As part of a new commission from The Serpentine Galleries, Patrick Staff has produced an immersive exhibition exploring themes of biopolitics, queer identity and the social construction of bodies. The space at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery has been transformed with architectural interventions including a disorientating mirrored flooring, eerie fluorescent lighting, and a leaking pipe network which occasionally drips acid into steel drums.
This alteration or perhaps ‘queering’ of an exhibition space is nothing new to Staff and extends from similar explorations in their exhibition The Prince of Homburg at Dundee Contemporary Arts from 22 June 2019 to 1 September 2019. For example, in this previous exhibition, Staff’s sculpture titled The Appetite (2019), resembling black barbed railing, is installed throughout one of the gallery spaces—clothing, furniture and everyday objects are impaled on its teeth as if snagged in the process of an escape attempt.
As is the case with such objects in The Appetite, the steel drums in Acid Rain for Serpentine Sackler Gallery (2019) are not static works of sculpture per se, but are activated by particular relations. Here, as the acid slowly dribbles and leaks from the pipework system above, the steel is slowly corroded and leaves behind a constellation of rust at the bottom of the drum—it is both concerning and poetic.
After navigating the initial few barrels, the first room presents a series of intaglio etchings entitled On Living (2019). The etchings are of news stories taken from British tabloids which, throughout 2017 and 2018, claimed that the convicted murderer Ian Huntley was seeking to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Later found to be entirely fabricated, Staff reproduces the press coverage (including their subsequent redactions and clarifications) to highlight the sheer power of media discourse in the construction of cultural anxieties and the reinforcement of social and sexual norms.
There is no direct interpretation material explaining the original use of the gallery building, but the press release does note that Staff’s display of etchings—which are stacked against oversized boxes—provide a nod to the original use of the building as a magazine gunpowder storehouse. This would have been stashed by powerful eighteenth-century Londoners in case of civil disorder—while an understated layer of the show, this fact subtly echoes existing themes of political dissent and states of control present in Staff’s oeuvre, particularly demonstrated earlier this year in The Prince of Homburg.
Presented in the second powder room is Staff’s new video On Venus (2019)—from which the exhibition takes its name. Perhaps the most powerful work on display, the thirteen minute looped film compromises found video footage of industrial farming and animal husbandry.
It is disturbing, but intentionally so. Distorted and brightly coloured footage depicting the stripping of skin, peeling of fur and extraction of fluids, poignantly mediates on themes of gender construction and metamorphosis, while simultaneously reflecting on the brutality of day-to-day queer existence. This tension between violence and transformation is further emphasised in the video’s second part, a poem describing life on Venus—a hostile environment marked by violent pressure, heat and destructive winds but ultimately one in which there is potential for new lives and new bodies: ‘New organs for everyone!’
Throughout the exhibition’s narrative, Staff acknowledges the pain and struggle felt by many queer lives, but also celebrates potential beauty and transformations. Precariously balancing between these poles, On Venus is ambitious, disconcerting and remains a compelling and timely exhibition.
Daniel Fountain is an artist, tutor and practice-led PhD Researcher at Loughborough University. Details of his work can be found at www.danielfountain.com