Recalibrating Sense: Cassils at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts by Tess Altman

The body as social sculpture.


Cassils, Fountain, 2017. Performance still from Cassils’s closing action of two hundred-day durational performance PISSED. Photo: Vince Ruvolo. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Art historian David Getsy writes extensively about the ways in which abstract forms have been utilized by queer and trans artists to express a queer “stance,” i.e., a way of being in the world and being in relation to others “without recourse to the representation of bodies,” as he phrases it in “Appearing Differently: Abstraction’s Transgender and Queer Capacities,” a conversation between him and William J. Simmons. “Recourse to representation” references the demands made of trans people in their art, walking down the street, and in a courtroom: demands for legible bodily representation, for surveilling eyes to know their “biological” bodies, essences, or truths—whatever the hell that means. Straight-up representation of the body is not the only expressive tactic and often not the best one; maybe manifestations of “stance” can do more. Artist and performer Cassils formally builds their “stance” out of glass, bronze, clay, gold paint, and fire. But a refusal of an easily legible body representation does not mean these works are not infused and saturated with the bodily: the glass orbs hung from the ceiling of Cassils’s current exhibition, MONUMENTAL, at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts are filled with their actual breaths; a large glass cube at the center of the exhibition holds their yellow-orange urine; and a bronzed clay tower registers the marks of their fingers and toes. Photo and video documentation of the body-based making of these abstracted forms hangs on the surrounding walls. What is and isn’t “bodily” here is not so clear. What makes a “queer form” is not so clear.


Cassils, Encapsulated Breaths, 2017. Sculpture, blown glass. Photo: Vince Ruvolo. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Cassils explained that they consider the body to be a “social sculpture.” Cassils’s sculptures exist in a network of people, actions, and places. They don’t start or end in the studio or in the gallery space. They are performed and re-performed, displayed and re-displayed. A clay sculpture is shaped in a live performance lit by camera flashes (Becoming an Image, 2012), then covered in bronze (Resilience of the 20%, 2013), then pushed through Omaha (Monument Push, 2017), to then be installed in MONUMENTAL. This bronzed, grabbed-at sculpture has had many relations and will have many relations more. It’s not just about the MONUMENT; it’s about the shifting adjectival state of seeming, appearing, becoming MONUMENTAL. Cassils’s work recognizes that the mechanisms of image creation are inevitably wrapped up in how we recognize, relate, and make sense. We make and remake social sculptures for ourselves and for each other.


Cassils, Alchemic No. 3, 2017. Photo: Cassils with Robin Black. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Social Sculpture: On the opening night of MONUMENTAL, Cassils performed a “closing ceremony” of their work PISSED, a glass cube containing two hundred gallons of urine passed and saved by the artist since President Donald Trump rescinded the executive order allowing transgender students to use the bathroom matching their chosen gender identities on February 22, 2017. Cassils stood on a pedestal above the crowd at about the height of “public figures” in city parks. Photos of their many bodies hung on the walls, painted in bronze-gold—looking buff, grimy, and gleaming. From speakers blaring at the corners, the audience heard audio recordings of the Gavin Grimm court case cutting across the room. People moved in and out, saying hello and then looking up. Cassils stood on a white rectangular pedestal, mostly still, shaking slightly, moving their arm to rest differently than before, or shifting their straight-ahead gaze to the side just a bit. A few times, they pulled down their pants, picked up the orange bottle with one hand and the funnel with the other, and held the funnel to their crotch. Their hands, the bottle, and the funnel were all shaking. The room was shaking, and the parts were shaking. They pissed quietly and put the plastic objects down. These shifting, slow moments remind me of dance scholar Andre Lepecki’s description in Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement of “the paradoxical still-act.” He describes the act as a mapping of the “the tensions in the subject, the tensions in subjectivity under the force of history’s dusty sedimentation of the body.” In the paradoxical not-quite-“still-act” we’re held in, the sediment pushes down hard.


Cassils, Becoming an Image Performance Still No. 2 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Historic Casting Hall), 2016. Photo: Cassils with Zachary Hartzell. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

In an interview for the Creative Capital blog, Cassils describes their work as “putting pressure on empathy and its failures.” The pressure on empathy and the way empathy doesn’t work is painful, and we can feel it. This stillness is not frozen, but instead slowly decays, and the resulting pressure shifts the sediment ever so slightly. Cassils goes on to say that they aspire to pressure into existence even the slightest “perceptual recalibration.” To be recalibrated is to be adjusted ourselves, and to adjust our readings. What once registered as zero on the scale might now appear as a small, subtle form. In their essay “Gender, Sculpture, and Relearning How to See,” artist Gordon Hall describes the struggle for rights and recognition for transgender people as an “ongoing push and pull around whose mode of seeing we want to put our faith in,” in which “the functioning of our senses becomes a field of social negotiation.” Perhaps queer forms are such because they recalibrate senses in a room, and these slight recalibrations have potential to reverberate. Cassils’s shaking, fierce performance on the opening night of their exhibition wasn’t a clear breakthrough transformation from one to another, but a slow and strong recalibrating pressure on the negotiation fields. Let’s put our faith in this hard pressure.

MONUMENTAL is on view at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York City until December 2, 2017.

Tess Altman is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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