Heather Cassils “performs trans not as something about crossing from one sex to another, but rather as a continual becoming, a process oriented way of being that works in a space of indeterminacy, spasm and slipperiness.” This is according to the artist, whose language is as thoughtful, incisive, and powerful as her performances. With blood and sweat, Cassils sculpts a body that constructs a visual critique of gender norms and gives the viewer little choice but to face their own assumptions.
Body of Work at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (September 9 – October 12, 2013) emcompassed Cassils’ engagement with conceptual art, body art, feminism, gay male aesthetics, and Hollywood cinema. It notably included Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, a montage photograph that documented a 23-week period in which the artist gained 23-pounds of muscle through diet and training, as well as photographs and clay that documented performances of Becoming An Image.
As you take in the photographs and video of Becoming an Image below, keep in mind this description of the performance from Cassils:
Becoming An Image took place in a completely light free environment. The only elements in the space were the audience, a photographer, the performer (myself) and a block of clay weighing 1500 pounds (around the same height as me). Throughout the performance, in the darkness, I used my skills as a boxer/fighter to unleash a full-blown attack where I literally beat the form. (I have been training in MMA and self-defense for the past three weeks in preparation for this piece). A ‘sculpting’ process resulted on account of my blows. For the duration of this performance I was blind, as was the audience, as was the photographer. The only light source emitted came from the flash mounted on the photographer’s camera. This burst of temporary light allowed the live audience to see only suspended moments of the performance, much like a “live” photograph, burning this image into their retina. The performance lasted 24 min. The act of photographing is the only way in which the performance is made visible. The resulting images sometimes captured my movement and sometimes not. The lens filled with the fog of my breath and was speckled with droplets of sweat and dirt as it captured the flying debris.
The performance produces the rare experience of seamlessly intermingling the visceral with the conceptual; neither is given short shrift. It works on many different levels; some of the metaphors almost seem at odds with one another, but they co-exist without friction. The work is what the title says (and a lot more): a physical exercise that aids in maintaining the artist’s image, at the same time that it beats an image into the clay. The “fight” also references Cassils’ struggle to maintain a body image that requires an intense amount of work. The bulk and tone fades quickly if training goes by the wayside. It also alludes to the shocking amount of violence that is directed against transgender people. Cassils points out that queer and transgender people are 28 percent more likely to experience violence and that transgender people of color are twice as likely to experience violence as people of color who aren’t LGBTQ. Cassils would like to see the post-performance hunks of clay installed publicly as monuments to the perseverance of the LGBTQ community.
Again, Cassils’ own articulation of the deeper implications of Becoming An Image is eloquent:
Originally commissioned by the ONE Archives (the oldest active Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning (LGBTQ) organization in the United States.) Becoming an Image addressed LGBTQ archives and the “Ts” and “Qs” often missing from historical records, which exist outside of the lens. BAI brings forth the idea of accountability by directly addressing the role between artist and photographer. Additionally it calls into question the roles of the witness, the aggressor and documenter by building these challenges into the very act of the performance itself.
Heather Cassils, a Canadian artist based in Los Angeles, received a MFA in 2002 for Art and Integrated Media from the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles and is one of the founding members of the performance group the Toxic Titties (2000-2010). Cassils was recognized by the Huffington Post as one of 50 Transgendered Icons as well as LGBT History Month: 30 GLBT Artists And Performers To Follow (2012). A few of Cassils’ many awards include the 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); an Artist Research Grant from Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) (2010); and the Franklin Furnace Performance Art Grant (2009). Cassils’ work has been featured in many museums and galleries around the world, including The National Theater Studio as a part of the SPILL International Festival of Performance; J. Paul Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time at LACE and the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives (2012); Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (2012); the ANTI-Contemporary Art Festival in Finland (2012); Kapelica Gallery in Slovenia (2011); Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco (2008); and the Museum Moderner Kunst Stifung Ludwig in Austria (2005).
Amy Albracht is the General Editor at CFile.
Image above: Heather Cassils, Post Performance of Becoming An Image, a collaborative diptych, (London), 2013. C-print, 36 x 25 inches, edition of 5. Photo: Heather Cassils and Manuel Vason.
Heather Cassils’ video, Becoming an Image, (2013). With photography by Eric Charles and Heather Cassils and sound design by composer France Jobin.