RONALD FELDMAN GALLERY, New York
September 16–October 28, 2017
Art Agenda // October, 2017
The practice of Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based artist Cassils expands upon—and queers—a feminist performance-art tradition, molding their transgender masculine physique through rigorous fitness regimens and durational actions. Though in “Monumental,” Cassils’s current New York exhibition, abstraction has entered the artist’s repertoire. Cassils grapples with their political desire to represent transgender lives and the media’s desire to spectacularize transgender bodies. The most traditional monument on display is Resilience of the 20% (2016), a bronze cast of a one-ton block of clay that Cassils attacked during a previous live performance in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’s casting hall. The sculpture, which reveals impressions of Cassils’s hands, feet, and limbs, is spotlit at the center of a room painted a sober, dark gray.
A suite of five photographs depicts the artist’s creation of Resilience of the 20%, punching and kicking their way through a ton of clay in total darkness. The only illumination comes from the hard flash of the cantilevered camera, capturing the artist and wide-eyed audience, as well as a cast of Michelangelo’s David (1501-4) behind them. Earlier this year, Cassils led a site-specific performance with Resilience of the 20% in Omaha, Nebraska, called Monument Push. A series of local activists pushed the 2200-pound bronze sculpture (including a 900-pound base) to unmarked sites of violence against LGBTQ people in the city. A documentary video about the performance, in the style and duration of a Vice clip, plays on a monitor and headphones opposite the photos.
In PISSED (2017), Cassils returns to durational, private performance. The artist collected their urine for 200 days, in response to the US government’s decision to overturn an Obama-era executive order allowing transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity.(1) A clear Plexiglas cube contains 200 gallons of the artist’s urine, preserved with boric acid (a roach killer), giving it the tinge of tea, which faces a floor-to-ceiling grid of disinfected orange urine containers. The ensemble is accompanied by a two-hour soundtrack of the court cases of Gavin Grimm, a transgender student from Virginia who was banned from using the boys’ bathroom at his high school. Grimm fought the school’s policy about utilizing the bathroom that corresponds with his gender assigned at birth up to the US Supreme Court, only to have the court refuse to hear the case this March.(2) During the exhibition’s opening, Cassils performed the conclusion to PISSED on a towering white platform, dressed entirely in black. A living monument, Cassils chugged from a clear jug of water and peed into a funnel, covering their genitals with a long tank top, capping off the work by dumping their urine into the container.
Cassils’s stone-faced performance amounted to a self-serious, monolithic presentation of transgender masculinity, markedly different from some of their earlier performances that glamorize the androgynous body. Yet Cassils recognizes the white masculine-of-center experience has a limited capacity to represent the spectrum of transgender lives—including those of transgender women and people of color. Of Grimm, he’s said that “of course he’s picked up by the [American Civil Liberties Union] because he’s an articulate, well-versed, educated white trans man.” Cassils continues: “he isn’t necessarily the stand-in for most trans experiences.”(3)
The 2015 video Inextinguishable Fire, which documents Cassils being doused in flames on a soundstage, at first appears to symbolize the ultimate hero complex. Filmed at 1000 frames per second, the video stretches the 14-second performance to 14 minutes, bringing to mind Bill Viola’s 1996 slow-motion video installation The Crossing. Cassils’s work, however, subtly deconstructs the myth of white maleness. It begins with an extreme close-up in the center of Cassils’s flame-retardant suit, the only sound the beating of their heart. As flames begin to lick the side of the frame, the camera zooms out, revealing Cassils with outstretched arms against a painted backdrop of a crimson sunset. The image of a white body in a white suit calls to mind associations from the beatific (Jesus) to the evil (KKK). At the end of the performance, two men in silhouette emerge from the sides of the frame to extinguish Cassils. The performance rewinds at a slightly faster speed, allowing viewers to catch details that might go unnoticed, like a tiny handheld fan wafting the flames. The performance underscores a truth in Cassils’s work: violence is as cyclical as it is mediatized. At the same time, it is no less real to its victims.
(1) “Trump Rescinds Rules on Bathrooms for Transgender Students,” New York Times, February 22, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/us/politics/devos-sessions-transgender-students-rights.html?_r=0.
(2) Samantha Michaels, “Gavin Grimm Is a Transgender Teen Hero–And He’s Just Getting Started,” Mother Jones, March 8, 2017: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/03/gavin-grimm-will-keep-fighting-transgender-rights/.
(3) Noah Michelson, “The Powerful Reason This Artist Has Been Saving His Urine for the Last 200 Days,” Huffington Post, September 16, 2017: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/cassils-monumental-pissed-urine_us_59bbeacee4b0edff971b88f4.