Last night I got to see Heather Cassils perform Becoming an Image. In this performance, Cassils boxes a plinth-like column of clay to the ground. This is done in the dark: the audience enters the room, stands in a ring around the clay sculpture which is lit from above. The room goes black and the artist and photographer are led into the circle. Cassils then attacks the clay – at first you can’t imagine that Cassils will be able to beat it down before “gassing out.”
The photographer (last night it was Manuel Vason) circles Cassils, taking photographs every now and again. The flash illuminates the action – but you of course don’t see action. You only see a flash image, frozen for a second into the retina. It took me a while to conceptually separate my experience of those images from the images captured by Vason’s camera – the image the audience member sees feel distinctly photographic.
For the duration of the approximately 20 minute performance, you hear Cassils breath and grunt like a fighter in the ring. Or a fighter working the bag. It’s gym noise.
I am sure this performance feels very different for people who have boxing or a martial arts practice. Your body knows what is happening to the artist’s body – people train and fight in three-minute rounds for a reason. Punching and kicking is exhausting; these are a technically and physically demanding actions. The more you tire, the harder it is to keep your concentration and hold your form – and if you don’t do the latter, not only will you tire even faster, you’ll hurt yourself. Even if you are fighting a lump of clay. Especially if you are fighting a lump of clay.
Training on a bag is very very hard – and a bag gives to impact. So, if you have some familiarity with the sport this work cites, you know that it is intensely durational. You can hear it in the artist’s breathing – weezing, gasping. A solid block of clay not only doesn’t give – after the performance the artist told me that it seems to push back. It has its own resilience.
Becoming an Image is an engagement with the idea of the object, but it is also a very intense workout with the idea of the athlete, and with the image of the artist. What this performance does to gender – that’s not only another blog post, that’s a whole book.