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
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.
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.
Toronto is growing by the square metre, with buildings popping up everywhere. The city’s art scene is also changing and, in some cases, responding.
In 2018, all-night art event Nuit Blanche extended to Scarborough and Don Mills. Fighting condo glut, artists are building spaces in overlooked corners and raising voices against the threat of Toronto becoming homogenized for the rich.
Thinking about the urban landscape is second nature in a profession in which space is a core element. That’s one reason arts organizations here and across Canada are drawing attention to the contested status of the land beneath our feet. Land acknowledgments of First Nations territorial rights preceding art events have become common. This year saw Canadian art galleries cited internationally for changing the terms under which Indigenous art is exhibited. At the same time, one of the city’s leading curators, the AGO’s Wanda Nanibush, started a conversation to get arts professionals to better understand how to do it right.
With this attention to historical legacy, and commitment to reasoned dialogue, the art world increasingly feels like a realm more thoughtful and separate from wider public spheres. Artist-led dialogue contrasts strikingly with conniving public figures like Premier Doug Ford, who emulate the worst tendencies of our U.S. neighbours. Toronto artists are fighting back in the best way they know how. By making art and putting on shows – some of it explicitly in protest.
For Nuit Blanche, the Ghanaian artist transformed the pedestal ramp of City Hall by wrapping it in a patchwork curtain of jute fabric that had previously been used in trade of cocoa, coffee and charcoal. A thrilling, instantly readable monument to labour, colonialism and the hard truths of commerce.
2. The Work Of Wind: Air, Land, Sea, Blackwood Gallery, Mississauga (September 14-23)
This massive art project in Mississauga’s Southdown Industrial Area featured 13 outdoor installations that visitors could tour using a specially commissioned MiWay bus. Many of the works captured the event’s theme of stewardship in the face of environmental crisis, while remaining playful. A show highlight was Tomás Saraceno’s giant walk-in air balloon made from thousands of plastic bags.
3. Rebecca Belmore: Facing The Monumental, Art Gallery of Ontario (July 12-October 21)
For those who saw Belmore’s excellent 2014 show at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, her AGO exhibition was a revelation. This show featured a different but equally compelling range of works. Her monumental stack of shopping carts packed with fresh clay offered a concise statement about Indigenous dispossession. Just one of many works on view that combined critique of social and power structures with strong emotional impact.Expand
4. GTA, Gentrification Tax, Trinity Bellwoods Park (February 25); Public Studio (June 1-July 30)
GTA stands for Gentrification Tax Action, an ad hoc artist group who – in different combinations of people – have made activist art since the 90s. Via a temporary billboard installation in Trinity Bellwoods Park and poster project, GTA proposed a practical solution to Toronto’s gentrification problem: a tax on real estate speculation, with the money redirected to affordable housing. Their work added much-needed nuance to the conversation around the city’s affordable housing crisis.
Canada produces a lot of strong artists. Bool is a contender for one of the best. Her stunning photo collages and tapestries in this show combine the work of modernist giants like Le Corbusier with vintage postcards of nude Algerian women, whom the architect also made sketches of in his off hours. A deft exposé of Orientalism and the darker underpinnings of modernism.
6. Shelley Niro, Ryerson Image Centre (April 28-August 5)
This was a welcome survey show for the 2017 Scotiabank Photography Award winner. Niro is skilled at bringing humour to dark subject matter like the decimation of her Indigenous ancestors by white settlers in Canada. The preference for comedy and a light touch on view in this exhibition made clear her connection to the sophisticated craft-based work of artists like General Idea and Allyson Mitchell.
7. Believe, Museum of Contemporary Art (September 22-January 6)
Attendees at the MOCA’s inaugural exhibition at its new home in the Lower Junction Triangle were probably as curious about the building – five floors in all – as they were the art. This show is multifaceted and sprawling, with textile works sitting next to a playable and wildly decorated pinball machine, adjacent to sculptures and video works. A total experience of art and space, its highlights include works by Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Rajni Perera.
8. I continue to shape, Art Museum, University of Toronto (September 5-December 8)
This group show features mostly First Nations artists taking a non-didactic approach to settler and Indigenous histories. By combining traditional First Nations and contemporary art vocabularies – see Nicholas Galanin’s re-carving of a traditional native mask – the artists bring viewers into a fresh dialogue with the subject matter. In a show of great works, Joseph Tisiga’s paintings using Archie comic characters as stand-ins for white obliviousness are standouts.
9. Yoko Ono: The Riverbed, Gardiner Museum (February 22 to June 3)
How calming it was to visit the white environ Yoko Ono created in her three-part, ceramic-based installation. Ono was part of the first wave of artists making interactive (or instructional) artworks in the late 60s and 70s, and this recent work confirms her preeminence. Made with the help of museum visitors – who reassembled broken china and threaded twine into a room-sized spider web – and probably for that reason, the installations evoked the timeless mark-making of artists like Cy Twombly.
10. Diagrams Of Power, Onsite Gallery at OCAD University (July 11-September 30)
This exhibition articulates the forms power takes in the 21st century through works that highlight how today’s geopolitics are networked. We understand we live in a networked world and yet it remains intangible in important ways. The research-based works in this exhibition, such as Bureau d’études’ mappings of what they call “the World Government,” create a visual lexicon for grasping ideas society has yet to fully grapple with.
Toronto is gaining in confidence, in part because it is learning to appreciate the ways it isn’t like anywhere else. Visit a city that lacks this town’s remarkable and yet unselfconscious multicultural mix and it is bound to seem hopelessly retrograde.
The starting pointing for some highly influential art careers (Michael Snow, General Idea, Peaches), Toronto looks to be on the cusp of something more broad-based: becoming an influential art scene in its own right that leads by example. Here are the names and exhibitions set to make waves – in the city and beyond – in the year ahead.
CARL MARIN AND VERONIKA PAUSOVA
Franz Kaka, January 11 to February 3
Interesting things happen in this small basement space that’s home to not one but two art galleries that alternate shows. (Towards is the name of the other venture.) Sculptures by Marin and beguiling paintings by Pausova bring together geometric abstraction and surrealist figuration.
HERE WE ARE HERE: BLACK CANADIAN CONTEMPORARY ART
Royal Ontario Museum, January 27 to April 11
The ongoing dialogue between Toronto’s cultural institutions and artists about what Canadian identity looks like today includes earlier efforts at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Museum at U of T and the Aga Khan. This presentation at the ROM of works by nine African-Canadian artists features Sandra Brewster, Michèle Pearson Clarke and Chantal Gibson.
YOKO ONO’S THE RIVERBED
Gardiner Museum, February 22 to June 3
At 84, the artist, musician and social activist is a marvel for her ability to keep the language of conceptual art, which she helped to pioneer, relevant. Small gestures like the chance to mend broken crockery create moments for quiet and contemplation. Accompanying the show is a thoughtful slate of Ono-inspired programming featuring music, lectures and performance art.
YAYOI KUSAMA’S INFINITY MIRRORS
Art Gallery of Ontario, March 3 to May 27
Art exhibitions that are genuine events happen too rarely in the city. This show, already an international Instagram sensation, gives Toronto a chance to abandon its cool – and the frenzy has already started. Step inside the kaleidoscopic refractions of a Kusama Infinity Room and get an experience of the sublime not based in nature.
NANCY PATERSON’S THE FUTURE, BEFORE
InterAccess, March 7 to May 5
For its 35th anniversary, this organization for art and technology moves from Ossington to a new, bigger location at 950 Dupont. First up are works by veteran media artist Nancy Paterson, a timely exhibition showcasing this early contributor to discourse about the internet and cyber feminism.
Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens, April 8 to June 3
After getting some significant exposure abroad in two major group exhibitions, this will be the first solo show in a museum for the Toronto-based artist. Belerique forges her own unique aesthetic language by using sculptural installation to reflect on the 2D vocabulary of photography.
UNCEDED: VOICES OF THE LAND
2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, May 26 to November 25
Renowned Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal and Indigenous co-curators Gerald McMaster (of OCAD University) and David Fortin are taking a team of 18 First Nations designers from Turtle Island (Canada and the U.S.) to Venice. Storytelling is a key component of Indigenous culture and will be used as a framework for looking at architecture and its related issues – like habitat and stewardship.
HELEN CHO’S YOU REMAINED DISMEMBERED
Trinity Square Video, summer 2018
Cho presents a new video work from a series made with Tai Lam – a fast food worker who came here as a refugee from Vietnam – combined together with words from the video “re-imagined as poetry,” and sculptural works made with vinyl, salt dough and ceramics.
NUIT BLANCHE IN SCARBOROUGH
This year begins the era of the multipolar Nuit Blanche. A portion of the annual all-night event will move outside the core to the east end. The shift recognizes that the vibrancy of the city is not exclusive to its downtown. Participants include Ghana’s Ibrahim Mahama, known for his use of draped jute sacks as a sculptural material.
UNTITLED ART TV SHOW
To be announced
This has yet to be confirmed, but there have been rumblings that a major broadcast network is working on a documentary series focused on artists who call this city home and those who hail from here and are forging significant careers elsewhere. Purportedly hosted by a local talent and ex-child actor who boasts a Degrassi: The Next Generation credit on his resumé.
The fusion of art with everyday life has been a perennial ambition of contemporary art, but today it seems forgotten. An obvious explanation: this goal has already been achieved. The future as predicted by the avant-garde is here, in other words. The signs for this are ample, if poorly organized in the contemporary psyche; futurologist Alvin Toffler has made a career out of the insight that the rate of change in the West far outstrips our ability to adapt to it. Even if the avant-garde’s penchant for prognostication is now a thing of the past, art continues to be adept at creating the templates to help us recognize change, to see the reality of it. For a template close at hand, look no further than the work of Toronto artist, Kelly Mark; or rather look to the artist, Kelly Mark, fusion of art and life.
Tracing her history, it is easy to see how the changes undergone within Mark’s art-making parallel changes undergone within the wider culture. Starting out a hardcore conceptualist, the art she makes today has more in common with what Mark terms, “re-creativity”; this shift in thinking about her practice is in part inspired by the wholesale changes in culture being wrought by digital technologies. All the while, the work she produces retains the elegance that only the formal solutions found within art can provide.
An artist of prodigious output, Mark’s artworks bear the distinctive attributes of Canadian East Coast conceptualism. Originating at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), this is a legacy that begins with the 1967 appointment as Director of Garry Neil Kennedy, himself an inveterate conceptualist. Kennedy’s 23 year long tenure transformed the school, in part because he initiated a visiting artist program that featured leading-edge practiconers of the moment, including Vito Acconci, Dan Graham and Sol Lewitt. The rugged costal outpost of Halifax proved to be an ideal backdrop for the imagining of the spare de-materialized artworks characteristic of first generation conceptualism. This combined with the 1972 launch of NASCAD University Press, which published monographs by influential artists’ like Michael Snow and Yvonne Rainer, helped to cement the school’s reputation, one that lingers to this day.
Sol Lewitt famously described ‘the idea’, the core attribute of conceptualism, as the “machine that makes the [art]work.” In its purest form, this type of practice can consist purely of verbal statements, either written on the wall, as in the declarative sentences of Laurence Weiner, or existing as a set of instructions, as in the Fluxus-aligned work of Yoko Ono. Although seemingly easy to do, the difficulty of making artworks in this vein finds its best summation in the colloquial expression, “ideas are a dime a dozen.” Because it begins with an idea, the conceptual artwork is necessarily anchored in the person of the artist. For such an artwork to become ‘real’, the artist must be unwavering in their commitment to the concept that makes it possible, maintaining it in whatever way is necessary.
The performance-based works by the German artist, Tino Seghal, for example, are only realized in the moment of their enactment by performers hired by the artist, and are never documented. Forbidding any images to be made of his work ensures that Seghal remains the final authority of their verification; they ensue from and return to him, as it were. Seghal’s work represents one extreme of conceptualism’s contemporary legacy. Works by Kelly Mark on the other hand have more in common with minimalist strategies for art making, but employ a similar steely resolve in the use of self to establish their veracity.
Like a Donald Judd sculpture, many of Mark’s works’ find form through repetition. In the ongoing performance, In & Out (1997-), Mark punches a time clock installed in her studio every time she starts and finishes work since 1997. That her studio doubles as her living space points to the fluidity the artist sustains between the two modes. The punch clock performance stands as a wry commentary on how very thin the dividing line is between the two for the artist. Adding a further dimension of self-deprecation to the piece, since 1999 it has been owned by the Toronto collector, Dr. Paul Marks, meaning that Mark, in effect, has a “boss” who pays her on a yearly basis for the work. Currently, employer and employee in this arrangement are looking for a buyer for the piece, preferably by a Canadian art institution that has the vision to match Mark’s long-term commitment to her art.
In & Out is an update on Tehching Hsieh’s Time Piece, one of a number of year-long performances enacted by the artist. Originally from Taiwan, the New York-based Hsieh punched a time clock once an hour, every hour, for a year, from April 11th, 1980 through April 11th, 1981. Each time, he documented the performance by taking a picture, resulting in a 6 minute-long stop-motion animation. Hsieh counts only six pieces in his body of work as a whole, all of them employing a combination of declaration (“I will…”) and action that often involved extraordinary feats of endurance (perhaps most famously, he spent an entire year tied to the artist Linda Montano by a rope, the two never touching.) His use of the calendar year to structure each performance gives his work a conceptual clarity, one that invites his audience to contemplate the meaning of time and the arbitrary nature of our frameworks for measuring it.
Mark has said that her own time clock piece will continue until she “retires.” Itself a work of endurance, In & Out resonates with certain conditions in the contemporary world in a way that distinguishes it from Hsieh’s Time Piece. If Hsieh’s work, in its conceptual purity, is the art world equivalent of the Great Wall of China as viewed from space, Mark approaches the goal of marking her time as an artist from a less exulted perspective. In a related performance that has been ongoing since 2003, she often wears a dark blue nylon windbreaker in public, sometimes in combination with a peaked cap each embroidered with the word, “Staff”, which is also the title of the work. For its humor and the insight it offers into Mark’s choice of art as a profession, a statement posted on her website about it is worth quoting in full:
“I tend to show up late. I usually leave early. I take long breaks. I have issues with authority. I don’t follow instructions. I don’t work well with others. I drink on the job. I complain a lot. But I’m always working…”
By her own account, she is a ‘bad’ employee, but the job requires nothing less than her full commitment. Setting herself up as an ‘art worker’, she comments on the 21st century conditions of both work and art. She is “always working” and yet, at least in the case of In & Out, faces potential job insecurity. Saving the artist from the prospect of ever experiencing real joblessness, however, is the purpose she applies to the tasks she sets herself, one that gives a whole new meaning to the term: ‘self-employment’. For Mark, art is not a job, it’s a vocation.
Mark’s refashioning of first generation conceptualist heroics into the register of mundane serves as a comment on the banal status of the object in contemporary art. This is a utilitarian approach to art making which privileges not the unique object but any ‘ready made’ substitute thought suitable for making the artist’s point. It’s a type of practice that dates back at least to Duchamp, although the use of what Clement Greenberg termed “extraneous elements” in collage, such as pieces of newspaper or graphics from commercial advertising marks perhaps the first appearance of the ‘everyday’ in art. In an early work, Mark used a thimble to count grains of salt. Arriving at the number of approximately 52,000, she then used this figure to create Pillar: 100 Million Grains of Salt (1997). Composed of stacked identical sets of filled salt shakers, of the variety you would find in a greasy spoon, the work resonates with the readymade, minimalist practice, and the biblical story of Lot’s wife. It also demonstrates how conceptual rigor combined with the fact of sheer repetition can push meaningless activity–like counting grains of salt or punching a time clock–over an invisible line to a point where it accrues meaning within the field of art.
Early conceptual practice was often said to be engaged in a process of “dematerializing” the art object. In its immateriality and indifference to traditional forms of art-making it was thought to represent a kind of resistance to the art market. Considered thirty odd years after it began, however, conceptual art looks to have a wider ramification, that is: as a prefiguring of the very dematerialization of Western culture into the virtual world we semi-inhabit today.
Across her practice, Mark makes free use of whichever conceptual strategies she chooses, in which ever combination she finds useful. In the 20th century art parlance, such a bold repurposing of the work of one’s predecessors was given an oedipal narrative; aesthetic innovation required a certain degree of disrespect and even patricide of what had come before. Now it looks as if not only works of art, or oeuvres or traditions of art-making are under threat, but that an entire cultural order is coming to an end. The difficulty experienced by the music industry in preventing the sharing of music files on the internet is the most tangible symptom of this change; fatally undermining the argument that, although freely available digital music files should be paid for, is the ease with which new technologies abet such activity. Mark’s polyglot practice indicates the artist holds a similar viewpoint on ideas about ownership: conceptual strategies are in the ether, free for everyone to use. This is the obverse side of the readymade coin, and is an attitude given guileless expression on the button Mark occasionally wears and has been informally distributing since 2003 that says, “Everything is Interesting”.
The idea that everything is potential subject matter for art suggests that the postmodern dismantling of the dichotomy between high and low cultures has reached a point of synthesis. The culture we currently live in has a tendency towards the immersive; we are all insiders now, sophisticated manipulators within the spectrum of codes history has left to us. Many of Mark’s more recent works address this condition. Embodying the idea of the immersive is Glow House, a work that Mark has created three times in three different cities (Winnipeg, Birmingham and Toronto) since 2003. In it numerous TV sets are placed in every room of a house acquired for the project, all of them tuned to the same channel. Looking at the work from the street at night, viewers see the house gently pulsing from the collective glow of the TV monitors. Taking her cue from the televisual flicker that emanates from residential neighborhoods every night, Mark metaphorically accumulates the ether of our communal entertainments to create a gorgeous, evanescent artwork.
Writing about the project, Toronto artist and curator Dave Dyment notes that, “we rarely think of televised images as made of light.” From this initial perception, Mark has gone on to make a number of works that use TV light as a source material. In the Glow Video Installation Series(Horror/Suspense/Romance /Porn/Kung-Fu) (2005), she records the pulse of light from different film genres as it is reflected off the wall. The films that result are then presented on monitors as sculptural works. Installed a number of different times with the monitors positioned back to back or pointing towards the ceiling, each permutation of the work is titled according to the film genre of its original light source, the different genres creating different perceptual experiences in rhythm and light. That the experience of TV is no less seductive with its content removed, speaks to a mass cultural preference for to live in a netherworld made up of molecules of light.
Writing about the effects of mechanical reproduction over 70 years ago, Walter Benjamin theorized that mass entertainments created a new form of reception, cinema viewers absorbing a film in a way that did not require their direct attention. Itself a kind of prophecy of the eventual fusion of art with everyday life, with the advent of digital technologies, this cultural capacity for distracted apperception has been multiplied tenfold. Mark’s epic work REM (2007) recreates this experience using cinema as its source. Over two hours in length and compiled from over 170 films and TV shows, REM creates a composite feature film from disparate clips she recorded off the television. The narrative presented is coherent because by definition film genre provides the building blocks of storytelling. Watching the work, however, it soon becomes apparent that a semblance of coherence is all that is required; in REM following the ‘narrative’ is akin to the experience of being adrift in your own thoughts. The work is a parable for our culture lost inside the figments of its own imagination. Like her practice as an artist as a whole, it brings a syncretic intelligence to bear on film detritus to bring us the insight that our culturebelongs to us. In the subtle shift in thinking that is required to grasp this idea is the future of our culture, one that we already living in today.
This text orginally published in Canadian Art, Winter 2007.