Cassils: Solutions at The Station Museum of Contemporary Art - Kelly Johnson
Journeying through the pulsating galleries of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Cassils: Solutions takes the viewer through a full range of states—anger, frustration, defiance, curiosity, fear, confusion, arousal, pride, laughter, tears— ultimately brewing an emotional concoction of compassion, exhaustion, and self-reflection.
Through visual and sound documentation of performance, using the artist’s and others’ bodily experiences as both content and material, this mid-career retrospective of work by LA-based artist Cassils offers viewers thoughtfully chronicled displays of queer grit. This performed and embodied endurance is fueled by both queer rage and collaborations of care, alchemically transformed to address and counter the violence that mediates all bodies, but especially queer bodies, and specifically trans bodies.
The original motivation for Cassils’ featured work, PISSED, was the Trump Administration’s rescinding of protections for transgender students allowing them to use the restrooms corresponding with their gender identity. Station Museum curator Alex Tu adds local context to Cassils’ work, citing Houstonians’ rejection of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in 2015, highlighting community fears of trans and gender nonconforming folx using public restrooms to relieve basic bodily functions.
This long legacy of fear of queer communities and its resulting violence continues, as Equality Texas reported an epidemic of violence against LGBTQ Houstonians in 2017, and most recently demonstrated by vicious protests against the joyful Drag Queen Storytime at the Houston Public Library.
As the Trump Administration continues national attacks specifically against the trans community, most recently by “considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth,” as reported in the New York Times, Cassils’ response to these acts of violence is to use art as “a prayer for political climate change: invok[ing] Athena, Goddess of War, in elemental rituals of the sacred and the profane,” as the exhibition pamphlet reads.
The show opens with Cassils’ now legendary PISSED (2017-), a mesmerizing cube of urine shimmering atop a pedestal, and 200 Days, 200 Gallons (2017), stacked columns of medical urine containers from the exhibition’s local “urine drive.” Houstonians participated to complete the sculpture and stand in solidarity with all whose bodies are policed and rejected by these hateful bathroom bills (which the Texas State Legislature has also recently infamously considered).
This installation is accompanied by audio recordings of testimony from Gavin Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, in which a trans student from Virginia sued his high school for the right to use the appropriate restroom, revealing the insensitivity and miseducation of school and government officials on this issue.
For the original durational work displayed at Ronald Feldman Gallery in NYC, Cassils collected more than 200 gallons of their own urine from February to September 2017, documented in this excellent video by Vice News which is also displayed in the Station Museum galleries. Cassils originally wanted to mail the piece to the White House in protest, but it would have been considered an act of biowarfare. It’s telling that restricting bathroom access to certain people is not considered biological warfare as well.
Gleaming like a golden lava lamp, PISSED is effective in its complex simplicity—it is at once serious in its production and symbolism, heartening in the collaborative effort from locals, and it’s totally gross and totally hilarious—it’s a giant cube of pee! Plus, the physical construction of the container with the pump hidden in the pedestal is impressive, and the format provides an extended life for the sculpture, allowing this important conversation to be recreated in other communities.
The exhibition continues with visceral, gut-wrenching works further highlighting Cassils’ fortitude through and agency with others, while processing the deep physical, psychological, and generational harm that has been done to trans and queer communities. Cassils hijacks the gestures of violence perpetrated on trans bodies, combined with the raw power of frustration and rage in the face of enduring injustice, to channel into The Resilience of the 20%, Ghosts, and The Powers That Be (2016).
Fist- and stomp-prints rendered in clay, grunts and yells from the corners of a pitch-black room, and the exhausting dance of grappling with an invisible sparring partner, each indicate violence as a spectre that follows and haunts trans bodies, illustrating combat, terror, and stress as a constant existential threat. (For further readings on these works in which Cassils performs with their naked body constantly exposed to the viewer’s gaze, David J. Getsy writes a great analysis on Cassils’ subversion of voyeurism for Artforum.)
Analyzing the legacy of violence on collective bodies, Aline’s Orchard (Between Scandal and Oblivion) (2018) and 103 Shots (2016) each address the “disorienting effect of violence in the space of intimacy,” as described in an accompanying wall label. Recreating an LA cruising site with sensory elements like a grass floor, and projected scents and sounds of sex, Aline’s Orchard contends with the removal and policing of queer meeting spaces, as lawmakers and communities continue to find insidious ways to eliminate, straight-wash, or buy out these spaces (it’s happening here in Montrose too).
Meanwhile, 103 Shots further contextualizes the horror of the Pulse shooting, in which a survivor recounted his initial confusion at hearing the gunshot noises in the club, thinking they were celebratory fireworks or balloons popping. Cassils directed a video at San Francisco Pride in response, asking couples and friends to burst a balloon between their bodies with the force of their embrace—103 gestures of affection for the number of bullets that night. The video echos with sharp bursts and looks of surprise and discomfort on the pairs’ faces, providing a metaphor for the potential danger that lingers among these sacred moments and demonstrations of care.
Installed together, Inextinguishable Fire (2015) and Encapsulated Breaths (2017) shows a larger-than-life video of Cassils burning in both protest and determination, foregrounded by 14 fragile hand-blown glass bubbles matching the number of seconds Cassils’ body is engulfed by flames. The artist on fire conjures monumental images of crucifixion and self-immolation—a body suffering in defiance of an unjust political situation. In this work though, as the stunt crew extinguishes the inferno, Cassils could be a resilient phoenix rising from the ashes, representing the privileged few—those able to escape or survive danger, living to speak their truth.
The exhibition culminates with the title work Solution (2018), featuring Cassils with Keijaun Thomas, Fanna, and Rafa Esparza, melting ice sculptures with their naked bodies in another collaborative performance of physical and mental endurance. As the wall label describes, each artist, whose “subject positions differ, but whose civil rights are all being eroded by the current US administration,” selected a mythical image to be made into a large ice sculpture, then identified a gesture with which to confront it.
Cassils steadfastly presses their torso against the back of the Greek figure Tiresias, a blind prophet who was transformed into a woman for seven years, underscoring the perceived restrictiveness of gender identity. Keijaun Thomas lovingly “washes” a figure of the Yoruba goddess, Yemaya, with rags, brushes, and her bare hands, referencing “marginalized representations of the black body in relation to domestic service and disposable labor.” Fanna delicately and futilely attempts to gild a Buraq figure—part-woman/horse/winged-being—from Muslim folklore attempting “to fix what is divine and unfixable.” And Rafa Esparza lays prostrate on a cross, challenging “the Christian religion’s relationship with colonialism,” and its accompanying violence against Latinx bodies and culture.
Curator Sophie Asakura elaborates how Cassils “uses their body and profession to bring visibility to issues directly related to their identity as a transgender person but also to speak to the violence perpetrated daily against minoritized people, the power of collective action for community building and healing, and the sanctity of the persecuted body.” Arranged together, each of the artists’ efforts to melt or deconstruct these prescriptive social structures that restrict the body transforms into a chorus of persistence, united in respect and care for one another.
These gestures of transformation occur throughout the show, tucked away at the start with Cassils’ Alchemic series with Robin Black (2017)—quietly stunning cropped photos of Cassils’ flexing body covered in gold. The wall label describes how Cassils, “applies [an] alchemic process to the subject of trans embodiment, gilding and exalting the self-determined trans body to monumental proportions.” Pushing this concept further, the exhibition showcases Cassils’ transformation of individual and collective queer trauma into vulnerable moments of justice and compassion, harnessing the alchemic power of the four elements.
Battered clay and trampled grass (earth) become monuments to survival, testifying voices and strained breath (air) stand witness to struggle, a body engulfed in fire (literally) demonstrates defiance and resilience, and golden piss and melting ice (water) illustrate community solidarity and challenging limitations of body and identity. Each of these works of “elemental rituals of the sacred and the profane” are used to process and defy the barrage of violence, while upholding the sacredness of this wild, miraculously complex experience that it is to be human.
The Station Museum has consistently pushed boundaries and presented radical, high-quality contemporary art, and this show is a definite highlight in their programming. The title of the exhibition, Solutions references not only the blood, sweat, tears, and urine that manifested this artwork, but also suggests that art can be a part of the solution to the ongoing issue of political disembodiment.
While there is so much to unpack in this show, the success of this show remains in the artist’s ability to transfer a feeling from their own embodied experience to the viewer, directly through the viewer’s experience of the work. Cassils demonstrates how art can be a tool for empathy building, education, visibility, and inquiry, as throughout the entire experience of the exhibition, the viewer is invited to be an active witness to the artist’s vulnerability.
This aspect of the work calls upon us as viewers to take on the responsibility of posing questions of our own bodies, identities, and privileges. Solutions calls for cis folks to question how we uphold transphobic behavior and policies, just like white folks need to critically examine our role in upholding white supremacy, and hetero folks need to critically examine their role in upholding homophobia, etc.
Solutions calls for lawmakers, family members, friends, employers and business owners, teachers, and all humans to engage in self-education on gender, listen to and believe stories of folx who are trans to better understand their experiences, respect and use people’s pronouns, and challenge transphobic and sexist remarks, actions, and policies. How can we each be a small part of the solution to build a less violent, more caring world together?
Cassils: Solutions is on view at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art (1502 West Alabama Street, Houston, TX 77004) through March 3, 2019.