I haven’t written anything for a while but I felt compelled to do so after bearing witness to the breathtaking performance by Cassils at the National Theatre last night.
Having been a fan of Cassils for a while, initially due to their work Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, their work using bodybuilding and a passing into a hyper-masculine physique through it. I also had the pleasure of attending a talk by Cassils in New York at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and hearing about the film Inextinguishable Fire I was so excited to see a live aspect of this piece, not entirely understanding how this would materialise.
The performance began with Cassils topless on the stage with clothing paraphernalia around them, there was a good seven minutes or so before the professional looking men in boiler suits began methodically dressing Cassils in wet clothing which look liked thermal layers, as Cassils began to shake it became clear that these garments must be freezing cold. The soundtrack started to become impossible to ignore around the third layer of these wet items as what began as a low drone, similar to a helicopter flying low overheard, took on an even more bass like rumble, adding even more to the tension and feeling that something awful or wonderful was about to happen.
The preparation for the actual self-immolation took about fifteen minutes but felt like an eternity as our heart rates sky rocketed and you could see audience members clutching at each others hands. The whole theatre was undoubtably nervous, is there a possibility this could get out of hand and go wrong? Do our desensitised minds actually want that to happen, for us to be witnesses to a true self-immolation? As the team of three men finish preparing Cassils, with the last smearing of a vaseline looking substance to their face (it definitely can’t have been vaseline as that is flammable!) one the technicians lights a torch, like a wooden staff used to burn witches of old at the stake, and shouts ‘You’re on fire’.
The fire itself only lasted about 14 seconds but the act itself was so powerful that these 14 seconds stretched to an eternity as we all realised we were truly spectators to someone setting their-self on fire, no matter how many safety aspects were involved, this was truly happening, to a live human being, and we just sat and watched.
We were then led haphazardly outside, myself and my friend shakily walking at this point, to the other side of the National Theatre where the film of Inextinguishable Fire was projected on an outside wall. One of our key observations, that highlighted even further the importance to Cassils work and left us with a kind of desperate feeling for the human race, was that the passers by took no notice of the film, a few people would look up but no one stopped to see what was going despite the brightness and intensity of the film, the only people not from the original audience that seemed to be transfixed were small children. It was just such a poignant example of our desensitised selfs, the fact that we do see so much violence and pain inflicted on people and really just don’t care because it isn’t happening to us. It was also interesting to think if the film would’ve had the same effect if I hadn’t seen the live action immolation moments before.
I have never had such a strong reaction to anything in my life! And I think this was the purest and most engaging way to remember, on the apt Sunday of Remembrance. When something is ingrained with so much suffering and history, monks setting themselves on fire in protest, women being persecuted because men fear them, children in agony because of another pointless war, it just cannot fail to change your way of thinking, even in the slightest way. I often think that our generation is the least capable of empathy because in the Western World we are in danger of having no idea or connection to what it feels like to truly suffer and any suffering that happens around us is so disconnected from us in that we only engage with it through a screen, which we can ultimately X out of at any point.
‘When we show you pictures of napalm victims, you’ll shut your eyes. You’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close them to the memory. And then you’ll close your eyes to the facts.’ – Harun Farocki