Cassils turns the act of looking at trans bodies into performance

While suspended from a harness in a Plexiglas box, the Montreal artist made a big impression – and a mess – at the Gardiner Museum

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER MARCH 2, 2020

Cassils explored trans visibility and isolation in the performance Up To And Including Their Limits at the Gardiner Museum. Photo: Cassils with Alejandro Santiago.

How hard is it to scape raw clay off the walls of a plexiglass box while suspended from a harness? Very hard, judging by artist Cassils performance at the city’s Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art on February 20. For 90-minutes, Cassils swung themselves against the confines of a 10 x 10 box, moving to different levels within the space with the help of a theatrical rigger.

Visitors to the sold-out performance initially could only hear the sounds – grunts and hard breathing – of Cassils at work. Gradually the artist became visible through the clay-smeared apertures they made with their hands. Visibility was the point, with Cassils being the stand-in for the trans body in public consciousness. During the performance, it was easy to see how the audience becomes a stand-in for society at large.

The performance is part of the exhibition RAW, opening on March 5 at the Gardiner. Unfired clay is the medium for work by artists Magdolene Dykstra, Azza El Siddique and Linda Swanson, along with the performance by Cassils, the remnants of which will be on view in the gallery.

In person, Cassils is an imposing presence. They are of modest height (about 5-foot-6) but packed with muscle. Not surprising for someone who has worked as a stunt person and semi-pro boxer, and who runs a personal training business in Los Angeles. Originally from Montreal, Cassils attended California Institute of the Arts and went on to build a powerhouse art career that includes international recognition, gallery representation in New York City and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

NOW spoke with the artist at the Gardiner Museum the day after their performance.

As a viewer, looking in and hoping to see more as your performance progressed, I felt self conscious about the role I was playing as a voyeur. This faded, however, and I became invested in your efforts to remove the clay. Is that because as we see more of you it becomes easier to identify with you as a whole person?

It’s hard for me to be succinct about the thesis of the work since it’s the first time I performed it. I am making the audience’s act of looking performative, not just being an experience of passive enjoyment. They are going through a process of witnessing my struggle. There is a fascination with the trans identity. In the performance, I am both enacting and denying this dynamic.

I hadn’t before done a work where there was a barrier between me and the audience. At first, this cut my energy. But I see this as an expression of trans isolation. We are in this heightened moment of trans visibility. But without systemic change, it puts the trans body at risk. I am a white, middle-class trans person. I don’t represent the most stigmatized trans people. This is one reason why I trouble visibility.

The body obscured in the performance is a form of resistance to examination. But another element of the work is the way it puts you in control, are you doing this to reverse that dynamic?

No. I don’t feel in control. I am attached to a rope, controlled by someone who I can’t control. When I am upside down, there are straps in my harness that… if they press on my femoral artery for too long, I will die. I don’t have a lot of control over my velocity when I am swinging. I also have the responsibility to make a connection with the audience. The burden of representation is on me – the responsibility to make the work, and to connect with my audience.

The performance evokes a number of artists. I really thought about certain works by Yoko Ono, and especially Cy Twombly.

When I’m pulling the clay off the wall, I’m throwing it on the ground to create a platform I can stand on. When it’s high enough, the performance ends. Most of my work is about the indexical. Clay picks up every gesture. In the process of making the platform beneath me, I’m throwing the clay on the ground, and each time you can see the negative space of my fist. Doing this in a ceramics museum, it’s about self making and embodiment. It’s also about making a mess.

When Cassils pulled enough clay off the walls to create a platform to stand on, the performance ended. Photo: Cassils with Alejandro Santiago.

In one of your works, Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, you gained 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks. I consulted a fairly technical article on bodybuilding.com about muscle gain. Turns out, gaining one pound of muscle per week is pretty much the optimum a bodybuilder can hope for. Sustained over 23 weeks, it’s an incredible feat. Did you do this bodybuilding to make yourself into an object?

It’s not bodybuilding. I was responding to a 1972 work by Eleanor Antin, Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, in which she crash diets and documents the effect on her body. She documents performing an act of starvation. In 2011, when I did this work, there was very little awareness of trans identity. I identify as trans-masculine, not non-binary. I don’t believe I need to have a double mastectomy to be trans. I am an athlete and have my own personal training business. I think of my body as both an instrument and an image. To do this performance, I had to lay off the weight training and focus on my core flexibility. This is part of the vocabulary I am working with.

Looking at my snapshots of the performance, I was surprised to see how painterly they are. This is a thread that runs through all your work: becoming image. Formally, the work is very strong, very legible. Since all of it revolves around your body, are you making art as a pretext for circulating images of a powerful trans body?

Yes. I was trained as a painter. My work is always a material exploration; a tremendous goal of the work is formal investigation. I use a formal language that isn’t didactic; though it is still complicated, it can’t just be a clean read. Right now, I am working on something about for-profit immigration detention centres. That needs to be didactic.

@rosemheather

Performance artist Dynasty Handbag is the opposite of correct behaviour

Dynasty_HandbagDynasty Handbag, photo: Charlie Gross

Los Angeles-based Jibz Cameron on straddling the worlds of art and comedy, parodying The Handmaid’s Tale and making TV moves with Jack Black

BY 

2017 is bananas. Nazis are back – and they are not afraid to cry on the internet. It’s a white supremacist man-baby thing, one given free reign by that Whiner-in-Chief currently residing in the Oval Office. If that’s real life, how is art supposed to compete?

Los Angeles-based Jibz Cameron, who performs under the name Dynasty Handbag, is one answer.

The queer performance artist and comedian’s videos and theatrical shows skirt the edges of what’s acceptable to the mainstream. Take her D-Bag’s Quick And Easy Makeup Tutorial For Life Under Fascism (2017), for instance. Smearing her eyes in a black “accent” she calls “doom, capitalism and white supremacy” she crosses the line from humour to discomfort. It’s a literal black eye that reflects our troubled times back to us.

Always with her work, each manic moment is redeemed by humour. In Vague (2016), the artist vamps’ guttural noises to strains of the Madonna hit with the similar name. As with her video that parodies Beyoncé’s vanity doc Life Is But A Dream (both 2013), Cameron offers welcome relief from the dominant culture’s dictates of perfection. Called by one smart critic “a send-up of the current social id,” Cameron’s act has attracted the attention of comedy heavyweights like Jack Black and Community creator Dan Harmon.

Though she is often referenced in the same breath as profane talents like John Waters or Amy Sedaris, she also recalls Karen Finley, the performance artist whose work sits at an intersection between art and theatre. Its not a perfect analogy. Cameron is madcap while Finley is more about unadulterated catharsis. Yet there is something to the comparison. Both show us how fraught political moments give us the artists we need.

NOW caught up with Cameron ahead of the Toronto debut of her latest show I, An Moron.

Your work straddles the worlds of performance art and comedy. Would you say you feel more at home in one than the other?

I don’t feel at home anywhere, really. It depends. Neither the typical straightforward comedy world nor the typical straightforward art world feel like a cozy blanket to me. But there are facets within those worlds where I think people are open and they kind of get that the two things are not mutually exclusive, and there is room for going in and out of those two contexts. Ultimately, they are just frameworks.

I guess one art world precedent is the performance artist, Karen Finley.

She’s not very funny [laughter].

There are lots of artists I identify with. A precedent for me would be Andy Kaufman. I am also really influenced by the early 80s female comedians, like Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin. All that wacky stand-up. But it is just kind of more blended together in my presentation rather than sectioned off into specific characters.

Ah, your work is not skit-based?

But it can be. I don’t think that any of it is really limiting. What I’m doing actively is not trying to think about those things, and just do whatever I want. I just shot this thing the other day, a spoof of The Handmaid’s Tale – The Handbag’s Tale – and because I have this persona in place alreadyI have something to work off of, but its not like high art. Its like, really, really, lowbrow. Real low. [laughter]

You should tweet it at Margaret Atwood.

I will. I think she’ll love it. I actually really did love that book, and I like the show, too. It was really campy. But it often surprises me that people are thinking about, wondering, you know: what are you doing?

That’s what’s good about your work. That you are able to provoke the question: what is this? Its very refreshing. There’s an obvious way in which Trump is the context within which everything is happening right now. And you refer to that in your Makeup Tutorial For Life Under Fascism, but I also thought there is this other context. I just found out about “virtue signalling” do you know about that?

No, what is that?

It’s about political correctness. Like, everybody’s fiddling about correctness, and Rome is burning.

Oh right. Philosophy is for those with full bellies?

Yes, exactly. I feel your work responds to that as well, because its so the opposite of correct behaviour.

My work’s the opposite of correct behaviour?

Yes, I’d say so.

Well, if you say so. [laughter] The show I’m going to do in Toronto premiered at the Hammer Museum [in Los Angeles] in October last year. All that year I was writing it and I was really frustrated with North American white Liberals who are all talk no rock, or some rock but then the rock is like, so tied into capitalism – like, what kind of choices of gluten-free bread am I am going to buy and what company is the most moral? Choices we feel are moral and somehow making a difference, but what the fuck is actually going on? Nobody really knows. It’s hard not to be paranoid you are being led down some path that’s meant to distract you from some other terrible thing that’s happening.

Nobody knows what’s real and it is hard to grasp onto that, but I think what you’re doing is very real and its very effective for that reason. You are somehow channeling that or expressing that directly, which is a bit in short supply at the moment.

Well, thank you. I feel like I can express questions and outrage and naïveté. I know that I am naive. I just have feelings and I know where else to put them.

What’s next for you – and Dynasty Handbag?

Well, I’m trying to sell a television show right now with my writing partner Amanda Verwey. I’m having lots of meetings with enthusiastic, heterosexual, white gentlemen who nod and laugh a lot about how – well, they do say they will kill you with enthusiasm here – but I do have some really cool people that I am working with. Jack Black, who is just really awesome and a sweet guy that really loves art and wants to do fun projects. And also Dan Harmon, a producer and writer who has done a bunch of interesting stuff. He is an interesting guy who is in on the joke of the whole thing. And I am doing work on a new, live performance for the spring called Titanic that will premiere in New York. And, what else am I doing? Trying to finish all of Prime Suspect once again.

Oh, that’s a good show.

Yeah, I’m going to get through it for the sixth time. Some pretty big goals I’ve set up for myself.

I, AN MORON by Dynasty Handbag at DDL (209 Augusta) on August 24 at 9 pm. $12. torontomoron.bpt.me

art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

This text commissioned for https://nowtoronto.com/art-and-books/art/dynasty-handbag-opposite-correct-behaviour/