On Venus: Patrick Staff
by Alex Quicho
Heading to On Venus, Patrick Staff’s exhibition at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, I crossed Hyde Park on foot. Rain poured from an open, sunlit sky. A real rainbow arched over Winter Wonderland, the holiday-themed amusement park that occupies the royal lands over December, where empty rollercoasters rattled along and strains of Frank Sinatra drifted across the grass, serenading no one. Birds swarmed overhead; the river teemed with animal life; and I entered the Serpentine via automatic doors that may as well have been an airlock, sealing off the arid, burning hostility of On Venus from the wet and fertile Earth. Staff had transformed the ordinarily picturesque building with a number of architectural interventions that made up the site-specific work Acid Rain (2019)—first, transparent coloured panels arranged over the building’s generous skylights, turning the gallery’s vessels of sunlight into urine-hued vats. Throughout, the floors were coated in gleaming chrome, and a system of thin pipes laced across the ceiling, intermittently dripping a mysterious liquid into rusting oil drums below. A lone jellied print of an acid-eaten gargoyle, Gargoyle (the throat) (2019), guarded the building’s entrance, cueing me into absorbing the building’s new atmosphere as one that was intentionally poisoned, potentially dangerous to forms of life.
From time to time, an industrial clamour filled the gallery, superseding the slow percussion of drips and drops. Curious, I went straight to its source: On Venus (2019), a single-channel snuff film projected onto a Perspex® screen in one of the gallery’s two central rooms. The clang of metal gates; rotors whirring; blades being sharpened or cleaving down into flesh: it became evident that I was hearing the sounds of a slaughterhouse, scrubbed of the squeals of animal death. In the few minutes that I could stand to watch, a cow gazes into the camera as it is being killed; its face is caught in a lag of time, still alive as its body dies, looking surprised as blood cascades abruptly from its mouth. Another beast is yanked up to the slaughterhouse ceiling and split down the middle, spilling its guts. The found footage is treated so that its colours are inverted into biting pinks, blues and yellows, mercifully estranging the scenes from pure gore. They look like afterimages—the way that too-bright objects sear into our closed eyelids, our eyes’ response to visual overstimulation, bringing to mind how a traumatic event can linger with us long after its occurrence.
Here, I thought of how Whitney Claflin, reviewing Juliana Huxtable’s Interfertility Industrial Complex (2019), wrote: “PTSD may be the main ingredient in most of our food,” a claim that I would extend to everything that is industrially produced. The slaughterhouse is the genesis of the assembly line, as Nicole Shukin writes in Animal Capital (2009). The blood and guts processed by the phalanxes of stationary workers, each responsible for a single repetitive task, inspired Henry Ford’s lust for mass production, bringing the logic of the abattoir to the factory floor. So goes the history of the terrible conditions that now beget what we eat, wear and enjoy. Even film is made from gelatin, derived from the boiled bodies of the animals depicted—a materiality we’re coaxed into considering as Staff scratches and corrodes individual film frames. These abstract marks dance across the thrumming accumulation of death, mingling between the bodies of the factory worker and the animal, each subjected to the meat grinder of capital.
The adjacent chamber houses On Living (2019), an arrangement of metal cubes etched with reproductions of articles from British tabloids: The Sun and The Daily Mail, publications notorious for their extreme conservatism and wide readership. All feature variations on the same theme: an entirely false story about murderer Ian Huntley, circulated between 2017 and 2018, claiming that he wished to undergo a gender transition while in prison. Huntley himself is not really the subject here; rather, it’s the machinery of the press and how harmful myths take mass root. In the original articles, transphobic “experts” chime in to fabricate the link between murderousness with transgenderism, eager to legitimize bigotry. All slick surface and dim, unmoving presence, the blocks are eloquent on the subject of conservative social norms: how stubbornly they root, and how frictionlessly they circulate. In contrast to the gruelling task of resistance, where tireless investment seems to yield only nominal advancements of safety or freedom, marginalizing forces spread rampantly like contagions.
Staff has long been interested in how surviving violence also requires violence — by no means at equivalent scales. Their previous video installation, Weed Killer (2017), cast trans-identifying actors to perform sections of Catherine Lord’s cancer memoir The Summer of Her Baldness (2004), where Lord refers to chemotherapy as “mainlining weedkiller.” Hormonal therapies, too, carry a risk of bodily destruction, with one understudied effect being a heightened risk of cancer. Conflating the two treatments, Staff taps the well of violence that feeds modern medicine: chemo was accidentally discovered during research into using mustard gas as a weapon; hormone pills are still derived from the urine of mares trapped in interminable breeding cycles. Still, Weed Killer ends with an irradiated ode to contamination—embracing the implied toxicity of “lovesickness,” with its blurred boundaries, the intermingling that togetherness demands. It pushed back, cautiously, against the quarantine, segregation, erasure and disposability that come as off-label uses of the medical institution.
On Venus possesses no such final optimism. The show’s reigning planetary metaphor expresses, not the uninhabitability of another world, but that of our own. A poem written by Staff flickers in slanted subtitles across blank, damaged film, transmitting a story of sickliness inside and out. It describes a world rubbed raw by its own harsh climate, populated by creatures eaten away by acid and medicine: “dogs with guts / full of — something / like wailing / _ and sobbing / like buildings.” This is no sci-fi: as Staff says in an interview with TANK Magazine’s Lydia Figes, “I’m ambivalent about talking about the future; hell is now.” Later, I learned that the entire gallery was once an arms cache for the ruling classes of London, who wanted weapons close to hand in the event of a people’s uprising. On Venus, the planet named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty, as on Earth, all suffering is entangled; the weight of oppression may be distributed multiply, unevenly, but its source is the same.
Leaving the central room that contained On Venus (2019), I felt newly sensitive to the subtext of the exhibition and beyond. The reflective floors were those of the slaughterhouse, perpetually rinsed of blood. The leaky circulatory system of Acid Rain (2019) turned the building into a sick body labouring, like all of us, towards an impossible equilibrium: that of desire sated, of a system in perfect balance, begging the question: what must die in order for us to stay alive? And more importantly, what constitutes “us”? Disconcerted, I left the way I came, skirting the theme park and its rollercoasters, whose mechanical sounds and juddering tracks now resembled the meat-packing plant, the swinging cars like carcasses on their hooks. I sat alone in a restaurant and stared at the shining, stainless-steel surfaces of the open kitchen, the knives and cleavers on the wall. I felt more than a little sick, thinking of the ways that we fail to live without cruelty.