Cassils, Gardiner Museum, Toronto | esse arts + opinions

Cassils, Gardiner Museum, Toronto

Gardiner Museum
  • Cassils, Up To and Including Their Limits, performance, Gardiner Museum, Toronto, February 20, 2020. Photo: Cassils with Alejandro Santiago
  • Cassils, Up To and Including Their Limits, performance, Gardiner Museum, Toronto, February 20, 2020. Photo: Cassils with Alejandro Santiago
  • Cassils, Up To and Including Their Limits, performance, Gardiner Museum, Toronto, February 20, 2020. Photo: © Jill Glessing
  • Cassils, Up To and Including Their Limits, performance, Gardiner Museum, Toronto, February 20, 2020. Photo: © Jill Glessing
  • Cassils, Up To and Including Their Limits, performance, Gardiner Museum, Toronto, February 20, 2020. Photo: © Jill Glessing
  • Cassils, Up To and Including Their Limits, performance, Gardiner Museum, Toronto, February 20, 2020. Photo: Cassils with Alejandro Santiago

Cassils: Up To and Including Their Limits
February 20, 2020

RAW
Gardiner Museum, Toronto
March 5–June 7, 2020

Numerous cultural mythologies claim that humans are made from clay, an elemental substance that also enabled food storage, sheltering bodies, and art-making. In Cassils’ performance, Up To and Including Their Limits, such primordial associations joined with contemporary social and aesthetic concerns: transgendered identity, invisibility and violence, and art historical references.

Cassils, based in Los Angeles, after living and studying in Canada (Toronto, Montreal, Halifax), works mostly in durational performance art that is often augmented or extended through photography, film, sound, and sculpture. This newly commissioned work, premiered at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum, developed themes from earlier projects that similarly transformed materials to represent the struggle of bodies and psyches in processes of becoming embodied gendered identities. In Tiresias (2011) Cassils stood naked, torso pressed against an ice sculpture of a classical male nude, which melted and finally collapsed from the artist’s body heat. In Becoming an Image (2012), Cassils violently attacked a massive mound of raw clay in a dark room, leaving puncture wounds from fists, elbows, knees to represent the trauma of transgendered experience. An illuminating camera flash shocked the audience with momentary scenes of violence. The work was made in response to an alarming statistic released that same year: the murder of trans people had increased by twenty percent worldwide. The recent killing of Toronto trans activist, Julia Berman, shows that terror continuing.

The architectural structure for this work was a plexiglass box, its interior made opaque with a thick layer of wet clay. Gradually, as the performance began, small ruptures in the dark wall—scratched openings made by Cassils’ hands inside—allowed strained glimpses into the lit interior. Inside, the artist swung, suspended in a seat harness, propelling their built and near-naked body with vigorous pushes from feet and legs, back and forth between opposite walls. At each encounter with a wall, they tore off pieces of clay, throwing them onto a growing mound on the floor. For over an hour, with intense exertion, muscle, and sweat, Cassils gradually clawed out openings at different heights and directions, large enough for the audience to see inside. The duration gave the audience time to meditate on these movements and materials.

To avoid psychological and physical danger, marginalized and victimized trans people have lived in veiled isolation, concealing their real identities from public view. Cassils shows the desire and desperation to open up that space to visibility and acceptance. But, as visual access increased, the protected space became a cage into which eyes and cameras strained to peer, performing a voyeuristic mode of looking. Toward the end of the performance though, that unidirectional gaze shifted to a space between voyeurism and intimacy: standing with body and face pressed against the glass, the artist seemed, in a communicative gesture, to make gentle eye contact with viewers.

Cassils developed this project in dialogue with earlier aesthetic and artistic traditions and, most directly, with Carolee Schneemann’s feminist body work, Up To and Including Her Limits (1971–76), in which the artist, suspended in a harness, swung slowly within walls lined with paper. While floating meditatively through the space her extended arm marked the walls with flowing coloured lines. Schneemann’s performance cleverly responded to the similarities and differences of another artist, Jackson Pollock, who performed muscular action painting on unconventional surfaces and spatial arenas. Cassils’ piece adds another layer using the more visceral material of clay, with its bodily associations, and expands Schneemann’s feminist perspective into the realm of trans people, who struggle to mould bodies that align with their gender identity. Additional formal resonances occur in relation to abstract expressionist aesthetics generally and Schneemann’s and Pollock’s works particularly: in Cassils’ piece the exterior surfaces of each of the four walls appeared as a large canvas with living compositions that changed constantly as clay was shifted and removed inside. The flickering bright shapes of hand scrawls against the darker ground made marks that were akin to indexical cave painting.

Many of Cassils’ performances live on as photographs, installations, and video presented in other spaces. For example, the pummelled clay mounds produced in Becoming an Image were cast as a bronze sculpture (Resilience of the 20%, 2016). The remnants of Up To and Including Their Limits will stay at the Museum for its inclusion in the group exhibition, RAW, along with three other contemporary artists working in raw clay. The clay walls of Cassils’ newly windowed house are dry now, solidified as testament to the perpetual process of becoming trans.

Published online on March 3, 2020.

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