of the 30 LGBT artists to look out for (2012) and recently was written up in Artfourm Magazine’s “Best of 2013” December issue. Cassils also received a MOTHA award (Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art) for Best Solo Show of 2013.
Recent exhibitions and performances include: a solo show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in NYC, a screening at the ICA in London, The National Theater Studio as a part of the SPILL International Festival of Performance, a commission by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions for Pacific Standard Time (CA), Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UT); The Anti Contemporary Art Festival (Finland); Kapelica Gallery (Slovenia). Notable past exhibitions and performances include: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (CA); Manifesta (Germany); Art Basel Miami (FL); Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwigin (Austria); MUCA Roma and at the International Festival, Ex-Teresa Arte Actual (Mexico City). Cassil’s videos have been screened widely and writings have been published in numerous books and magazines, including Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society and Commerce By Artists an edition by Art Metropole.