Los Angeles, CACommonwealth & Council
July 7 – August 18, 2018
The multimedia artist Patrick Staff has created two related bodies of work that use the rubric of contagion to critique systems of oppression. Using video, sculpture, and photography, Staff focuses in particular on the paradigm of health, as synonymous with heterosexuality and gender conformity, to highlight examples where LGBTQ modes of being are seen not just as a clinical pathology marked by social degeneracy, but as something transmittable. In hatefull to the stomach, harmefull to the braine, a solo exhibition of new work at Commonwealth and Council and Bathing, a commissioned video installation in the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. 2018, the artist uses water as both a material and a symbol to highlight the way people and things intermingle and affect transformation. Focusing on water’s simultaneous capacity to nurture and pollute, Staff suggests an alternative vision of contagion, imagining how our body’s vulnerabilities and porosity could be the device through which we evolve as a species. In this telling, a “queer mode of being,” indicated by a range of symptoms from fever to inebriation to a trans embodiment, is seen as a radical antidote to our current crises.
Entering hatefull to the stomach, harmefull to the braine the viewer is immediately confronted with the sound of water emerging from a series of drinking fountains mounted on the wall and resting on the floor. Running continuously the fountains dispense liquid through their self-contained plumbing apparatus, consisting of a jumble of tubing, a pump, and a pail. In their simplicity and familiarity Staff’s fountains each propose a kind of rudimentary body that occupy the room like a murmuring cast of characters. They are joined by a large aluminum basin at the center of the room, a stainless steel cup fastened to a chain hanging from the ceiling and two framed photographs.
Suggesting a ritual space or proto-laboratory, the fountains arranged by Staff are based on their research into the way public health and morals are often interlinked—citing how in 1859 Londoners, responding to outbreaks of cholera spread by polluted water, formed the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association in order to install public drinking facilities throughout the city. This seemingly innocuous do-gooderism is reflected in the language of the title, which comes from another Victorian campaign vilifying tobacco as hatefull and harmefull. In addition to wanting to eliminate water born diseases, the London elites were also hoping to reduce alcohol consumption, coupling their benevolence with a temperance movement that blurred the subjects of health with morality and civic control. Staff sees this as echoing attempts to forcibly regulate sexual behavior, drawing a direct corollary between the enduring rhetoric of homosexuality as contagious and the misuse of science to justify intolerance.
Drinking fountains in particular occupy a historically malevolent intersection of class, race, and public health—best illustrated by the way Jim Crow laws exploited basic hygiene to maintain racial segregation. That toxic mixed metaphor seems to underlie the way Staff pollutes their own fountains with bits of trash that clog up the drains and soil the buckets. In Public Drunk (all works 2018) a standard wall mounted fountain redolent of a public library, these contaminants include a soggy sock, snail shells and temporary tattoos whereas Foreign Cousins, two matching fountains also wall mounted, are stopped up with paper masks whose eye and mouth holes are barely legible in the entropic swirl of the unrelenting stream. Resembling a kind of nascent ecosystem, the detritus congealing around the water suggests the way popular culture and industrialization regulates every aspect of our biorhythms including thirst. Indeed, while gazing at the erstwhile wells I kept thinking of the refrain “going viral”—as a unique pathology of 21st century homogenization and addiction.
This queasy interface between refreshment and prohibition, of sharing intimate fluids and trafficking in viruses is illustrated best by Basin a large life-sized aluminum pan placed on the floor in the center of the room and filled with water, glycerine, dog hair, and more soaked clothes. The same Basin is also pictured in Kaya Facedown one of the two photographs on display, in which a person lays fully clothed face first and partially submerged. These varying elements of contamination repeated throughout the show and coupled with the single image of the body in the photograph call to mind a kind of Theater of Cruelty meant to implicate the viewer in a soiled system. If a queering of popular culture through contagion were to be taken literally, it would indeed seem to reside in the way shifting identities, as indicated by the mask, garments, and tattoos, impact inter-personal dynamics and infect social hierarchies.
A water bath as incubator is also the shared motif linking hatefull to the stomach, harmefull to the braine and Bathing, a single channel video currently on view in Made in L.A. 2018 at the Hammer Museum. Centered on a solo dancer moving in and out of the very same aluminum basin, Bathing more explicitly documents a body’s transformation: an elegiac long take tracks the performer slowly becoming more and more fevered and beset by frenetic movements stepping in and out of the shallow water, thereby contaminating it. Drawing a link between infection and washing, this loaded but still open-ended choreography is interspersed with smash cuts featuring oil spills, spitting, a barking dog, and U.S. border patrol agents destroying a hydration station established for migrants in the desert. A whiplash ecstatic and poisoned paroxysm, the soaked protagonist embodies a biological and cultural interstice, the body trans-formed. Of course whether it is indeed a climax marked by pleasure or toxicity, or some combination of both is not determined. Appearing half drunk, delirious, staggering, and projected in combination with a pounding soundtrack that itself seems capable of changing the molecular structure of the viewer, the dancer’s body eventually collapses.
What we are left with in both exhibitions is an emphasis on not just the powerful metaphor of contagion as social heterodoxy, but a more basic assertion of the body as a volatile concatenation in constant metamorphosis. In this diagnosis, we are all not only host to countless contaminants and latent desires, but perhaps more radically still, these impulses are not at all stable; and indeed the insistence on stability is what is so “harmefull to the braine.” That this “queer mode” might catalyze the next stage of human evolution is a deeply engaging and hopeful vision that Staff explores both tenderly and with bravado while simultaneously confronting us with the very toxicity they contend would be eliminated. This tension is where the work is most effective, capturing the constituent aspects of each body as consisting of autonomous, conflicting chemistries that are inherently hybrid and, like water, in perpetual transformation and unending churn.