For this artist, the medium is the body

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MANCHESTER, England – Roll, Rub, Push and Stroke: The dance piece “Human Measure,” which premiered here earlier this month, is filled with bodies touching each other.

Performed by multimedia artist Cassils and five other mostly nude dancers, all six non-binary, the choreography alternates between intimate sensuality and frenzied hedonism. The tone set by dim, red lighting and a buzzing instrumental soundtrack is interrupted by intermittent photographic flashes that leave a blinding retinal burn in their wake: Are audiences seeing too much or not enough?

To conclude the work, the performers roll up the canvas the size of a piece they have danced on, wash it thoroughly in a trench of water installed in the stage, then hoist it high, revealing to the audience a cyanotype, which looks like a white on cobalt photographic negative. On the canvas are contours of bodies, some touching, others squatting in poses resembling the preserved forms of humans found in Pompeii.

“Human Measure” is the first contemporary dance piece created by Cassils, which uses the them / them pronouns. It had its premiere this month at RESIDENCE, an arts center in Manchester, as well as a retrospective of Cassils’ work from the past 10 years, featuring performances, photographs and videos in which they use their bodies as material and which comment on how society views transgender people . “Human Measure” was a collaboration with choreographer Jasmine Albuquerque.

The exhibit is an assessment of Cassils’ work at a time when transgender people are more visible than ever in public life but their rights have been simultaneously under attack, Cassils said. “I was thinking a lot about finding formal language on what it means to be trans and not binary,” they said in an interview with the gallery.

“On some level, we’re so represented in the media,” said Cassils, 46, who was born in Canada and lives in Los Angeles. And yet, they pointed out, in the United States, under the Trump administration, there has been a significant setback in the rights of transgender people and a crushing of bills aimed at further limiting those rights in some states. Today, Cassils said, “we have over a hundred bills sitting in state legislatures,” and there are dozens of judges appointed by President Trump with the power to block challenges. of these bills. Today, Democrats and Republicans continue their fierce debates on transgender rights under the Biden administration.

While “Human Measure” is more poetic, Cassils has used his awareness of the cultural climate around his work to inform several of his recent explicitly political projects. For a project called “In Plain Sight”, Cassils was co-leader of a coalition of 80 artists who last year used planes to spell out messages like “Watch out for the cages” in steam. water readable from miles away, to draw attention to the widespread immigration detention in the United States. During the Trump administration, Cassils collected his own urine for 200 days to protest the cancellation of toilet access policies for “Pissed.”

“Cassils has been at the forefront of a wave of artists who in recent years have been more visible in advocating for transgender politics in their work,” said David Getsy, author of several history books. queer art, during a telephone interview. “But I think Cassils has always understood that this visibility is not only a cause for celebration, but that it also carries the danger of violence. Visibility becomes an opportunity for monitoring and control.

After growing up in Montreal, Cassils earned a Masters of Fine Arts at the California Institute of the Arts and received a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship. Trained in stunts, sports medicine and mixed martial arts, they worked as a semi-boxer. professional and personal trainer in addition to their career in the arts.

The compact retrospective at HOME, which is organized chronologically, reframes the scrutiny trans bodies go through on the artist’s own terms, often drawing inspiration from their training in bodybuilding.

The exhibition opens with “Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture”, for which the artist gained a pound of muscle a week for 23 weeks and documented the changes in weekly full-length photos, each shot a bit monochrome. more voluminous, the curves a little more Schwarzenegger -esque. Arranged in four large, unadorned frames, these images, whose title takes that of Eleanor Antin “Sculpture: a traditional sculpture”, Confront the underlying contradictions in the way gender is constructed and understood by the mainstream culture.

“Bodybuilding is such a cartoon, a hyperperformance of masculinity,” Cassils said. “I was interested in not necessarily trying to approach that perfect masculinity, but more in playing with this misconception of incarnation.”

Cassils explained that they’ve always been interested in strength training as a way to “hang on” to their body. As a child, Cassils underwent several surgeries for an undiagnosed gallbladder disease and nearly died from complications. “They thought it was psychosomatic,” Cassils said. “I had this experience of not being listened to by the doctors.”

Likewise, in 2011 when Cassils made “Cuts” they felt there was little understanding of trans people who did not want gender affirming surgery, or trans people who were not male. nor feminine. “There was no non-binary, there were no words like this,” they said. Ten years later, the period covered by retrospective and traditional recognition of the gender spectrum is very different.

“I really think the trans years are like dog years, there’s an exponential development of vocabulary and comprehension in some circles,” Cassils said.

Much of Cassils’ previous work is resolutely conflicting: in “Inextinguishable Fire (2007-2015)”, the artist set himself on fire. In a video of the artwork shown at HOME, the camera zooms out in slow motion, revealing the flames licking the edges of their protective clothing, one frame at a time. With “Inextinguishable Fire,” conceived during the Iraq War, Cassils said they intend to explore the alienating effects on viewers who consume images of traumatized bodies as presented in US media. “It is an indication of our degree of remoteness,” they said.

Although the work focuses on Cassils’ bodily feat, pieces like “Inextinguishable Fire” speak of the possibilities of empathy, said Bren O’Callaghan, curator of the exhibition. “What appears to be ultra-specific is actually the opposite. They are aimed at all discriminated bodies, at all those who have their property rights withdrawn, ”he declared.

Following the impacts of the Trump administration and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Cassils wanted to develop a sense of connection in their work, they said.

“I don’t want to scream into the void,” they said. “I want to create beautiful experiences that strengthen and embolden us so that we can continue the strength of creative action.”

“Human Measure” was the culmination of this community effort. The work to make the cyanotyped photograph that is developed as the climax on stage began in June when Cassils invited a group of 26 transgender and non-binary people to lie motionless on a treated muslin cloth, so that the rays the hot Los Angeles sun burns their images on the canvas. Being vaccinated and being able to kiss without a mask for the first time since the start of the pandemic was a “beautiful moment,” they said.

Like “Cuts”, “Human Measure” reappropriates the threads of art history by playing with the title of “Yves Klein”Anthropometries, In which female models pressed their naked bodies covered in blue paint against the canvas.

“What would it be like, instead of using women as passive branding devices and separating them from the agency, branding came more from a kind of self-employment? Said Cassils.

Cassils was delighted that the exhibition at HOME created a common moment. On the day of the premiere, they said their Instagram was lit up with gay and gender non-conforming people on trains across the UK, making a “pilgrimage” to the gallery to see their work.

The artist’s optimism was also inspired by the collaboration with the young non-binary dancers of the work. In a final moment of “Human Measure,” the nude artist pulls a string on one side of the enormous cyanotype, while on the other side, a 17-year-old trans person does the same, l ‘helping lift that heavy impression to hang off the top of the stage.

“We are lifting this representational burden together,” Cassils said.


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