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Canadian artist Cassils performing Up To and Including Their Limits at Toronto's Gardiner Museum, on Feb. 20, 2020.Cassils with Alejandro Santiago/Handout

What do you have to do to be seen for who you really are? In the case of Cassils, a visual artist who goes by one name and uses the pronoun they, the answer involves a large amount of highly athletic labour.

Cassils, a Canadian now working in L.A. and known for performances relating to the body, staged a heavy-duty event at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto on Thursday, a 90-minute endurance test in which they clawed themselves windows in a box of wet clay. The audience was ushered into a darkened exhibition space and invited to sit, stand or move around a large acrylic box, itself about the size of a small room. The sides of the transparent box were completely obscured with grey clay, but Cassils’s labour was already audible as they began to scrap back the stuff, gradually allowing the audience peepholes into the performance.

Sometimes standing, sometimes swinging from a trapeze to reach higher up the sides, sometimes scraping effectively with clawing hands, sometimes slashing vainly with kicking feet, Cassils eventually revealed themselves. Here was a lean and muscular body, bare-chested and wearing only shorts, glistening with sweat from the effort, which must have been getting harder as the clay stiffened and dried.

You could probably have removed the clay a lot faster using a stepladder, a spray bottle and a big metal scraper, but which of us, with the possible exception of some politicians and movie stars, approaches the creation of our public identity with nothing but efficiency in mind. The performance’s metaphor for visibility became more emphatic as it progressed: This is how hard it is to be seen as a trans person. Cassils would occasionally put an eye to the glass and peer suspiciously at the audience as though reminding the voyeurs that the performer could see us, too.

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The performance, seen here, was a 90-minute endurance test in which they clawed themselves windows in a box of wet clay, with the audience watching in a darkened exhibition space.Cassils with Alejandro Santiago

Cassils calls the performance Up To and Including Their Limits, a reference to the American performance artist Carolee Schneemann who used her suspended body to draw lines on paper for a 1970s piece entitled Up To and Including Her Limits. Like the pioneering body and performance art of those years, Cassils’s work can certainly test the patience of viewers, albeit not as fiercely as it tests the artist’s endurance. Still, on Thursday, the concept was often more gripping than sitting through the lengthy execution.

I actually found the piece most evocative in its mysterious early stages when it felt as though the unseen Cassils was clawing their way out of the grave. Raw clay, the stuff of creation, seemed to have fashioned a tomb for the artist, suggesting a powerful image of life and death.

The remains of the performance, as well as video footage, will be on display at the Gardiner as of March 5, when the ceramics museum opens an exhibition entitled Raw devoted to contemporary artists who use unfired clay. As well as Cassils, they include Magdolene Dykstra, Azza El Siddique and Linda Swanson.

Raw shows at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto from March 5 to June 7.

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