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When art becomes athletics: Cassils pushes the limits of performance

Written by Lea Dolan, CNN

Canadian artist Cassils was torched on stage, battled a 2,000-pound block of clay in complete darkness, and trained as a bodybuilder on a cocktail of steroids, raw eggs and protein.

If art exists to hold a mirror up to humanity, then Cassils’ performances speak to extremes we can push ourselves to.

These extraordinary acts were also informed by the artist’s experiences as a transgender person. For example, Cassils’ accelerated journey to an adonis-like physique, a performance titled “Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture,” rebelled against the idea that transgender people need confirmatory surgery. kind to deserve to be accepted.

“When I (trained as a bodybuilder) in 2011, there were no words like ‘nonbinary’ or ‘gender nonconforming’,” said Cassils, who uses them / them pronouns, in a video interview. “If you were trans, which was very unlikely, you were told to have had surgical modifications, or you were signed up for a lifetime prescription for injectable hormones. And if you didn’t, you were not considered trans – both by society as a whole and even by the trans community itself. “

After almost six months of training five days a week, Cassils had transformed their body into a hyper-masculine sculpture without surgery. The performance was documented in a video, condensing 23 weeks of grueling work into just 23 seconds, and a series of photos showing the artist flexing his lean, rippling muscles and pouting with a perfectly painted red lip. The images posed a striking answer to the question of what it means to be a man.

Cassils photographed after their intensive bodybuilding regime for the work “Cuts: A Tradtional Sculpture” (2011). Credit: Cassils with Robin Black

“Why do I have to have my chest surgically removed to identify myself as a man?” Cassils said. “Why do I have to (adopt) a binarist approach based on patriarchy and oppression?” Why is it my body the problem? “

A decade later, Cassils’ explorations of trans rights remain as relevant as ever. In a new dance performance called “Human Measure,” which opened this month in Manchester, UK, the artist is responding to anti-trans laws currently sweeping the United States. In April, 33 states proposed more than 100 bills to restrict the rights of transgender people, including banning trans athletes from participating in sports compatible with their gender identity and banning medical professionals from administering gender-affirming care for minors.

“This is the biggest assault in history in the United States, this stance on trans and gender nonconforming people,” Cassils said.

Despite legal setbacks, trans actors and celebrities have become increasingly visible in recent years. Actress “Euphoria” Hunter Schafer has 3.6 million Instagram followers and has posed for Prada and Calvin Klein. In March, six years after Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair after her transition, actor Elliot Page became the first trans man to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

But this change in media representation does not equate to civil rights, Cassils explained: “What does it mean to create representation at this time when we have a society that is actively trying to destroy you and you? wipe off ? “

When art becomes athletics: Cassils pushes the limits of performance

The live performance of “Human Measure”. Credit: Cassils with Manuel Vason

Cassils’ response takes place in a dark theater at the HOME Cultural Center in Manchester, where the artist and a cohort of dancers perform illuminated only by a dim red light.

“(The light) has many different meanings to me,” Cassils said. “Everything, from the siren to the blood, to the emergency room, to this idea of ​​(photographic) development.”

“Human Measure” also riffs on the idea of ​​visibility, both literally and metaphorically. By choosing non-gender-conforming dancers, Cassils challenged heteronormative expectations and removed the pressures of traditional male and female roles.

“Young dancers, in particular, who don’t conform to gender are often forced to change their external (appearance) to appease more normative gender prescriptions,” Cassils said. “So this has been a process of allowing every (dancer) involved to bring in that variance.”

An unorthodox education

For someone whose practice relies on the unconventional, Cassils grew up with a somewhat traditional view of artistic creation. “I thought being an artist was meant to be a painter,” they said, “because I didn’t know anything else.”

This orthodoxy was challenged upon the arrival of the Canadian artist at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), a school which became known for its experimental approach in the 1960s and 1970s. been picked up by (a group of) radical American conceptual artists and shunned the drafts of New York City, ”Cassils said. “I arrived knowing nothing of this world, and then being really intoxicated with (progressive art).”

The avant-garde makeover of NSCAD has gone down in the history of art. It was led by the late concept artist Garry Neill Kennedy, who, after being hired as president of the university in 1967, replaced much of the teaching staff with a roster of guest artists, including German painter Gerhard Richter and American sculptor Robert Smithson.

“(Kennedy) had really turned this school into a place for radical experimentation,” Cassils said. “It led me down a path. I started to see how powerful it could be to get things out of a gallery and onto the streets – in places where, maybe, there were people. who felt alienated or ostracized by museum or gallery buildings. “

“I’ll do whatever it takes”

Now in the third decade of their artistic career, Cassils could be excused for avoiding physically demanding performances like “Becoming a Picture,” in which they punch and smack a huge block of clay in complete darkness.

But the artist believes that aging enriches rather than restricts his work.

“” This is why I have played “Become a Picture” over and over again, “they said.” Already, since 2012, I have seen through photographs that there is this aging process that you can see in my body which is amazing. So you see this Sisphysian act of this person beating clay from top to bottom. And already, I see this as a masterpiece that I could release in my 80s. “

There are, however, some limitations. For example, “Inextinguishable Fire”, a 2015 performance in which Cassils went into a temporary hypothermic state before being set on fire at the National Theater in London, will never be performed again – if only for fear of charges. excruciating medical conditions, they said.

When art becomes athletics: Cassils pushes the limits of performance

Cassils engulfed in flames as part of the performance “Inextinguishable Fire” (2015) at the National Theater in London. Credit: Cassils / Robin Black / Courtesy of the artist

Everything else, however, is up for discussion. “It depends on the job. I think of my body as both an instrument and an image,” Cassils said. “Just as a painter works very hard to refine a brush stroke, there is a kind of analog training protocol in my practice.”

During “Unquenchable Fire” training, Cassils was running up a hill with a backpack full of watermelons in an effort to improve his breathing control (inhaling at any point during the 14 second performance would scorch him. ‘esophagus). Meanwhile, for “Becoming an Image,” Cassils conditioned her body for impact by taking martial arts sessions four times a week for several months before the performance.

“People say, ‘Oh, he must be exhausted,’” they said. “I’m like ‘No, I could actually do it three times as much.'”

So what is it that drives Cassils to such demanding physical extremes when they are, in their own words, “uncompetitive”?

“It’s not about winning for me. I’m motivated, and it’s different. I consider being an artist to be a service provider. And I will do whatever it takes to create something that has that makes sense and that can make the world a safer place and a better place for people. “