LA artists Heather Cassils and Zackary Drucker defy gender norms
Pacific Standard Time is embarking on its sixth month. More than 60 cultural institutions have come together to tell the story of the rise of the L.A. art scene.
On Thursday night, contemporary performance artists will appear at ONE, the gay and lesbian archives at USC. Heather Cassils is one of four California artists who will put their bodies on display as part of the exhibit, called "Transactivation."
"When they were going through the visual arts collection, they realized that there was - not surprisingly - a lot of representations of gay white maleness, but a lack of people of color and trans people," says Cassils.
Cassils uses her body as a canvas for gender exploration. You’ve probably seen her explore her own gender-blurred life. Remember Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” music video?
Gaga’s leathered-up prison lover in the video’s opening was Heather Cassils. She was already toned up in that video – but for her performance art in Transactivation, Cassils worked out for six months with a bodybuilding guru at Gold’s Gym. She ate like a man twice her size, mixed steroids into her daily menu, bulked up by two-dozen pounds, and totally transformed her body like a sculptor.
"How can we think of the gender as a sculptural mass?," asks Cassils. "And how can we manipulate the body through diet and exercise to expand it? So on one level the typical concerns of a sculptor."
In Transactivation, Cassils will put on boxing gloves to showcase her semi-pro boxing skills. Her opponent will be 1500 pounds of clay that she’ll pound into some sort of sculpture.
UC Riverside English professor Jennifer Doyle is closely engaged with the “queer art” scene in L.A.
"Many of these projects are about bringing into the world the body that you want right, or excavating the body from these codes and conventions," Doyle says. "How do we know the body beyond that language? Is it possible?"
Transactivation also features L.A. performance artist Zackary Drucker. As a boy Drucker would sift through his mother’s dresses and pose for Polaroids. Today, Drucker's body has fully transitioned from male to female.
"I wanted to sort of integrate these feminine selves that I had sort of created in my art practice into my everyday life," says Drucker. "I felt like there was too much of a schism."
In one of Drucker’s memorable works, she laid on a table with a steel ball in her mouth. A pre-recorded voiceover instructed audience members to pick up the tweezers that surrounded her bare body and pluck away.
"I’ve been using my body as a spectacle. Pushing my own physical boundaries. Challenging audiences in a really direct and confrontational way," she says. "I mean, I think that is the biggest advantage to performance art."
For Transactivations, Drucker dug into the archives and uncovered the life of Lynn Edward Harris, an intersex man who hit the TV talk show circuit in the late ‘70s. On live television, Harris answered deeply personal questions about his sexuality.
"As a child I remember watching those talk shows," says Drucker, "And I think that was probably my earliest exposure to people living gender variant lives, but it was such an exploitative medium at the same time."
On Thursday, Drucker and the other artists in Transactivations can explore their own gender variant lives as they choose through their art.