On Venus, Patrick Staff @ Serpentine Sackler


Emoji summary: 🌧🛢🔆

I feel like I should’ve written about this show last year, before we logged out. I am not quite the critic I feel like I should be in Januarys; softer, sleepier, slower, with a kind of modal hangover from a whole month off. Patrick Staff’s <On Venus> at the Serpentine Sackler felt like feet on a cold marble floor to me, a palpable opposite to the feeling of cosiness I’d just plopped out of. But I consciously saved this show for myself as a January treat; London can sometimes feel like it has a sluggish start, as the normal rapid fire pace of the rest of the year takes a minute to kick into gear.

The outer corridors of the gallery are all pale yellow light, reflecting off a gold shiny floor. Walking in, you’re met by a print on yellow transparent PVC, the wall text says it’s a gargoyle ~weathered~ by acid rain. There was a small moment of like,,, weird satisfaction when I read that; turning back to the print n thinking how neat it was that in it, weather had become a verb that you’re able to physically and visibly recognise (a weird satisfaction before the plunging horror of knowing that it was about a reality of climate and chemical intermingling that we r hurtling towards). This pale, tingling, sickly yellow - like antibiotics and UV rays - creeps thru the space and round the back in this empty horrible way, leaking. There are these thin pipes suspended above you, and these large steel drums positioned under them, and this liquid leaking out of the pipes, gently dripping into the barrels (the exhibition guide says it’s ‘a mixture of natural and synthetic liquids, the works list says ‘acid’ n I feel like the vagueness is v Marguerite Humeau) - hmmmmmmm - like a nice unsettlingly gentle humming.

The first room is dark, with these steel plated boxes at odd, towering heights spreading out across the space. On them, rotated and cropped, are etchings of tabloid spreads depicting the (now known to be entirely fucking made-up) story about Ian Huntley’s sex change. Out of all our famous twitter fights, the most lasting and vivid in my memory was that fortnight when we burst our filter-bubble and had a flood of endless tweets from terfs. This story is horribly familiar to me because of that moment: when terfs cited this exact fictional story as a justification for their mad dogma, and lumpy example of their persecution. The stories about Huntley faced one way, and on the other side were screenshots of the retractions, corrections and guardian articles about how this story was entirely fucking fabricated.

The second room is relatively empty, only a film and a wide flat box to sit on. The film, <On Venus> is quite frankly, very extremely good; I watched it loop about 3 times. Frantic and scrambling, the first chunk is made up of these horrifying clips that ~AS A VEGAN~ I thought were designed to literally break me. Mounting and increasing, at first preparatory: animals being handled roughly, hands grabbing fat frogs, flinging them into buckets, plopping them into sacks. Then someone kicks a pig, I wince, the colours are inversed and mangled and I’m really glad for this bc it obscures the images - but the images at the beginning are more garbled, and as the violence increases, the images of the violence get clearer and more precise. The mask laid over them kinda slips down and the images become more legible: plastic gloved hands cut open the length of a small snake with scissors and the people around me audibly gasp n I clench my entire body with them. The same building tension of that Arthur Jafa film (u kno - that one w the Kanye song) but just mounting horror at endless circular extraction. It’s not the same vibe as a PETA video, there’s less moralism, it more clearly points you towards a kinda of mechanical numbness in the way that animal bodies are devastated for capitalistic extraction. ~intellectually speaking~ this then falls into a leaking biopolitick, the same area as Kathryn Yusoff’s writing on the Black Anthropocene and Daisy Hildyard’s writing on the Second Body - in this film, Patrick presents animal as proxy for all Other. The machinery and the violence the horror and the cycle of it all - not deploying it in a way that claims a kind of supremacy of violence in a white ~animal rightsy~ way - but just using it as a proxy through which the horror inflicted on all Othered bodies (animal, human, planetary) are illustrated and accessed.

It feels telling that I, as a person as well as a critic, have accessed the work in this way that kinda slits it n opens it out, projects it and claims it works as proxy too. It’s worth me pointing to Juliet Jacques review in Frieze, where she identifies things within the work that I just can’t/wouldn’t: ‘In the video work, I noticed the extraction of urine from pregnant mares. This gets turned into Premarin – a key ingredient in oestrogen pills, on which I and many other trans women depend for our existence’, and references (from Juliet and Patrick both) to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, Donna Haraway’s writing and Paul B. Preciado’s <Testo Junkie>, which ‘combined personal reflections on using testosterone with a historical analysis of the pharmaceutical industry’. Obvs, you should read that review too ~link~. But from my positionality, I think there is a wide surface that the works interface with, this proxy isn’t just coming from me projecting, I feel like the film has ~the range~.

When the first chunk ends, it tumbles straight into a text that makes up the second chunk of the film. I’m v glad for it, bc it binds the theory of the first half in a less opaque way. It describes the conditions <On Venus>, this hostile planet, where ‘things are much the same as they are here’; sets out an existence on this world where ‘we are neighbours in nerves / with chemicals / with acid in our insides with muscles’. It’s a beautiful, painful, hostile reading experience. The images stutter and flicker and burn the words into the darks of your eyelids, ‘new ovaries_ new organs / like rain on venus / the rain on venus,, burns away before it reaches the surface.’ It is my favourite part of the show; the part I most want to dwell on, but have the least words to articulate myself around. Between conditions and lived reality, it draws together, without rationalising, justifying or making too transparent, the palpable objects in the room: bodies and flesh and chemical or pharmaceutical and blood and transformation (in horror and violence, but also in overhaul and growth and potential and realisation and normality), ingestion and planetary air. It is neat in the way that it makes these things legible, but doesn’t utter them out loud to make them trite and hollow. In a way, I kinda wish this room was the only room; the film was enough for me to feel full at a glance.

This show was good, a good lil treat for me to tuck away for myself as we splutter into a new year. Patrick has made something that feels pressing (especially at the Serpentine Sackler, where the name is a conjouring on its own). In Juliet Jacques’ review, they say they wanted to approach this subject sideways, and while I’m still not done chewing that part, I think it’s worth me mentioning that the Serpentine have something to reconcile between the politics they represent as an organisation & the politics they present through the artists and artworks they put in the Sackler. Because, there’s a void between them; a radical politic that artists like Patrick are rigorously sifting through and presenting to a (tbqh very strangely assembled) public // and a politic tied to big pharma and Israeli spyware firms, big money patrons at a fuck off fundraiser summer party. This is why I don’t trust the arts in the hands of private funders, but I think that is a thought for another week, and another text. In the meantime, Patrick’s film and text and lighting and opposite to cosiness was: ~palpable~.

Patrick Staff's <On Venus> is on at the Serpentine Sackler until 9th Feb

dark yellow flat plane with the one words on venus,,
a brick wall with a banner hanging up high of a face
empty room low greenish light with a metal pipe on the floor
different boxes are on the floor and rising up like columns, lightboxes almost, with light glowing newspaper front pages, and there are visitors in the gallery looking at the pieces
a projection of blue and yellow and i cant tell what it is showing
a tiny image stuck to the wall next to the pipe but i&rsquo;m sorry its that small i can&rsquo;t see what it even is to describe it