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I Swear to Be Your Citizen Artist

Multidisciplinary artist Cassils just became an American citizen—perfect timing for them to challenge and critique policy and politics through their practice.

The timing is perfect for a gender critique that comes from within the United States. On my way to and from viewing Cassils’ recent show in New York, I crossed the American border as someone in transition, experiencing the same scrutiny that the artist has described on their Instagram account as “panic-” and “breakdown-inducing.” Border guards patted me down for bodily “anomalies” and questioned me while I was prone inside the full-body scanners with my hands in the air, performing the outlaw, othered body for a theatre of TSA agents.

The trans body was under a different kind of scrutiny in Cassils’ exhibition “Monumental,” which closed in December after an extended run at Ronald Feldman Gallery in Manhattan, and enveloped the spectator in the physicality and bodily experiences of trans and LGBT people in our contemporary moment. Using their signature playful homage to past artists and aesthetic movements—while also, as usual, reflecting upon the making and unmaking of gender—Cassils tackled multiple political realities in the United States, from the vulnerability of the trans body to the existence of wider political resistance against marginalization, invisibility and silencing.

It’s worth noting that Cassils’ participation in the trans (and larger LGBT) struggle in America is a chosen one: they are a Canadian artist who recently became an American citizen, and Cassils’ new work for “Monumental” was created during the same time frame in which they officially became a U.S. citizen. “I know the timing is off—and it seems a strange time to become an U.S. citizen,” the artist stated on their Instagram account in August. “And while most would run north—I came here because I believe in the fierce spirit of resilience in this country that has nourished me. I swear to be your Citizen Artist.”

Indeed, Cassils’ work on the state of trans rights in the U.S. happening at the same moment in which gender identity and expression has become enshrined in the Canadian Human Rights Act is not insignificant. In citizenship as in other matters, Cassils is well aware of their position. Cassils is at the forefront of the struggle for trans rights in America, and their privilege as a white, trans-masculine person affords them the ability to challenge, to critique policy and politics through their praxis.

To be trans is to be a representative, sometimes unwillingly, for political struggle, and as well be a target for harassment and misidentification. Cassils’ praxis moves beyond representing this kind of experience to openly declare a specific political intention: their work depicts, emphasizes and aestheticizes the trans body. Their work also deciphers the mitigation of such a body’s existence while navigating multiple phenomena—national and physical boundaries; narratives of violence; and state-sanctioned negotiations on personhood.

Becoming an Image (2012-) provided an entry point into Cassils’ work for the show. This piece originated in a 2012 performance at the oldest active LGBTQ archive in the United States, a performance in which Cassils attacked a 2,000-pound block of clay in total darkness; the only light came from the flashbulbs of blindfolded photographers documenting the event. Accordingly, at Ronald Feldman, the photos from this work were displayed in a black-box theatre–like space.

These photos in the gallery faced Resilience of the 20% (2016) a bronzed version of the large clay slab bearing an imprint and action of the artist from Becoming an Image. Ongoing narratives persist in Cassils’ work: Resilience of the 20%, since its casting, has been translated into a new performance where a group of queer folk and allies are followed by a single video camera as they push the bronze cast slab to sites of unseen violence.

This new, latter video piece, Monument Push (2017), documents the journey of the bronze sculpture/monument through Omaha, Nebraska. This short video highlights the energy of the push, recording the creaking trolley propelled by LGBT activists, community members and allies as they struggle over cracks and uneven pavement. As the bronzed sculpture and its human engine lurches forward, it sonically and visually disrupts the quiet landscape of infamously transphobic Nebraska with a trace of violence memorialized. The police cars present as the monument is pushed to sites of violence, including the Douglas County jail, add insult to injury as many police forces (Canadian ones included) continue to literally overlook ongoing struggles of the queer and trans community.

This progression of Cassils’ oeuvre—from Becoming an Image to Resilience of the 20% to Monument Push—as installed in the exhibition provided a chronological displacement of time, a durational space in which the viewer was invited into the process, into the very physical and social making of a monument, as well as invited to see its culmination as a “portable” memorial.

Cassils’ signature play with political disturbance continued in their work PISSED (2017). For this piece, they deposited 200 gallons of urine in a “Minimalist” plexi cube, and placed that cube atop a raised plinth that dwarfed spectators in the gallery space. This urine was collected starting in February, from the day that the Trump administration rescinded Title IX protections for trans and gender non-conforming children in public schools to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

PISSED was complemented by an audio chronicle of the legal proceedings of teenager Gavin Grimm’s recent battle to use the boys’ restroom in his Virginia high school. (As well as lifting Title IX protections, the current U.S. administration has also made it clear that individual states are welcome to propose bills on human rights as they choose, whether pro- or anti-LGBTQ.)

There is something very powerful about a durational artwork comprised of a trans artist’s engagement with political, personal and somewhat singular bodily “form”—and this power is amplified when the artist, at the same time, appropriates and castigates Minimalism, a philosophy that touts aesthetic form over all else. Cassils’ work throughout the exhibition laid bare the processes of production, limiting the tautology of Minimalist fabrication and adding a singular, human element in the creation of art that could not be outsourced or reproduced.

This ironic use of a so-called depoliticized aesthetic such as Minimalism to convey a highly politicized message struck me as I traversed the gallery. The jugs of piss titled 200 Days, 200 Gallons (2017) were lined up neatly in grid form on the wall. The brown, decaying collected urine bubbled up in its clear cube of display. This clearly physical, if formalized, type of material presence reminded me how rescinding protections for those identifying along the trans spectrum, including non-binary trans folk like Cassils (and myself), endanger and in effect erase the physicality and physical needs of trans people from the public sphere. This, in turn, restricts our ability to live and to operate in the quotidian.

In “Monumental,” the trans body (and not just what the person who has a trans body must mitigate to live in the public space) is made clearly visible—larger than life, even. Cassils’ chiselled form, for instance, folded into abstractions and painted gold, is the basis for the oversized photographic rondelles that make up the series Alchemic (2017). This series, made with longtime collaborator Robin Black, evokes Classical sculptural proportions which defy the social marginalization to which people with trans bodies are so often relegated. The body posed in this series is rendered in gold. This brings its hue close to the high-bronze effect of competitive bodybuilders. And this also accords their trans body the same worth as a highly prized art object on the one hand and as a muscled masculine body on the other. Here, the trans body is not set apart as a pathologized other, but as a subject worthy of human recognition and attention.

Another set of work in “Monumental” focused on a different type of bodily product: the breath. These fragile glass forms, each the size and shape of a single breath, evoked, for me, “speech bubbles,” and in this way conveyed the fragility and volatility of political speech—and even drawing breath—as a trans person. (This fragility is exacerbated when one considers the tenuous position of a trans person speaking out against a hypercapitalist neoliberal administration in the United States.)

Cassils’ work utilizes a temporal weave of art history to put the trans body into a complex conversation with aesthetics—a conversation that reflects the desire to trouble popular categorizations of the trans body as marginal while also shoring up Leslie Feinberg’s assertion that transgender people have existed throughout time, though we often go unmonumentalized and unmemorialized. The lack of such remembrance becomes even sharper as violence against trans folk, especially trans women of colour, increases.

In their highly political commentaries on the current political precarity of trans subjects in the U.S., Cassils stands against the state, aestheticizing and monumentalizing gender non-conforming bodies even as they are still subject to intense scrutiny. Overclassified and oversanctioned, our bodies still get sliced into parts in order to prove pathology, still get tracked for difference as we move across the nationalized and politicized spaces of the world that we must navigate every day.

D.J. Fraser is a critical and creative writer, instructor and doctoral student at Concordia University in the art history department. They work in between Montréal and New York.

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