There is a strange, uncomfortable mix of intimacy and isolation at play when a group of people are thrust into total darkness together. While the darkness pushes you deeper into your own head, at the same time your senses become heightened and become sensitive to the presence of the unseen bodies around you, and keenly aware of what the group’s attention is focused on.
This unusual mix of comfort and discomfort, of sensory deprivation and heightened sensitivity is a crucial component of Becoming an Image, a performance piece by multi-disciplinary artist Cassils that was presented as a one-night-only event at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on December 2.
One of the functions of performance art is to push an audience out of its comfort zone, forcing them to consider some aspect of life in new and different ways. Cassils, a gender-nonconforming artist from California, has crafted a unique and, at times disturbing, experience that makes you think about the difficult and sometimes painful process transgender people must go through to sculpt their exterior image into something more aligned with their inner sense of self.
The performance essentially begins upon the audience’s arrival, as they are made to wait in an auditorium until everyone arrives. They are then escorted in small groups into the performance area, which is cast in total darkness. They are then placed in specific places by flashlight-equipped ushers, from which they may not move, and where they will stand throughout the course of the performance. Once the ushers have done their work, the audience is cast in a darkness so total as to be both rather exhilarating and slightly scary.
Then we hear grunts and heavy breathing, and the sound of something being struck forcefully. We are quickly hit by the flash of a photographer’s strobe light, briefly illuminating virtually still images of the unclad artist fiercely attacking a 2,000 pound block of clay in the center of the room. The flashes of light come in quick succession, catching Cassils at different points as the artist pummels the clay, circling it, climbing upon it, both embracing and attacking it, accompanied only by the soundtrack of Cassils’ grunts and breaths of exertion.
The total darkness made our eyes extra-sensitive to the photographer’s strobe light. After each flash, after-images lingered in our eyes, not quite faded when another flash burned a new image into our retinas. Our brains struggled to form a sequence of motion out of the series of still images, the same way our brains see motion from a quick series of animation stills. It is disorienting, to say the least.
In time, it’s over. The flashes of light stop, and the sound of vicious hits and laboured breathing stops. A pale light comes up and we see only the block of clay, transformed from an even block to a twisted, abstract shape which we may interpret as we will.
Becoming an Image was presented as part of Cassils’ larger multi-media exhibit called Melt/Carve/Forge, which consists of photographs of past performances of Becoming an Image as well as other photographs, sculpture and video, all exploring similar themes of gender identity and the molding of one’s exterior self. It’s a challenging exhibit.
Becoming an Image is a visceral experience, to say the least. Gathered in such total darkness with other people, our perception of this primal process heightened to an incredible degree, this piece of performance art certainly succeeds in urging our thoughts down different, not always comfortable paths.
Becoming an Image was performed on December 2 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 North Broad Street in Philadelphia. The larger Cassils exhibit, Melt/Carve/Forge is on display at PAFA through March 5. For further information, call 215-391-4806 or visit pafa.org.