BOSTON — In “Inextinguishable Fire,” a digital video by Cassils, the artist assumes the aspect of a martyr while being enveloped by flames. With outstretched arms and eyes fixed on the camera, Cassils tumbles to the ground as two figures silhouetted against a desert sunset spray the artist with fire extinguishers. This allegory of self-annihilation points to the practice of self-immolation by Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War and, before that, the death by burning of heretics, witches, sexual deviants, and cross-dressers. Shot at 1,000 frames per second, the video extends a 14-second burn over 14 minutes, which, as the artist and critic Julia Steinmetz notes in the exhibition catalogue, “instantiates an expansion of time in the psychic experience of the viewer akin to the traumatic experience of acute fear.”
“Inextinguishable Fire” is one of three allegories of violence in Breaking News: Cassils, on view at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston. As implied by the title, the exhibition simulates a deluge of violent headlines against the backdrop of a burlesque campaign season. Curator Carol A. Stakenas writes in the catalogue, “The media coverage of each tragedy seems to eclipse the previous event and the relentless expression of this hatred and fear only promises to continue” until Election Day. To some extent, the electorate is under siege by violent headlines, a phenomenon amplified by the profusion of amateur videos like that of a deadly encounter between Keith L. Scott and police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina, that has incited civil unrest in the area.
The duration and intensity of this bombardment of breaking news is dramatized by “Powers That Be,” a circular configuration of six screens that shows a naked Cassils in an underground parking garage ringed by iPhone-wielding spectators. In this multichannel video installation documenting a performance in April at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, Cassils thrashes, snarls, and self-asphyxiates as the artist repels an invisible menace. The viewer is embarrassed by this act of violence, implicated in the debasing spectacle and, finally, victimized by the sensory assault. In the same way that Cassils is ringed by spectators and illuminated by car headlights, the viewer is ringed by monitors and illuminated by the light of the flickering apparatus in the darkened interior of the gallery.
In effect, this is the opposite of voyeurism, in which the looker wages a visual assault on the object of looking while remaining hidden. Here, that dynamic is reversed, which may be precisely what the artist intended. “My wish is that artworks in [this exhibition] challenge our various modes of participation in these repeated scenes of violence, as victims or instigators, as bystanders, as witnesses, as consumers of mass media,” Cassils said in an email. “As an artist, I hope to create a rupture in these routine processes of identification, objectification, and abjection, putting pressure on empathy and its failures.”
The third work on display, “103 Shots,” offers the viewer some relief from the sensory assault of “Powers That Be.” In this black-and-white montage, filmed in June with the aid of more than 200 volunteers at SF Pride, the film’s participants rupture balloons in the pressure of an embrace. The rapid succession of pops, 103 in all, matches the volley of gunfire that was heard at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, when 49 people were killed and 53 wounded. In the aftermath of the shooting, survivors recalled that they had mistaken gunfire for the sounds of revelry: champagne bottles being opened, fireworks exploding, and balloons popping. In effect, “103 Shots” neutralizes the horror of the initial event by transmuting the sounds of slaughter into a fusillade of love.
Beyond its emphasis on the proliferation of violent headlines, Breaking News: Cassils explodes the pretense of objectivity endemic to the news business. As “Inextinguishable Fire” progresses, the camera zooms out to reveal a sound stage, with dolly tracks in the foreground, industrial fans in the wings, and a desert sunset projected on a scrim, an ironic jibe at the visual language of Hollywood. When the protagonist is fully extinguished, the same footage is played in reverse, dramatizing the resurrection as Cassils is lifted from the floor and the artist’s self-annihilation is undone.
Inextinguishable Fire is not the work of a video journalist, but a highly doctored film with its own agenda. The cyclical format of this mock martyrdom, which is played on a continuous loop, speaks to the perpetual march of violence, from the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (December 14, 2012) to the deadly siege of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina (June 17, 2015) to the shooting spree on the steps of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado (November 27, 2015) to the Pulse nightclub shooting. We are numb to images of violence as breaking news flickers across our newsfeed. All that remains is a sense of the world on fire.
Breaking News: Cassils continues at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (230 Fenway, Boston) through October 15.