Heather Cassils: Becoming an Image
Review by Maggie Gray
Before ‘Becoming an Image’ begins, the audience stands, at a respectful distance, in a circle around a human-sized obelisk of unfired clay. Its pitted surface is lit from above, and there’s an atmosphere of, if not veneration, then certainly hushed, ritualised anticipation. By the time the spotlight is switched back on at the end of the performance, this muscular lump of matter has yielded utterly to an onslaught that the whole audience witnessed but never really saw. Finger marks strafe its surface, handprints gauge it deeper, and yawning smooth hollows irreparably damage its core; the whole structure buckles near the base, and sinks sideways. The circle breaks, too, as everyone moves in for a closer look.
The intervening 20 minutes is, somehow, visceral and formless in equal measure. Heather Cassils, a rippling transgender personal trainer, pounds, kneads and knees the clay relentlessly in the dark. The audience cannot see the artist except via a photographer, who snaps the action intermittently using a strong flash that burns images onto the retina in a series of bright, dramatic stills.
I knew all this in theory before attending, but I underestimated the sensory disturbance the act creates; particularly the disconcertingly stubborn presence of the residual images, that flash loudly into view before shuddering across one’s field of vision, receding, slipping and only slowly fading, like illusory fireworks. They play havoc with your spatial understanding of the event; it’s almost literally impossible to overlook the frozen ghosts haunting the scene, even though the rest of your senses reliably inform you that they are decoys, and that the action has moved on.
Dull thuds, ringing smacks, and Cassil’s increasingly ragged breathing form the real-time, exhaustingly unremitting soundtrack; a spatially, temporally and emotionally weighted counterpoint to the floating visual montage. The performance was originally conceived for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ONE Archives in Los Angeles, and the violence meted out to the body of clay is, surely, a disturbingly palpable reminder of the aggression directed against transgender people with disproportionate frequency throughout the world.
But this is violence channelled and redirected into art. The artist’s strained exclamations punctuate the performance; sounds of distress, but also of exhilaration at the physical struggle and discipline of the act. In a sense the clay is incidental to Cassils’ ongoing efforts to sculpt the female body into a different cast, while the glancing freeze-frame punches captured by the camera offer an ambiguous comment on both the spectre of violence and its glorification (in certain, Hollywood-sanctioned forms).
‘Becoming an Image’ presents a physically and emotionally affective subject in a powerful sensory way; but its success also lies in its ability to raise questions about the nature of the display itself. The visual trick of the flashing camera is an astonishingly direct way of making you consider the nature of the photographic medium. You grasp the idea of the snapshot because you ‘see’ it being made. And yet the images each audience member sees are not photographs at all, nor do they ever really approximate them, lingering, morphing and mixing as they do with the durational experience of the performance itself.
This in turn invites questions about the nature of performance and its documentation - none of which are new, but which are somehow more immediate and innately graspable when one’s own viewing habits and attention are disrupted. The documentation of the event is clearly selective, the photographer waiting for the most dramatic moments (or at least what sounds like them) to shoot. While the audience is keenly aware of exactly how much is omitted, they never see anything more than the photographed moments: arguably the visual record, at least, is complete. But what of the sculptural remains of the unfired clay’ Casts of the material could preserve something of the act’s physical history but, like the photographs, it would be frozen, when the power of the performance lay in the weighty block’s surprising, unwilling malleability.
These questions are significant on a formal level, but also on a political one, drawing attention to how selectively and imperfectly we frame events; how constantly we project images onto and at other people. ‘Becoming an Image’ succinctly addresses these issues in a powerful performance which, like the artist, deliberately evades categorisation.