In ancient times, alchemists sought to transform base metals such as lead and tin into a more noble and perfect form – gold. In the extraordinary work of Cassils, the artist’s body is the base element undergoing transmutation. Subjected to extremes of fire and ice, clad in precious metal, and bulked up through a body-building regime, Cassils’ transmasculine body is their primary sculptural medium.
Surveying a number of significant works from the past decade, Alchemic is the first Australian exhibition for the Canadian-born, LA-based artist, and offers an ideal entry point into Cassils’ practice. It follows three years of discussion with the Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF). Curator Anne Loxley recalls her first viewing of Cassils’ video work Inextinguishable Fire, 2007–15, in which the artist is seen engulfed in flames: “The rigorous demands Cassils placed on their body – we just couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Loxley says.
As she and PIAF co-curator Felicity Fenner dug further into the artist’s practice, “we realised Cassils was, well, phenomenal – and went from there.”
Referencing art history, Greek myth and contemporary politics, Cassils’ work is at once erudite and theatrical, conceptual and bodily. A key work in Alchemic is the now-iconic work Becoming an Image (2012– current). Hovering between performance, documentation and sculpture, this piece sees Cassils attack a 900-kilogram block of wet clay with their fists and feet. The 30-minute performance takes place in complete darkness, illuminated at intervals by the white flash of a photographer’s camera. Each brief image of the artist’s naked battling body lingers in the retinas of the audience, who encircle the scene.
Elucidated with a level of technical finesse that Loxley describes as “dazzling,” Cassils’ work is fierce, raw and unflinching.
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts
10 February—14 April
This article was originally published in the March/April 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.