Please pay attention. This is the most important work of art of our times:
Let me tell you why.
Fact 1: Nearly half of young transgender people have at some point attempted suicide due to the social stigma placed on them by their communities.
Fact 2: 90% of transgender people have experienced discrimination and harassment in the workplace and at school. Singling out transgender youths in a “wrong” bathroom (i.e. the one that matches their gender) is one of the most common places of abuse.
Fact 3: Rejection of core rights of any human being (such as using a bathroom safely) is discrimination.
Fact 4: By scrapping the Transgender teen bathroom regulation in 2017, US Supreme Court has invited state-sanctioned discrimination and abuse of vulnerable transgender youths. This puts the USA in the some category with some of the most regressive governments on earth.
Fact 5: Governments that condone the loss of human life for absolutist political principles are dictatorships.
PISSED is a cube filled with 800 litres of urine collected by the transgender artist Cassils (formerly known as Heather Cassils) over the period of 200 days, i.e. since February 26, 2017, when Donald Trump’s government rescinded Obama era order allowing teens to pee in the bathroom that matched their current gender (as opposed to the gender they were assigned at birth). All this urine fills the contents of a 3.5 x 3.5 foot cube that showcases how much fluid a human has to pass (or hold) as a direct result of a government order.
The exact amount of fluid a human body has to pass depends on many subjective factors – whether you’re well or unwell, if you drank plenty of liquids, if you happen to be on an airplane, on a street, in your own home. What does not vary is that this inner mechanism, like breathing, is unstoppable across the species (and indeed most living beings). So what happens if that fundamental biological fact was turned into a regulation and a ritual incited to shame, humiliate and harm you? Imagine that your life pivoted over being able to pass urine safely – or not?
PISSED is intended as a catalyst and an intellectual stimulus that looks at a biological fact (every human body has to pass urine) within the sociopolitical context (trans bodies can’t pass urine without risk = trans bodies are not natural), but also within the paradigm of minimalist, typically privileged white male work of art (such as, for example, Robert Morris’ Untitled , a mirror cube that reflects everything around it, or Donald Judd’s equally shy of title Untitled , a copper box filled with cadmium red pigment), traditionally considered to be “rigourous” and “pure” in their artistic and philosophical aim to reflect both the inside and the outside of itself outwards, and to mirror and include the viewer’s position within itself.
PISSED also reflects and includes, but also further provokes some incendiary questions. Its colour resembles resin and honey, but its real substance is far more substantial. The gravitas of its scale and materiality is multiplied by the political act of passing, collecting and transporting the bodily fluid classified as threat (due to the difficulties of preserving human urine, the regulations for its transportation by rail, aircraft or road classify it as dangerous goods). Is piss by a transgender man a weapon-grade danger in Trump’s USA?
Within the canonical stability of its form, the work is dramatic, rapid and eruptive. Like in Judd’s observation that “space is made, not found” it expands outwards in streams already present in much of Cassils’ earlier work: durational performance, body work, civil rights activism, queer politics and sculpture. Of course it implies that the artist may be in no small measure pissed off as well as pissed out. PISSED is a collecting instrument of meaning, reflecting perhaps also Andy Warhol’s Oxidation paintings containing urine on copper (1978); Helen Chadwick’s Piss Flowers (1991-92); Duchamp’s inevitable Fountain (1917) and endless others that have used urine as a bond between a Platonic thought and the human condition. It calls out to Rosa Parks, Sylvia Rivera, Leslie Feinberg and every intersectional activist, trans activist, civil rights defender in the history of human rights – it becomes a political rally and a lighthouse for queer and human solidarity.
Remember the series Self by Marc Quinn (1991-present)? Deemed so shocking back in YBAs 90s, and seemingly so autopilot right now. Quinn used ten pints of his own blood to create the series of self-portraits that he calls this “the most faithful, photographic way of making a portrait”. Yes, this is the portrait of one and PISSED is the portrait of the many; blood is seen as the essence of life, with urine its less glamourous bodily twin. Quinn went for the gruesome realism, whereas PISSED taps at our complex relationship with modernism, with the baggage of the Twentieth century’s immense yet patriarchal accomplishments (reading about Anni Albers and her relationship with textile, I feel ever deepening sense just how gender equal Bauhaus – that song to geometry – was or wasn’t). Quinn went on to expand on his series, creating portraits of family members in animal blood, and utterly failing himself (as they like to awkwardly say in the cookery programmes) as there was a clear opportunity to talk about the familiar bloodlines between the animal and human species through depicting familiars from one’s own adopted family (Quinn’s portrait of his step daughter); sadly he missed it. Instead, Quinn claims he talks about “identity” – the term that spawns an ulcer every time it’s overused. Further recording of passing time with each new blood portrait is well within the predictable realm of classic male portraiture. How will PISSED grow old if and when the current laws change is a far more interesting question.
The cube is a (modernist) body, and “our bodies are sculptures formed by society’s expectations…[M]y body is my medium,” says Cassils on the Artsy site, where the work is currently placed for sale. Cassils explores gender and transsexuality within a continuum (as a wide explorative scope rather than a binary); this continuum is reflected in their fluid approach to sculpture and performance, situated within a practice that explores gaining (physical and political) mass. If “losing mass” traditionally signals virtuosity, femininity, lightness, delicacy, frivolity, then adding weight and mass to the ghosted issue of transsexual lives is a necessary way forward. At the time of death of the trailblazing feminist art historian Linda Nochlin (1931-2017), it is imperative to remember that institutionalised power must not dictate what is ‘natural’, and that canon must be radicalised. “The fault lies”, Linda wrote, “not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.” (from the legendary Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, 1971.) The Trump administration will do well to consider this.
Cassils’ show MONUMENTAL is currently at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York City until December 8, 2017. PISSED, 200 gallons of human urine, 18,000 grams of boric acid, acrylic, 2017.
Alexandra Lazar, 30 October 2017.