Becoming An Image by Heather Cassils

“It calls into question the roles of the witness, the aggressor and the documentor”

Heather Cassils is a performer/artist from Montreal, Canada who currently resides in Los Angeles, California. The goal of zir work is to challenge societal norms in terms of gender and its current perceived binary. Ze does this with multiple exhibits and projects but more uniquely, with zir own body and the bodies of other individuals. Through strict physical training and artistic brilliance, ze challenges bodily gender expectations with zir own body structure and the body structure of other gender non-conforming people.

In zir work, ze attempts to reinvent what it means to be transgender. Ze likes to express trans (and gender in general) as a continual state of being, not necessarily the transitioning from one sex to another through surgery and hormones. Although transition is one way to look at gender and trans identity, Cassils’ portrayal of gender and trans identity is extremely unique and thought provoking.

Zir projects reflect deep rooted themes of gender in our society. Zir work is captivating and challenges gender conformity and stereotypes of gender. Ze focuses greatly on body image and bodily expectations throughout zir exhibits. In all projects, ze uses physical bodies as canvas’, tools and other forms of art. Zir work is metaphorically genius, with interesting messages in every performance and work of art that get the audience thinking about gender and its current portrayal in society.

Of Cassils’ many projects, the one that is most relevant to this class and this unit is zir performance entitled “Becoming an Image” which came about in 2013. This is a show that takes Cassils, a photographer, a 1,500 pound block of clay and an audience and turns them into an extremely valuable lesson on gender in today’s world. The performance goes as follows – The audience is seated in a blacked out room facing, unbeknownst to them, Cassils and the 1,500 pound block of clay. Cassils begins the show and starts pounding and molding the block of clay solely with zir body. The audience hears zir grunts and pounding. As this continues, a blinded photographer intermittently take photos at which point Cassils and the clay are revealed to the audience, but only for the second that the flash illuminates the room.

This a wonderful archive that uniquely represents queer culture. It is an interesting way to think about gender. Often times, we analyze gender as male, female, unisex or in transition. All of these gender identities reinforce the gender binary. Even though transgender individuals challenge the concept of cisgender, it reinforces the notion that you can only be one gender or the other.  But, Cassils challenges this binary and the concept of gender which really makes zir audience think. Why is gender so salient in our society? Why can’t humans beings be just that? Cassils’ work makes zir audience evaluate the relevancy of gender in a beautiful and artistic way.

In class, we discussed how Trans* Identity may in fact reiterate the gender binary by saying “I don’t feel like I am X, I feel like I am Y.” Because of this, Cassils provides a unique view to trans* identity in a way that does not emphasis the dichotomy of gender. Similarly, while I analyzed my archive, our reading by Leslie Feinberg came to mind. Ze talks about how “unnerving” ze is to people because of zirs mix of masculine and feminine traits. Ze talks about how the root of this issue is that the norm is a gender binary. If the binary is eliminated and gender is reared irrelevant people would not have to rely so heavily on gender cues and a lack of gender cues would not trigger such confusion.

Quoted above, this archive calls into question many relevant roles that contribute to our perceptions of gender. Those who witness gender are a part of it, those who physically mold gender are a part of it and those who document gender are a part of it. These are all things to keep in mind for how we can eliminate such rigid definitions of gender and enforce a continuity of being human rather than being gendered.

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