Originally published in Out Magazine on 9/27/2017. See original with video here.
This past weekend, the Guggenheim award winning visual artist rooted in performance Cassils opened their solo show at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in Soho. Aptly dubbed Monumental, the show centers around "#PISSED," the gender nonconforming artist’s latest work, which is a response to the Trump administration’s rollback of federal guidelines that instructed schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Consisting of 200 gallons of urine in a modernist glass cube – every drop that Cassils has passed since the day in February when the Trump administration announced the rollback—"#PISSED" is a powerful visualization of the literal burden that this move inflicted (and continues to inflict) on vulnerable trans children. As in much of Cassils work, the accompanying soundscape is particularly moving: a mega cut of the various transphobic arguments used against Gavin Grimm, the Virginia high school student who sued his school to be able to use the appropriate bathroom. The two-hour long audio track follows Grimm’s quest from his local PTA all the way up to the ACLU’s lawsuit on his behalf.
“Quite often with my work, there’s this intensive, rigorous, dragging-myself-over-the-coals analytical procedure that I put myself through to get to the point of making an artwork,” Cassils told OUT during a brief break from installing their show.
“But in the case of '#PISSED,' it was really a guttural reaction. Initially, I had thought, Let’s all send our piss to the White House en masse, like we could all do this massive urine drive,” Cassils laughed. “But I was undergoing my citizenship application, and my lawyer advised me highly against doing that. So I thought I’d go the realm of metaphor, and commenced collecting my urine.”
This went fairly well, Cassils said, until they’d filled an entire fridge with bright orange collection containers, and their wife requested that no more be kept in the house. “So I had to call up friends that had garage space or a bit of extra studio room,” they said. In the end, they filled seven fridges full of urine.
Cassils’ work often incorporates their own body, or its effluvia, as a way of turning their deeply analytical process into visceral art with the power to move the viewer on a more profound, less theoretical level.
“We’re in a world which is so incredibly mitigated by technology,” they explained, “there’s something about body fluid, presence, or smell, that can shake people up a little bit.”
In fact, "#PISSED" contains many of the hallmarks of Cassils work, which is an embodied practice that directly references queer politics, community, and rage. For example, the sculpture "Resilience of the 20%"—another piece on view in Monumental—taps into that same sense of human resistance.
"Resilience" is the evolution of an older piece, entitled "Becoming an Image," in which Cassils used their martial arts training to beat a 2,000lbs clay block into a torqued and pockmarked mass. The audio recorded at that performance is chilling; with your eyes closed, it sounds like a brutal beating, all panting breaths and wet thuds.
For "Resilience," the resulting block was cast in bronze, suggesting the endurance of queer life in the face of violence. The “20%” in the title of the work refers to the statistic that in 2012, reported murders of transgender people increased 20% around the world.
Although their work has queerness at its center, Cassils is an advocate for an intersectional politics that uses queerness as a way to approach many issues.
“Queer rage is intersectional rage,” they said simply. “When we look at the repeal of DACA, I mean, that’s 800,000 young people who have been compliant with the government, who are trying to do what’s right and have the right to live in this country. Fifty thousand of those people are members of the LGBTQ community. We need to step up and be rageful for that. With marriage equality, what about those relationships that aren’t valued by the state? Queer people need to stand up for that, too.“
Cassils work speaks to the queer community as a whole, and tries to make space for the most marginalized identities within the community—queer people of color, youth, trans people, queer people who are incarcerated, etc. This, they believe, is at the heart of queer rage: standing up for those issues that might not affect you directly, but are life and death concerns for others in the community.
“There was a time where everybody was trodden upon,” they explained. “Certain demographics of the LGBTQ community have now been given certain privileges. But it’s really important for queer rage to not just come from one’s own lived experiences, but from empathy for others.”
This empathy, of course, fuels the rage that Cassils expresses throughout Monumental. It seems strange to say that a show made of piss and pain might ultimately be about love, but then again, queer love has often made space for exactly those kinds of unconventional expressions. Cassils' work may speak in violence, confinement, and condemnation, but ultimately, their art is about transforming those experiences into something useful—like turning urine into sculpture. They believe that “as much as we need rituals for anger, we need rituals for healing, and rituals for witnessing each other’s pain.”
In Monumental, they have created a show that provides all three at once.