Have you ever seen a person set on fire? Of course you have — you’ve seen it in the movies. Denethor in Lord of the Rings; Anakin in Revenge of the Sith; vampires in everything from Blade to Buffy. It’s a classic of the stunt genre. In the business, it’s known as a full body burn.
Last week at the National Theatre in London the US-Canadian performance artist Cassils did a full body burn from start to finish, all the way from the set-up until the last spark had been extinguished.
It seems obvious to say that seeing someone set on fire in front of you is very different from watching it on a screen. In a film, there’s that single gaudy flash, the retina-staining conflagration that’s the stunt version of a full chorus line: an old-timey piece of showmanship and skill, as well as a bit of an eff-you to CGI. In person, the process is far knottier. Cassils’ live performance laid the stunt technology bare: it showed the intricate work, tension and moments of sheer pain that go into making that familiar spectacle.
Cassils‘ performance work is all about the body, often in a way that borrows from sport. In a piece from 2011, Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, Cassils worked out how to achieve a masculine ideal of perfection, force-feeding protein and even steroids, gaining 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks. In another piece, 2013’s Becoming an Image, Cassils attacked a 2,000-pound clay sculpture, kicking, beating and punching it for 20 exhausting minutes.
Given Cassils’ sport/art crossover, a minute-by-minute report seems the best way to describe what happened in Inextinguishable Fire.
1 min: As we come in, Cassils stands alone at the front of the stage, naked aside from a pair of black pants. Cassils, who is transgender, has a body that defies easy categorisation. At first glance, they are an extremely fit man with surprisingly pronounced pecs — that is, until you realise the pecs are breasts.
Cassils gazes expressionlessly over the audience. During the entire process, in fact, Cassils will say nothing. There is no explanation, no reassurance. We are left to guess what is happening — and, after it is over, to guess whether Cassils is unharmed.
“Something I’m very interested in is implicating the viewer in the act of watching,” they said after the performance. “They’re not just passive people that walk up — they’re part of the piece.”
Note 1: On pronouns. Cassils prefers to be referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she”. This can create grammatical complexities, because we need a better word for “neither he nor she and in fact rejecting this unnecessary opposition.” In the meantime, “they” will do fine.
Min 5: The three stunt coordinators, who until this point have been milling around at the back of the stage, pull on the hoods of their fireproof suits and begin to dress Cassils in the clothing needed for a full-body burn. The audience stills. The sounds on the stage are suddenly very clear.
Min 6: Two members of the stunt team draw on what look like a set of flesh-coloured tights. Dressing and being dressed by other people is always awkward. Cassils has to lift each leg in turn, holding onto the stunt coordinators to keep balance.
Once you’re lit trapped air can burn. The tights are on and the stunt coordinator rolls his hands quickly down Cassils’ legs to make sure there are no air bubbles under the material.
A second pair of tights go on. The same brisk rolling.
Cassils shivers. In order to prevent the sweat from boiling on the skin, the person performing the full body burn has to be induced into a state of temporary hypothermia, which is done by soaking the tights in a freezing fire resistant gel. At the exact moment Cassils was preparing to be set on fire, the main physical sensation they were aware of was how incredibly cold they were. After the burn was finished, they took a hot shower to warm up.