Having a body can be a burden. Perfume Genius knows this all too well. Through numerous albums, the musician documents the frustration of having a body from Too Bright’s nihilistic “My Body” (“I wear my body like a rotted peach. You can have it if you handle the stink”) to the more uplifting yet no less self-immolating “Wreath” (“Burn off every trace. I want to hover with no shape”). Describing the process of penning “Wreath,” Perfume Genius aka Mike Hadreas explains to NPR: “I am not a big fan of my body and would like to leave it. I have Crohn’s disease, which has caused me to not trust my insides. I feel betrayed by it. I am getting older, and that feels like a betrayal on the outside as well. I do not feel strongly connected to being a man or a woman, which was and still can be confusing. It also doesn’t feel attractive. I feel like it would be more attractive or at least easier to comprehend if I picked a side.”
Hadreas is certainly not alone with his observation of the body as a form of imprisonment. Pathologized, legislated and categorized, the body is a site for trauma, control and numerous struggles for power–both individual and collective. And yet, it can also become a tool for reclamation, refusal and resistance as seen in Cassils’s current exhibition Monumental at Ronald Feldman Gallery.
Similar to Perfume Genius’s engagement with the body, Cassils manipulates their own body–and its traces–to examine how non-normative bodies are regulated. Monumental presents several series of Cassils’s work, which all investigate how the body contains a fragile and frequently unstable intersection of control and agency. From transforming the trans body into mythic classical sculpture in their photographic series Alchemic to preserving the ephemeral remains of traumatic bodily memory in their sculpture Resilience of the 20%, Cassils, aptly, makes this lived embodied struggle monumental.
There is no doubt that the most discussed work in the show is their newest–an installation entitled PISSED. Cassils fills an enormous Plexiglas box–a familiar structure for white cubed gallery spaces–with 200 gallons of their own piss, saved since February 22, 2017 when President Trump revoked Obama’s Executive Order allowing trans students to use the bathroom of their preferred gender. The artist also exhibits a wall-mounted installation 200 Days, 200 Gallons, a uniform collection of the orange medical capture containers in which they preserved their urine for the project.
Admittedly, I was a bit hesitant to visit Monumental, wondering just how far Cassils pushed showing off gallons upon gallons of piss in a gallery. Would it smell? How much would there be? WOULD IT GET ON ME?! Instead of exemplifying Kristeva’s stomach-churning notion of abjection, Cassils’s PISSED confronts viewers by being surprisingly mundane–a conceptual sculpture containing a dark amber liquid that would be unidentifiable without the context. For some art viewers, it could actually look quite minimal, a deliciously insidious subversion of strident art historical formalism with excess bodily waste.
Beyond pissing on formalism, Cassils also refuses to allow viewers to regard PISSED through a politically neutral lens. With speakers in the corners of the space, the artist projects audio recordings documenting the progression of student Gavin Grimm’s bathroom case. From the Bible verse-wielding transphobic bathroom police at the Virginia school board to the arguments at the Fourth Court of Appeals, voices ricochet through the space as a ghostly reminder of how trans and gender non-conforming bodies are policed, even down to how and where they can pee.
Michel Foucault couldn’t ask for a better representation of how biopower that continues to wield control in the 21st century. In his published lectures Security, Territory and Population he defines biopower as “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species.”
Likewise, Cassils works to uncover biopolitical control through physically representing the excruciating experience of navigating strictly gendered bathrooms. In an interview with the Huffington Post’s Noah Michelson, Cassils reflects on the arduous process: “This was really re-inscribing an oppression. You know, first of all there’s the act of saving your piss and holding your piss really replicates the experience one feels when they’re cognizant of what their body needs to do to empty their bladder, be it in a public space or a private space and all of the anxiety that comes along with this. This piece really hyper-performed that for me.”
Though Cassils admits that PISSED stands out as one of the more emotionally difficult of their performances, stating, “My other works are hard–but they’re hard in a way that I like” (though I can’t imagine the adjacent Inextinguishable Fire, a video depicting the artist performing a dangerous fire stunt, would have been much less panic-inducing), the installation is more than just a singular issue-based work. In the context of the exhibition, PISSED informs (and is informed by) Cassils’s other projects, tracing a career devoted to using their body as a tool for both exposing power and taking it back.
Now, it should be said that using the body in art is nothing new. Feminist artists have asserted for decades that the personal is political and, of course, Cassils knows this intimately, directly referencing artists from Eleanor Antin to Lynda Benglis in their art. Despite this long history of employing the body, there remains a risk–an essentializing pitfall that requires artists to tread carefully over exposing themselves and their bodies to fetishizing and sensationalizing gazes. I mean, how many times have white cisgender women artists painted female nudes and the patriarchy still remains intact.
It’s not much different for queer and trans bodies, which can be similarly exploited. Noah Michelson of the Huffington Post asked Cassils about this directly, noting, “Many trans people do not want to center conversations about being trans around the body because they argue that being trans is so much more than that and that when we focus on just the body, we neglect so many other important issues about and related to being trans.”
Cassils responded, “I think that [concern] is totally valid. I think the key to that is not creating works that are completely sensationalizing specifically the idea of genitals, for example. So, I think in a way, I’m on the same page as that. So rather than talking about [gender affirmation] surgery or the specifics of someone’s genitals, I’m showing you what a huge block of urine looks like — something that regardless of what you look like or how you work in the world is something that we all have to contend with. It’s about erasing those sensationalist markers.” They discussed this in more depth in an earlier Huffington Post interview with fellow performance artist Kris Grey, revealing, “There is such a pressure for those of us coming from disenfranchised positions to make “positive images” that speak for this marginalized community. One artist can never speak for everyone. I have become interested in anti-representational tactics. As trans politics become more mainstream we run the risk of becoming a target market subject to the same slotting and governing as the dominant culture.”
For their part, Cassils seems to sidestep the sensationalization of the trans body by portraying ephemeral remnants of the body as witnessed in PISSED. When the body does appear, it is the fractured body or the body in a fluid state of continuous becoming as in Alchemic, so named for a transformational chemical process of precious metals. In their essay “Queering Identity: Becoming Queer In The Work of Cassils,” published in the collection Reconstructing Identity: A Transdisciplinary Approach, Cath Lambert determines that Cassils’s art “resists fixity in terms of gender, but at the same time demonstrates a commitment to the politics of identification” (132).
This can also be observed in the documentation from their performance Becoming An Image at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In a series of photographs hung horizontally on the walls, Cassils punches, kicks and slams their body into an enormous block of clay. Performing in darkness, illuminated only by the momentary flash of the camera, Cassils’s body becomes secondary to the sounds of their landing the hits and their increasingly strained breath, refusing the gaze of the audience. As Lambert writes,“This idea of the body, and by extension identity, as indeterminate, is what prevents the image becoming a knowable, fixed commodity (although arguably any image has already become a commodity in some sense, so that whilst the work clearly presents positive and affirming representations of queer and trans identity, it does what Cassils refers to as ‘anti-representational’ work in the process” (143-144).
Cassils’s corresponding Resilience Of The 20%, titled for the 20% increase in the murders of trans people worldwide in 2012, took that bruised clay and monumentalized it in the form of a bronze sculpture. Like Cassils’s other work in Monumental, the sculpture represents the body by proxy, a physical embodiment of the violence, trauma and continual survival experienced by LGBTQ folks without resorting to easy or literal representational strategies. This is further emphasized in a nearby video, which documents the artist and collaborators pushing the sculpture to sites of violence and oppression in Omaha, Nebraska. When I watched, they were headed to a prison where LGBTQ people of color were being placed in solitary confinement–making the typically invisible trauma of the incarcerated, visible.
In this way, the slab of clay–like a cube of urine or a video of the artist in an inferno–becomes both a stand-in for the battered, beaten and threatened body at risk and a communal means to expose and resist dominant regulatory power. As Cassils told Kris Grey in their Huffington Post conversation, “I’m invested in transness as a political position that offers the possibility of resistance. I want to play with formal possibilities which embrace the obtuse and the unrecognizable. I am curious as to what ideas and questions can come from continual transformation.”