Canadian-American Performance Artist
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Summary of Cassils
Cassils' work uses the sculpting, training and transformation of their body to define their own parameters of identity and self-expression. Whether drawing on their experience as a personal trainer to gain pounds of muscle over an intensely short period, or on their stunt training to set themselves alight, Cassils has literally built their body into a vital and primary site of artistic inquiry. By pushing themselves to extremes of physical experience, and rendering the process or output in vivid performance, film and visual art, they illustrate the risks to, and subversive potential of, those who step outside established norms of gender and sexuality.
Based in LA, their practice draws on the rich history of body-based Performance Art whilst making significant inroads into the gallery, the academy and even mainstream popular culture. Their success in doing so reflects changing 21st century debates around self-definition, expression and identity.
- Cassils' work is heavily invested in the visibility and centrality of the transgender body, and in highlighting prejudice, marginalization, and abuse. Their work challenges established narratives about what it means to be of one gender or sexuality or another, and what kinds of bodies might be representative of that identity.
- Cassils' work highlights the potential of the body to be transformed through physical activity, over both short and long periods of time. Whether by engaging in extensive weight training or bodybuilding or engaging in performative actions that radically change the framing of their body, highlighting the way that identity is constructed and projected onto different bodies is key.
- Their work maintains real and material connections to the communities the artist highlights, both through direct participation (through initiatives like making body training available for free), and through presentation in collaboration with relevant institutions like the ONE archive of LGTBQIA+ history in Los Angeles.
- Much of their early work was created in collaboration with others (most notably in the group Toxic Titties). Collaborative work reflected their dissatisfaction with the established marketized models of the art world and art education, and often explicitly challenged instances where performers and artworkers were being exploited. This process of collaboration continues, including with emerging artists.
Biography of Cassils
N.B. Cassils uses the plural pronouns "they", "them", and "their", as, in their own words, "this plurality reflects, through language, the position Cassils occupies as an artist".
Important Art by Cassils
In this performance, Cassils wears a prosthetic mask that gives them the appearance of having had their eyes ripped out of their sockets (and also renders the artist unable to see), as well as a blonde wig, pink body thong, and a dark tan. During the performance Cassils stands on a wooden platform held seven feet off the ground by construction scaffolding and performs a bodybuilding routine of flexing poses, designed to show off muscle definition and body shape in slow motion for six minutes, holding the deep muscular contractions for such long periods of time that their limbs begin to shake. The performance is made cinematic not only by the use of special effects makeup, but also by the presence of film-set lighting, a special effects crew, and ambient soundtrack. The original performance was funded by the Franklin Furnace Performance Art Fund, and the resulting film went on to be screened at the Asian Experimental Video Festival in Hong Kong, Festival Ciné à Dos in Koulikoro (Mali), at Art Cinema Zawya in Cairo (Egypt) and Cultureel tetras de Kaaij, Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Hard Times was conceived in order to call attention to the high level of effort and exertion that goes into creating and maintaining one's physical image, and links this to the notion of consumer culture and film production. By performing a bodybuilding routine in slow motion and presenting viewers with muscles that tremble as they strain to maintain the poses, Hard Times not only emphasizes the physical demands of altering one's appearance, but also alludes to the psychological and emotional strain involved in such transformation. The figure that Cassils becomes for the performance is inspired by Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes who was transformed from male to female form for seven years.
As in Hard Times, the central figure that Cassils references in this four to five hour performance is Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes who was transformed from male to female for seven years. Tiresias was clairvoyant and interpreted bird songs to predict the future. In the performance, Cassils presses their nude body against the back of a block of ice carved into the form of a neoclassical Greek male torso while lit by a single beam of white light from above. As the performance progresses, Cassils' body heat melts the block. Visitors are welcome to walk around the plexiglass platform on which Cassils and the ice sculpture stand, and to take in the performance from all angles.
Tiresias was also captured as a single channel video installation that condenses the performance into a fifteen-minute loop, shown in two different shots: one which shows Cassils from the waist up, and the other showing close-ups of the subtle transformations taking place, such as the formation of water droplets, and the reddening of Cassils' skin. This video is rear-projected onto floating plexiglass, and accompanied by an ambient soundtrack which combines bird songs, the sound of melting ice, and a vocal performance of Fran Schubert's Winterreise (Winter Journey). This vocal was performed by Cassils' brother Matthew Cassils, a classically-trained opera singer who collaborated on the sound design for Tiresias with designer Kadet Khuhne. As theatre professor Maurya Wickstrom notes, "The Shubert [sic] songs of the score tune broken-hearted human suffering to the cruel, icy elements of winter, the world of ice and human feeling bound together. But these are joined by the sounds of birds and melting ice, which cannot help but sound like spring, the moment of creation."
By melting the sculpture with their body heat, Cassils calls attention to the instability of the body, and in particular, the impermanence of the desirable human physique. As performance researcher Megan Hoetger writes, "As with most of Cassils's performances, Tiresias is about endurance and transformation, but it is also about physical process's intersection with the disjunctures from the visual and vision itself". Moreover, unlike Tiresias' transformation, Cassils offers the audience a trans body that is not, as they explain, "about a crossing from one sex to another, but [...] a continual becoming, a process-oriented way of being that works in a space of indeterminacy, spasm, and slipperiness." This demonstrates to the audience "the resolve required to persist at the point of contact between masculine and feminine".
Wickstrom asserts that the piece, like much of the recent work in queer studies, deals with the notion of temporality. As she writes about the performance, "time in this room was marked by the primordial substance - water - dripping, each drop by slow drop magnified as if by the echo chamber of a cave, although actually by electronic amplification [...] I felt the desire to stay with Cassils, or simply to stay with. This was, I think, a response to an extraordinary innovation in time that Cassils created, and my desire to stay with that time. This particular kind of time, and the desire to stay with, has to do with what we may desire without perhaps knowing that we do: a temporality dislodged from those temporalities that bind people within the various apparatuses of hypertrophic capitalism. The piece created a temporal sanctuary from those times variously described as 'chrononormative time', 'homogeneous, empty time', 'chronological duration', or 'the pure and simple repetition of the worst', all of which construct time without the possibility of innovation, revolt, or the illuminated present."
This performance was originally presented at the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, the oldest active LGBTQIA+ archive in the United States, and was subsequently re-enacted at various other venues. In it, a 2000-lb block of clay sat in the center of a pitch-black room. Cassils, wearing only a pair of skin-tone underwear, then proceeded to physically modify the block using the force of their own body, kicking and punching the clay in order to alter its form. Sporadic camera flashes from a photographer illuminated this process for only a moment at a time, providing viewers with mere glimpses of the transformation, and burning these momentary images onto the viewers' retinas. The images were therefore able to be seen by the audience between the flashes on the camera, diminishing as their eyes readjusted to the dark.
The captured images, which went on to be shown at other exhibitions of Cassils' work (alongside the modified blocks of clay), present the artist in the throes of this strenuous activity, grimacing and dripping sweat. Audio of the performance was also recorded and presented at subsequent exhibitions, as the sound of Cassils' physical exertion was an integral part of the work. The performance lasted 24 minutes. In 2015, Cassils was awarded a Creative Capital Grant to cast the remnants of the clay blocks in bronze. The resulting bronze sculptures were called The Resilience of the 20% or The Monument Project.
Cassils trained with a professional Muy Thai boxer to prepare for the performance in which they physically attacked the block of clay. Through the strenuous effort it required to physically re-shape the clay, Cassils offered a commentary on the amount of work it takes to develop and maintain one's body, and simultaneously, one's identity. The violence of their activity also alludes to the violence experienced by trans individuals around the world, and Cassils understands the modified block of clay as a monument to trans people's perseverance and fortitude. The performance was also carefully constructed as to implicate the witness (here, the viewer who glimpsed the performance through the camera flashes) into this dialogue. In this way, Cassils sought to make visible the historically invisible histories of trans individuals. As curator Jeanne Vaccaro writes, "[t]he opponent Cassils constructed is meant to symbolize overwhelm, inescape, and being stuck [sic], feelings incited by transphobia, racism, and sexual violence." Vaccaro continues, "The image is always a flicker, and the performance feels like a composite of physiological and emotional reactions. Cassils incites a productive disorientation in us, slowing down the sensory perceptive and cognitive reflexives of sight and sound we rely on. Becoming an Image undoes, in order to reassemble, how we make sense of and experience our environment [...] Cassils constructs an opportunity for the audience to form a collective body, pushing us out of a state of passive witnessing and into an ethical encounter."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Cassils
- CassilsBy Julia Steinmetz and David J. Getsy
- Behind Enemy Lines: Toxic Titties Infiltrate Vanessa BeecroftOur PickBy Julia Steinmetz, Heather Cassils, and Clover Leary / Signs / Spring 2006
- Photographic Flashes: On Imaging Trans Violence in Heather Cassils' Durational ArtOur PickBy Eliza Steinbock / Photography and Culture / November 2014
- Material Traces Performativity, Artistic "Work," and New Concepts of AgencyOur PickBy Amelia Jones / TDR: The Drama Review / Winter 2015
- Visual artist Cassils uses bodybuilding and boxing to empower and enlightenBy Steve Dow / Sydney Morning Herald / January 18, 2019
- Ad for LGBTQ Show With Photo by Trans Artist Cassils Is Banned by German Rail, Then AllowedBy Maximilíano Durón / ArtNews / May 12, 2016
- The Powerful Reason Why This Artist Has Been Saving His Urine For The Last 200 DaysOur PickBy Noah Michelson / HuffPostr / September 22, 2017