Heather Cassils Gets Ripped for LACE Performance Art Show
PHOTO BY HEATHER CASSILS AND ROBIN BLACKA man or a woman? That is the question in Cassils' Homage to Benglis.
Heather Cassils built up 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks. She changed her diet weekly, ate four raw eggs and three kinds of meat a day, spent $1,000 per month on groceries and, from May 6 to July 27, took a small dose of steroids. At one point she leg-pressed 600 pounds, and by the end of the project her arms were so taut she needed help taking off her shirt.
Each week of this body-mass marathon, she stood in front of a white wall wearing a nude-colored thong and used a wireless clicker to photograph herself from the front, back and sides. "It was unsustainable," says the artist, whose body, chiseled to begin with, was by the end a surreally androgynous triumph in muscularity.
Cassils strung together her weekly photographs in a stop-motion video that shows her morphing physique as part of her project Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, on view at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in "Los Angeles Goes Live." For the show, two years in the making, LACE commissioned artists to reimagine famous L.A. performance art from the '70s and early '80s, when the scene was small, renegade and not well documented. The show is funded through Pacific Standard Time, L.A. art's trek through its postwar history.
Cassils, a personal trainer by day, took two 1970s performances as her inspiration, the first by heady conceptualist Eleanor Antin and the second by sculptor and sometimes-performer Lynda Benglis. Though the two artists had vastly different sensibilities — Antin's minimal and historical, Benglis' brash and oozing — neither had qualms about using her own body as material.
In 1972, when Antin performed Carved: A Traditional Sculpture, she treated her body like a Greek sculpture, chiseling away at it by crash-dieting for 37 days. Every day, she photographed herself in front of a bare studio wall, charting her progress toward an idealized, slim physique. She lost nine pounds and, while the change is clear, it's no longer that startling. Skinniness and the means of achieving it are widely publicized now; we've gotten used to seeing even more dramatic transformations in US Weekly.
That's partly why Cassils reversed the project, treating her body like an additive rather than subtractive sculpture, and aiming for an antifeminine extreme of brute muscle. While Antin subjected herself to the conventions of beauty, Cassils says, "I'm more into talking about what you can do with a supposed 'biological' female body."
In 1974, two years after Antin's experiment, Benglis altered her biologically female body, adding an appendage. Fed up with the machismo coursing through New York's art scene, she bought ad space in art-world bible ArtForum. A few months before, sculptor Robert Morris had appeared ripped and shirtless in an exhibition ad in the magazine. Benglis went for something ballsier. She hired a fashion photographer to shoot her nude, oiled, perfectly tan pro-file. Wearing sunglasses, she taunted the camera by holding a double-headed dildo up to her crotch. When the ad appeared, the mag got an onslaught of mail — some congratulatory, most outraged. Two female editors resigned. "It's a confusing image," Cassils says. "You can't tell if Benglis is screwing herself, screwing her audience, play-acting masculinity or just parodying it."
Cassils aimed for confusion, too, but a different kind. She'd build herself up until she was uncomfortably "cut," then, like Benglis, have a photographer shoot her, sans dildo. "I wanted my body to become the phallus."
LACE director Carol Stakenas says she wanted artists who could think critically about history without getting bogged down by it. Like Cassils, most have opted to remix rather than restage past performances.
Japanese-American playwright-performer Denise Uyehara discovered that artist James Luna, who has lived on the La Jolla Indian Reservation for decades, grew up near her in Orange County. She asked him to collaborate with her to revisit Luna's 1970s work Transitions, in which he entered a gallery in plain clothes, then "transformed" himself by donning "Indian" regalia. In their Nov. 10 LACE performance, Uyehara will wear a kimono with 20-foot arms, play disco music and project home videos, though plans aren't yet finalized.
Artist Dorian Wood uncovered lesser-known events on the fringes of the queer and performance-art communities that have influenced his own work, like the time visceral performer Ron Athey and musician Rozz Williams used knives to slash through a curtain made of porn magazines. "I became fascinated with paying proper respect to this history," says Wood, and to acknowledge all the figures his research turned up, his performance, set for October in Barnsdall Art Park, will "essentially be a tableau." Hundreds of volunteers, stand-ins for participants in the '70s scene, will lie face down in the grass, and viewers will wander through this sea of bodies until they end up in a tent, where a loud, irreverent concert will be in full swing. What started as homage has become something entirely its own.
Cassils' project quickly became its own thing, too. When she approached trainer Charles Glass, former Mr. Universe and a bodybuilding celebrity, to help her put on as much mass as possible, she wanted a project that, like Antin's, would last days. Glass said she needed six months if she wanted significant change. "I don't want you to train me like a woman," she told him. "Have you ever seen female bodybuilders?" he retorted. "They don't look like women."
She started training in late February and at first focused on building up bulk, lifting weights and doing leg presses, some so heavy she'd pee her pants. Nutritionist David Kalick helped her develop a diet she followed to the ounce. All this became a full-time job, which was difficult since she kept working her actual day job in a Silver Lake gym. "I was running off and locking myself in the bathroom, shoving food into my face," she says. "What I initially thought of as empowering became limiting."
The project had nothing to do with health, everything to do with dramatically changing her appearance. "It was ultimately about surface, not function," she says, and she became anxious when she couldn't clearly perceive the payoff. "There was definitely some body dysmorphia that happened."
But near the end of the 23 weeks, she knew her project was working when groups of men on the street would crack up after she walked by. "I imagined to myself that they didn't quite know what I was, and when they realized I was a woman, their reaction was discomfort, then laughter."
In July, at peak physical strength, she enlisted Robin Black, a makeup artist for French Vogue, who also works as a photographer for underground gay zines. The two collaborated on Homage to Benglis, an image in which the aggressiveness of Cassils' body contrasts with the sleek fashion-mag aesthetic. They won't be printing the image in ArtForum — "That's not my beef," says Cassils, who's more interested in how gender is policed in the real world than in the art world. She'll instead leak it online to see if and how it goes viral.
Homage to Benglis, printed repeatedly on light glossy paper and hung again and again across one wall at LACE, is on view along with short videos documenting Cassils' workout routine and food intake. In the main gallery, that stop-motion film of her changing body runs on a loop. Nearby, her film Fast Twitch, Slow Twitch shows slow-moving shots meant to mimic the meditative head space a brute workout requires and capture some of the abjection Cassils faced — raw eggs falling into her mouth, dripping sweat, teeth tearing at raw meat.
Even if Cassils pulled her project in a direction only loosely reflective of the two artists who motivated her, it's in the final presentation that her work most resonates with theirs. Antin and Benglis knew that, however important the ideas are, it's appearance that draws people in. And in Homage to Benglis especially, the perfect composition of the image causes you to suspend disbelief. You don't question how she got to be that cut — you just wonder what she is.
LOS ANGELES GOES LIVE: PERFORMANCE ART IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 1970-1983 | Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions | 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. | Through Jan. 29
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