Cassils and the Complicated Rhetoric of the Hero

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I used to have a student called Sarah Kench. Older than her peers, she was already in her 30s when she started at Syracuse University. Sarah fought harder to get there than anyone I’ve ever worked with. She grew up biracial in the projects in Syracuse, New York — a rust-belt town where, if you’re black, you’re more likely to live in poverty than in any other city in the US. Graduating out of foster care, she briefly joined the military right out of high school, had a child, went to community college, and then clawed her way to a full scholarship at S.U. And along the way, she transitioned from male to female.

In the fall of 2016, transgender artist and activist Cassils was Herb Alpert Fellow at Syracuse University. During the fellowship, they made a full-sized bronze cast of their sculpture The Resilience of the 20%, a one-ton mass of modeling clay shaped with fists and feet in a performance called Becoming an Image (2012-ongoing). While Cassils was here, Sarah Kench committed suicide by drowning herself in a lake on the outskirts of town. The urgency – and contradictions – of Cassils’s work could not have been more vividly invoked for me than by the suicide of my former student and friend.

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Cassils’s body is as much their medium as clay or bronze: with expertise gained over 18 years as a personal trainer, they devote months of physical preparation to each performance. In an earlier work, Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture (2011-13), they gained 23 pounds of muscle in as many weeks (a reimagining of Eleanor Antin’s 1972 photo-documentary work Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, in which she lost 10 pounds in 37 days). Both artists engage notions of the ideal body: women must be gracile, and attenuated; men should be yoked with muscle. But Cassils focuses on the notion of corporeal transformation itself, central as it is to transgender discourse.

All of Cassils’s work questions the representation of trans bodies, but with Becoming an Image, they push back against the pornographic, dehumanizing gaze viewers have learned to associate with images of trans people. During the performances, viewers stand in total darkness around a clay monolith as Cassils pummels it – sometimes flying through the air to land on top and bash away from there. The only light is a photographer’s flash, which goes off every minute or so, searing images of a singular body, flying and thrashing, with a retinal burn.

During a recent performance at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the artist also walked through the space and gently touched members of the audience. The denial of a full, unimpeded view of their body presented the trans subject in a nuanced way: less as an image and more like an agent, emboldened and in control. The soft touching operated the same way.

Physically, pouring a mold like the one for The Resilience of the 20% is incredibly demanding. At S.U., Cassils enlisted the help of a group of students, who also staged performances during the molding, casting, and chasing. One such performance unfolded thus: as the gold-bar sized ingots were melted down, two students used a set of letter punches to engrave each one with the name of a trans person lost to violence in the last ten years. In this way, the work was made to contain their absence.

 

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During Trans Remembrance Week, Cassils’s class met out at the lake where Sarah died. While we were there, we pounded her name into a brass ingot and found a place to set it into the moss, in the woods.

Cassils is the only person I know who went to Sarah Kench’s funeral (despite having never met her). They said it was awful. Sarah was only referred to as Paul, and only shown in pre-transition photographs. Cassils’s presence represented another way of seeing Sarah.

Sarah’s experience of gender dysphoria started early in childhood, and she was punished brutally for its manifestations. She was a weird kid who just didn’t fit in. And things didn’t get easier when she reached adulthood. The biggest issue was her (justifiable) bitterness. After graduating from S.U., she floundered. She got a fellowship that allowed her to stay enrolled in classes at the school, but it was conditional on interning at a “community-engaged” organization in Syracuse.

Sarah lived in public housing on a miserly sum from social services, and upon graduating she had to start paying child support again. Unpaid internships were all she could find, and they didn’t cut it with the courts. When she went before a judge to explain her situation, he laughed at her and insisted on calling her by her pre-transition name. Ultimately, she had to forfeit the fellowship.

Eventually she got hired as a prep cook at an Olive Garden, where the line cook was often particularly cruel to her. One day, a conflict — and her employment — ended with her shouting over the restaurant’s PA system: “Line cook can SUCK IT!”

 

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The visual vocabulary of heroism features prominently in Cassils’s art. In Tiresias (2010-13), their torso was pressed for five hours against a breastplate made of ice, carved in the shape of a neoclassical Greek male figure which critic David Getsy called “… the image of Classical ideality.” In the endurance work Inextinguishable Fire (2007-15), Cassils was set alight for 14 seconds, using a technique borrowed from the Hollywood stunt world.

A friend expressed his reservations about Cassils’s work to me like this: “too much body-perfect … another reminder that we use our ideals to crush us.” This is not the only way their work bears the signature of Los Angeles, the world capital of crushing dreams. The use of spectacular physical beauty; the high production values; the flashbulbs evoking paparazzi. Cassils’s conspicuous and subversive hero-play strains to restore agency to a subject frequently denied a voice. But we should pause here to consider allegiances: spectacular forms of representation are often used in service of uncomplicated stories.

My friend’s caution has been circling around in my mind as I write about the life and death of Sarah Kench. I know I risk building an image that bears only some resemblance to the “real” Sarah, and I don’t want to make that character solely a martyr to trans violence. Because this risks flattening her; it sands down qualities that were sometimes troubling or annoying – qualities that built up as a direct consequence of the challenges she faced as a trans person of color, living in deep poverty in the United States.

When the state intervened in Sarah’s life, it did so to confer punishment, not protection. And so her prickliness, her bitterness, her sometimes-misplaced resentments — these all evolved as ways to cope. When I describe her, I try not to portray her as too smooth, too high-functioning. Glossing over her challenging aspects somehow seems to exonerate the organs (school system, healthcare system, Child Protective Services, foster care, etc.) that failed her. An excess of myth-making is simply another way to call Sarah by the wrong name.

I see Sarah as I see Cassils: heroic, but awkwardly so. About a year before she died, Sarah and I went back to the neighborhood where she grew up, to the playground across the street from her elementary school. She was pretty emotional – angry and sad, but also triumphant. As we left, she turned back to face her school and thrust her middle finger into the air.

“I graduated!  Suma Cum Laude, fuckers!”

Perhaps my friend is right to point out that Cassils is, oddly, too normative a hero, epitomizing, as they do, physical beauty and self-discipline. Sarah Kench certainly could have used a hero, but I don’t know if she could have availed herself of one who modeled such perfect beauty and strength. She might have needed a slightly scruffier ideal in order to see enough of herself to identify. This is a sort of occupational hazard of the hero:  only other heroic types can empathize with you.

But there is much more to Cassils’s work than the flawless gloss that decorates its surface. It’s rich in art-historical and literary reference, and it is moving. The touches they gave, for example, before performing Becoming an Image in Philadelphia – the squeeze on the shoulder that says “listen, be here with me now, in your body, while I do this crazy thing with mine.” It’s profound. It’s sublime. It’s the work we need right now.

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