In anticipation of fire and the construction of the image and its reverberations from the National Theatre.
In the echoes of all the works we’ve encountered around historical trauma and representation, the narratives that have been buried, the skeletons left behind, the legislation of victors and the distance of the witnesses.
In the echoes of public spaces of protest, of consumption and appropriation of iconographies, of symbols we do not see or read. In the echoes of discussions on the urban landscape, on energies and the importance of recognising processes and shifts, on identity and its representation. In the echoes of memories we reconstruct, of those we hear distorted, of histories we have forgotten and relics we walk over. To thinking of labour and participation, and art as a space to consider contemporary citizenship and liberty.
If self-immolation as a practice is connected to a history of resilience, of no choice, of a physical process that marks and destroys the body, then we anticipate this ritual, taking place at the National Theatre, not only as a proposition about how we construct empathy and its social and political significance, but also a meditation on recognition, on canonisation and the relationship between ideology, representation and history.
Given their training both as a painter and as an artist working with performance, Cassils’ work is characterised by a particular formalism, an engagement with the sculptural that maintains an aesthetic rigour and a conceptual dimension that ignites such complex discourses on the work itself.
Speaking to Cassils about Inextinguishable Fire unleashed a conversation around the politics of visibility, around what mechanisms and structures legitimate our reading of and relationship to the image and its experience, and on the poetics of attempting the impossible. We speak of Harun Farocki’s film of the same title as a politicised engagement with processes of mass destruction, and they tell me that the shift is not from the cigarette Farocki lights on his arm to the fire that will take over their body tonight, but a consideration of those politics of visibility now.
There is a strong engagement with historical representation: Cassils mentions Picasso’s Guernica and the work of Michael Asher, and we speak of the histories of self-immolation, but also the recent events that have marked US politics (Ferguson or Baltimore, to name just a few), the reverberations with wider political shifts, from ISIS through to the recent movement of migrants in Europe. Silently, I think of the (now over) thirty burning bodies at Colectiv club in Romania.
Inextinguishable Fire is a diptych, unfolding live in front of an audience in the National Theatre, and through a film screening. This navigating between the theatre as a space to deconstruct such modes of representation and embodied construction of the image (Cassils worked with a professional stunt team who are highly involved in the live act), and the cinematic to foreground the constant shift in frame (Cassils speaks of the foley sound for the film as well as the use of slow-motion) plays with temporality and our relationships to bodies and the abstraction of trauma. It’s perhaps telling that the trailer for the work itself attempts a brief confrontation that doesn’t try and hide the process of its constitution; there’s the visual fascination, the desire of the gaze, but also the reminder of the context, of the humanity of the body taking part, the idea of a body consuming and being consumed, and the reality of the danger.
I want to emphasize this here because the reality of the danger is occurring in a particular space – the National Theatre – and the implications of this are significant. This act asks questions about the institutional relationships and cultural boundaries in which experiences and images are reproduced and disseminated, drawing links between their mediatisation and their political implications.
Cassils’s practice engages with issues of representation through both identity – trans as a destabilising force, a political position that offers lack of fixity – and an aesthetics of transformation. In Inextinguishable Fire, Cassils moves beyond the body as site of subjectivity to invite questioning of our understanding of the image, and of ways in which we negotiate distance, privilege and engagement.
What happens when the body is ignited, unrecognisable, yet sustained just enough to reveal the mechanisms of that ignition, the resonance of the anti-spectacle, the change in context as it unfolds, marking our own processes of recognition and engagement? What can we be, in this encounter?