Sirens screamed by outside the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University as I watched “Inextinguishable Fire,” one of three film and video installations on view inside by the artist Cassils. I thought it was the soundtrack. The wail of sirens would fit in any of these works, which consider the gray areas of violence — a topic most of us think about in strictly black-and-white terms.
For “Inextinguishable Fire,” named for Harun Farocki’s 1969 film about napalm, Cassils donned fireproof clothing and was set on fire. After 14 seconds, the artist fell on the floor and was sprayed by fire extinguishers. Here each second stretches to a minute. Once the fire is out, the whole thing spools in reverse.
The gorgeous imagery suggests spiritual transformation, the film reversal death and resurrection. Then the camera zooms out to reveal the whole thing is artifice, a stunt filmed against a backdrop. Movie magic. But a history of societal outliers being burned at the stake complicates the picture.
“Powers That Be,” a video installation based on a performance art piece, features a ring of video monitors surrounding viewers in a darkened gallery. The monitors show the naked artist illuminated by headlights, writhing and jerking as if in a terrible fight.
Cassils is transgender, so the scene recalls the disturbingly high rate of violence against trans people. But this piece, too, is more complicated: It’s not clear whether the artist is victim or aggressor — perhaps a little of both. Audience members shoot the action on their phones. Such documentation of violence can be crucial and, lately, it has been incendiary. Still, it’s odd to watch people taking pictures of violence like spectators at a performance . . . oh, right, this is a performance.
Violence often is a spectacle. Witnesses behave like audience members. Cassils reminds us how our appetites interfere with our values. The works are stunning; they’re also moral quicksand.
BREAKING NEWS: CASSILS
At School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, 230 the Fenway, through Oct. 15. 617-627-0047, www.smfa.edu/breaking-news-cassils
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.