Artist Patrick Staff has been commissioned for a major new site-specific exhibition by the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, London. Titled On Venus, the exhibition opens on November 8, 2019, and carries on till February 9, 2020. The intention is to interrogate notions of discipline, dissent, labour, and queer identity. Drawing from a wide range of narratives, Staff cites the ways in which history, technology, capitalism and law have fundamentally transformed the social constitution of our bodies today, with a focus on gender, debility and bio-politics.
Staff was born in 1987 at Bognor Regis UK, but lives in Los Angeles. The artist, who is gender fluid, prefers the pronoun ‘they’ instead of he or she. They received their BA in fine art and contemporary critical studies from Goldsmiths University of London in 2009. They completed the LUX Associate Artists Programme and the Cunningham Method Contemporary Dance course at The Place in London, in 2011.
Staff works mostly as a performance and installation artist, and also a fair bit with light to create immersive art that usually references theatre and street plays. For the Serpentine Gallery, they have created an ambitious environment, which includes architectural interventions to the gallery building. The lighting has been changed to a bright yellow colour and high shine silver flooring has been laid. A piping network suspended from the ceiling of the gallery slowly leaks natural and synthetic liquids into steel barrels, suggestive of sharing intimate fluids or the trafficking of viruses and of data. A single gargoyle, weathered by acid rain, is positioned as gatekeeper, at its entrance.
Staff has also decided to work with the intimate space of the ‘powder room’ or as we call it, more functionally in India, the washroom. First he sets up a sculptural installation in one of the gallery’s powder rooms and a video projection in the other. Clearly these two different spaces are meant to relate to each other and then he engages a third where a series of etchings are stacked up against some oversized boxes.
The series of etchings depict a story that was all the rage in the British tabloids from 2017 to 2018, of Ian Huntley’s SRS (sex reassignment surgery), with a twist of murder and cross dressing thrown in for good spice by the tabloid that was out to defame Huntley. Later, when it was found that the whole news was fabricated, the so called ‘newspaper’ printed some mild retractions of their fake stories that blazed across headlines. Staff’s etchings have used these headlines and he sets it up as a critique of the media that uses ‘cultural anxieties’ to create sensation around the lives of incarcerated people and transgender identity. Staff questions how public media and public funds are often utilised to create sexual panic and reinforce social and sexual norms.
The video work, which is being shown in the second powder room, is in two parts. The first part uses scratched and burnt-out footage of the industrial farming of animals for their hides, fur, meat and even their semen (for artificial insemination). Staff raises questions about our human-centric view of the world, in relation to the way both animals and human beings are treated in institutionalised spaces. In the second half of the video, they describe through a series of poetic texts life on Venus.
Although, it is deemed as the planet of love, life on Venus is imbued with violence, pressure and heat, destructive winds and the extremely disorienting lapse of day and night. “This poem suggests an alternate state of non-life or near death, a queer state of being, that is volatile and in constant metamorphosis,” writes Staff.