For This Artist, the Medium Is the Body
MANCHESTER, England — Rolling, scrubbing, shoving and stroking: The dance piece “Human Measure,” which premiered here earlier this month, is …
MANCHESTER, England — Rolling, scrubbing, shoving and stroking: The dance piece “Human Measure,” which premiered here earlier this month, is filled with bodies touching.
Performed by the multimedia artist Cassils and five other mostly nude dancers, all six of whom are nonbinary, the choreography alternates between sensuously intimate and hedonistically frenetic. The tone set by low, red lighting and a droning, instrumental soundtrack is interrupted by intermittent photographic flashes that leave a blinding retinal burn in their wake: Is the audience seeing too much, or not enough?
For the work’s conclusion, the performers roll up the room-size canvas on which they’ve been dancing, carefully wash it in a trench of water set into 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 outlines of bodies, some touching, some crouched in poses resembling the preserved shapes of humans found in Pompeii.
“Human Measure” is the first contemporary dance piece created by Cassils, who uses they/them pronouns. It had its premiere this month at HOME, an arts center in Manchester, along with a retrospective of work by Cassils from the last 10 years, including performances, photography and videos in which they use their body as material and that provide a commentary on the ways society views transgender people. “Human Measure” was a collaboration with the choreographer Jasmine Albuquerque.
The exhibition is an evaluation of Cassils’s work at a time when transgender people are more visible than ever in public life but their rights have simultaneously been under attack, Cassils said. “I was thinking very much about finding a formal language about what it means to be trans and nonbinary,” they said in an interview at the gallery.
“On one level we have so much representation 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 was a significant rollback of rights for transgender people and a crush of proposed legislation seeking to further limit those rights in certain states. Now, Cassils said, “we have over a hundred bills that are sitting on the state legislatures,” and there are dozens of judges appointed by President Trump with the power to block challenges to these bills. Today, Democrats and Republicans continue their fierce debates over transgender rights under the Biden administration.
While “Human Measure” is more poetic, Cassils has used their consciousness of the cultural climate around their work to inform several of their recent, explicitly political projects. For a project called “In Plain Sight,” Cassils was a co-leader of a coalition of 80 artists who last year used planes to spell messages like “Care not cages” in water vapor that were legible for miles, to draw attention to the widespread detention of immigrants in the United States. During the Trump administration, Cassils collected their own urine for 200 days protesting the rollback of bathroom access policies for “Pissed.”
“Cassils has been at the forefront of a wave of artists who, in recent years, have been more visible about claiming transgender politics in their work,” said David Getsy, the author of several books on queer art history, in a phone interview. “But I think Cassils has consistently understood that that visibility is not just a cause for celebration, but it also brings with it the danger of violence. Visibility becomes an opportunity for surveillance and scrutiny.”
After growing up in Montreal, Cassils completed an M.F.A. at California Institute of the Arts and received a 2017 Guggenheim fellowship. Trained in stunts, sports medicine and mixed martial arts, they have worked as a semiprofessional boxer and personal trainer in addition to their career in the arts.
The compact retrospective at HOME, which is organized chronologically, reframes the scrutiny that trans bodies are subjected to on the artist’s own terms, often drawing on their background in strength training.
The show 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 monochrome shot a little bulkier, the curves a little more Schwarzenegger-esque. Laid out in four large unadorned frames, these images, whose title riffs on Eleanor Antin’s “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture,” confront the underlying contradictions in how gender is constructed and understood by mainstream culture.
“Bodybuilding is such a cartoon, a hyperperformance of masculinity,” Cassils said. “I became interested in not necessarily trying to approach this perfect masculinity, but more to play with this false idea of embodiment.”
Cassils explained they have always been interested in strength training as a way of “holding onto” their body. As a child, Cassils underwent several surgeries because of an undiagnosed gallbladder disease, and almost died as a result of complications. “They thought it was psychosomatic,” Cassils said. “I had this experience of not being listened to by doctors.”
Equally, in 2011, when Cassils made “Cuts,” they felt there was little understanding of trans people who didn’t want gender-affirming surgery, or of trans people whose gender was neither male nor female. “There was no nonbinary, there was no words like this,” they said. Ten years later, the time period covered by the retrospective, mainstream recognition of the gender spectrum is very different.
“I really almost think of trans years being like dog years, there’s such an exponential development of vocabulary and understanding in certain circles,” Cassils said.
Much of Cassils’s earlier work is unflinchingly confrontational: In “Inextinguishable Fire (2007-2015),” the artist set themself on fire. In a video of the work on view at HOME, the camera zooms out in slow motion, revealing the flames licking the edges of their protective wear one frame at a time. With “Inextinguishable Fire,” conceived during the Iraq war, Cassils said they intended to explore the alienating effects on viewers who consume images of traumatized bodies as they are presented in the American news media. “It’s an index of how removed we are,” they said.
Though the work focuses on Cassils’s own bodily feat, pieces like “Inextinguishable Fire” speak to the possibilities of empathy, said Bren O’Callaghan, the show’s curator. “What appears to be ultraspecific is in fact the opposite. They speak to all discriminated bodies, everyone who has their ownership of self stripped from them,” he said.
Following the impacts of the Trump administration and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Cassils was keen to expand 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 such that we can continue the force of creative action.”
“Human Measure” was a culmination of this communal effort. The work to make the cyanotype photograph that is developed as the climax onstage began in June when Cassils invited a group of 26 transgender and nonbinary people to lie still on a treated muslin fabric, so that the rays of the hot Los Angeles sun would burn their images into the canvas. To be vaccinated and able to embrace one another without masks for the first time since the pandemic started was a “beautiful moment,” they said.
Like “Cuts,” “Human Measure” reappropriates threads from art history by playing with the title of Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” series, in which female models pressed their blue-paint-covered nude bodies against the canvas.
“What would it be like, instead of using women as passive mark-making devices and divorcing them from agency, instead, the mark-making came from a sort of empowered labor?” Cassils said.
Cassils was excited that the exhibition at HOME had created a communal moment. The day of the premiere, they said their Instagram was lit up with queer and gender-nonconforming people on trains from all over the U.K., making a “pilgrimage” to the gallery to see their work.
The artist’s optimism was also inspired by collaborating with the young nonbinary dancers in the work. In a final moment of “Human Measure,” the artist, nude, pulls a rope on one side of the huge cyanotype, while on the opposite side, a trans person 17 years younger does the same, helping them raise this heavy print so it hangs from the top of the stage.
“We are hoisting this burden of representation together,” Cassils said.