Bodybuilder Artist Heather Cassils Channels Lynda Benglis and Eleanor Antin
You may recognize Heather Cassils from her prison yard kiss with Lady Gaga in the pop star’s “Telephone” music video duet with Beyoncé—if you were one of the viral video’s one billion internet viewers. But that was 2010, and old news. For Cassils, a Canadian artist and bodybuilder who uses her own exaggerated physique like sculpture, the viral content now comes from Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, her reinterpretation of two seminal feminist performance works. In a two-channel video installation, a pin-up, a set of photographs, and a zine, Cassils interprets Eleanor Antin’s 1972 Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, where Antin documented her body while crash dieting for 45 days, and Lynda Benglis’s 1974 Artforum advertisement, when Benglis spent $3,000 on a centerfold spread—in which she posed nude save for sunglasses and tanlines. To find Cassils’ interpretation of the latter, just search the internet (her image à la Benglis went viral) and for the video homage to Antin, look to Moving Image London, where Fast Twitch//Slow Twitch will be shown. Our chat with Cassils follows.
Artsy: Why Lynda Benglis and Eleanor Antin? Can you tell us how this project came about, and what significance these artists have to you?
Heather Cassils: Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture was commissioned by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions for an exhibit called Los Angeles Goes Live: Exploring a Social History of Performance Art in Southern California (LAGA). LAGA explored the histories and legacies of the region’s performance art scene in the 1970s and early ’80s. I was chosen, as a younger artist, to explore this rich history and use it as a jumping off point in which to explore new work. I was inspired by the feminist strategies in both Antin and Benglis’s work and decided to link them to performative practices associated with the production of hyper-masculine and transgendered bodies. In this context Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture signals the shifts in our cultural landscape, and the role of artists like Benglis and Antin in bringing about those changes.
Artsy: Could you tell us about the video component, Fast Twitch//Slow Twitch, in which you reinterpret Antin’s work? Particularly about the physical process you underwent?
HC: In Antin’s 1972 performance Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, Antin crash-dieted for 45 days and documented her body daily with photographs from four vantage points. To gain 23 pounds of muscle over 23 weeks I adhered to a strict bodybuilding regime, constructed by master bodybuilding coach Charles Glass. David Kalick, a nutritionist specializing in diets for sports competition, designed an eating plan for me where I consumed the caloric intake of a 190-pound male athlete. I also took mild steroids for eight weeks of the training. My decision to take (illegal) steroids was to enact an alternative tampering with the endocrine system, which when combined with intense physical training and massive caloric intake facilitated transformation into a muscle bound “cut” physique without the use of testosterone.
Artsy: What sort of emotional impact did you experience during this transformation?
HC: I assumed that unlike Antin’s act of starving, which seemed disempowering, that my act of muscle gain would be empowering. This turned out to be far from the truth: The project took over my life. I had to force-feed myself to get the nutrients in. I could not leave the city as I had vowed to take those daily photographs. I needed to eat every three hours and train five days a week for two hours (at least), and I wanted to uphold the parameters of the project with as much rigor as possible.
Within the training I pushed past what I thought was humanly possible for my body and I reached new terrains of strength and power. It was alarming for me, a person so centered and aware in my body, to all of a sudden grow this new flesh, which also grew these new nerve endings. I felt disoriented by it—I needed to learn to use this new body so quickly. It became difficult to sense my limits: what was too much weight? The muscles could handle it, but what about the stabilizing joints and tendons? This dysphoria spread to other parts of my life. I felt ungrounded and in flux—like my inner compass was off. I was so tired all the time from all the heavy lifting. My joints ached constantly, and my muscles became so tight that my wife had to take my t-shirt off at night because I was no longer flexible enough to do so myself. My grocery bill skyrocketed to $1,000 a month, my hormones fluctuated with the steroids I had taken into my body, and my cells tried to figure out if I was male or female. Injury was imminent, and though I managed to stop before it got too bad, it was just a matter of time before I was limping around with buckled knees like all the other bodybuilders.
Artsy: At the same time, were there positive aspects to your experience?
HC: It was also empowering. At the peak days of my transformation, I could perform a 650-pound leg press, and I could bench press 165 pounds. I got respect from the serious meatheads in the gym, and I was able to split the seams of my shirts (Incredible-Hulk-style). People took notice of me. When my body crossed over from socially acceptable ripped chick to freaky androgyny, it was noticeable for me in my day-to-day interactions. Teams of guys would bust out laughing after checking out my bulging pecs, realizing they were breasts. I got challenged to arm wrestling competitions in a Rite Aid pharmacy store. On a couple of occasions I had people try to fight me. This anger was one of the true indicators of success for me. I had achieved a confusing body that ruptured expectation.
Artsy: A lot has changed since 1972, when Antin made her visual diary. How do you feel the reach of performance art has changed, given the accessibility of video and the internet?
HC: The net allows an artist to plant a seed of an idea but you never know where it is going to end up. Here is an example: When [photographer] Robin Black and I set out to make Advertisement: Homage to Bengalis as part of Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture we used the net to disseminate the image. For our tribute to Benglis, rather than buying advertising space in Artforum as Benglis had done in 1974, we used Black’s connections in the gay fashion/art publications, both online and off, to disseminate Advertisement (Homage to Benglis). We created a blog and periodical, and my images went viral, working their way onto gay male sites. Using the organic nature of the way information travels, the idea of injecting work online with the possibility for it to go viral certainly changes the kind of audience that might otherwise encounter my work in a gallery.
Image: Maxing Out Opera Pink, (Version 2), Water Color, 2013, by Heather Cassils, courtesy of the artist.