P. Staff | Third Degree Burns

Via Issue 188, The Eternal Flame Issue!

Written by

Julia Smith

Photographed by

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P. Staff. In Ekstase, Kunsthalle Basel (2023). Exhibition View. Photographed By Philipp Hänger. Courtesy Kunsthalle Basel.

One of the first lessons that you learn as a squirming babe is that the stove is hot. The first contact of naked flesh and swollen metal sends emergency signals from your neurons to MOVE! Contemporary visual and performance artist P. Staff has long held a fascination with translating physical and emotional feelings. Early experiments within the artist’s childhood would spark this curiosity for understanding the human condition. “I would run a bath and stand in it, and even though my feet were burning––have this insane internal dialogue of:

What is pain?
Is this burning?
What if I just stay standing here? What if I stand here and I don’t feel it as pain, if I recognize it as something else? 
What if I force myself to smile while something really hurts?

I think pain is this incredible phenomenon that constantly makes and evades meaning simultaneously.”

The nodes translating sensation into communicable thought appear front and center within Staff’s exhibition In Ekstase. The first piece titled “Afferent Nerves” sets the tone, emanating a peculiar low-frequency tone humming just below the higher notes of ambient conversation.

To enter In Ekstase is to enter a body in shock, its nervous system hanging bare in the form of an electrified net spanning over 35 feet long. Manufactured as a flimsy carceral veil to hold cattle, it hums precariously above its audience, threatening to send a violent shock should any organic flesh, animal, or human attempt to cross its border, closing the circuit.

P. Staff. “Love Life II” (2022). Installation View, Commonwealth And Council, Los Angeles. Courtesy The Artist And Commonwealth And Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City. Photographed By Paul Salveson.

Opposite the entrance to the space is a giant self-portrait of the artist, bathed in blue, cowering under the electrified fray. “In a way, I use myself as the litmus test or the barometer,” the artist explains. “It’s a personal pinpointing of what sits between pleasure and pain, or life and death. Just like the heat of a flame that can burn too hard and can tip from warmth into a burning sensation. In the studio, it is continuous refinement of that [understanding],” Staff continues. “It’s incredible to think about what is really happening when we’re trying to describe pain, or saying that we’re in pain, or to describe pain to another person. That pain on one hand can be a set of nerves responding to a stimulus, but can move into the realm of the deeply symbolic or emotional. In the context of the exhibition, that net, which has been named after the afferent neuron, is itself alive and the nervous system is heightened and buzzing."

Viewers are baptized in harsh fluorescent yellow light and inaugurated within Staff’s vision of the tortured institutionalized body. Their largest exhibition to date, showing at the Kunsthalle Basel, is a polished and beautiful expression of violence and cruelty, befit with moments of self-reflection in regard to one’s own bodily autonomy. Before beginning to transmute the space into a living, breathing body of work, Staff worked to adapt to the space. “I studied dance for a long time and a lot of the techniques that I use, in exhibition making for me, really come out of dance practice, or some other kind of the spatial logics of dance works. Which could be as simple as when proscenium gives way to the forum, there’s like some logic poured from nightclubs.”

The artist says of the process of planning the space, “I’m someone that really loves to take in stimulus and so I go and see a lot. I go to museums a lot, I go to galleries a lot. So now it’s kind of a car crash of influences. I really use sound a lot to dictate a space. If you hear a film playing in a room that’s two rooms away, what happens? How does that pull you if you’re compelled towards a sound? It’s really just trying to remain as sensitive as possible.”

P. Staff. In Ekstase, Kunsthalle Basel (2023). Exhibition View. Photographed By Philipp Hänger. Courtesy Kunsthalle Basel.

The five-part holographic installation features a new single-screen film, sculptures, etching, and more. Seeking to go beyond the corporeal, the work disseminates the feelings that inhabit the human form and connects them to the wider, politicized institutions surrounding it. In Ekstase is the kind of exhibition that takes time to dissect, and leaves more to be discovered upon a closer look at the elements hidden in the room, and beyond––into the halls of Kunsthalle. 

To the observant museum-goer, one would have noted that the door handle from the foyer had an indiscernible burnt look. Or that the polished floors have panels with a similarly blackened exterior, the texture of which you could have easily dis- missed as stone. The eerie truth in Staff’s “Bloodheads” is true to its carnal title. The creation of which involves the transformation of animal blood collected from slaughterhouses into pressurized and solid material fossilized in utilitarian form.

Banal fixtures that were generally regarded without a second glance take on a grotesque new meaning that fills the viewer with hathos. “It’s finding this balance of familiarity and discomfort of what feels like the natural progression through the space, and then fucking with it just enough to make people slightly more on their toes and a little less easy.” Staff laughs, “It’s not all out horror, and the show is not completely pushing you out, but you’re having to hang with this low-level vibration of discomfort, agitation, or anxiety.”

P. Staff In Collaboration With Basse Stittgen. “Bloodheads” In Ekstase, Kunsthalle Basel (2023). Detail In: P. Staff. Photographed By Philipp Hänger. Courtesy Kunsthalle Basel.

Staff’s work is a careful balancing act of languages and perspectives, coming together to examine the entangled relationship between body and institution, pain and pleasure, common sense practicality, and bureaucratic theology. The exhibition, at times, is an almost clinical display of violence and anger, simmering beneath reflected steel intaglio etchings and phantasmagoric displays of poetry. In the fourth room, the exhibition’s titular piece In Ekstase spins forward, unleashing a sequence of lights and animation. The momentum of excitement generated by the force of the spinning blades blends together to create a fleeting poem that culminates in the phrase, “I AM LIVING/ YOU ARE DEAD.” A marriage between film’s early canon as a flickering, projected image to the ultra-modern innovations in producing holographic light, the piece is true to its name as a delicious and ecstatic homage to a world on fire.

“When we were installing in Basel,” the artist shares, “I was working with this amazing light artist collaborator, Josephine Wang. There was a moment where we were programming all of the lights, the strobe, the flicker, and the color and we’ve been working on it for ages, jet-lagged out of our minds, sitting in the dark for eight hours a day, programming these really precise rhythmic strokes. There was a moment where Josephine pressed play and we watched it through and we both burst out laughing because it was so intense. It’s kind of that moment where I felt, ‘Okay, we’re onto something,’ and to involuntarily burst out laughing because you’re like, ‘Oh, what the fuck have we done, is this too much?’ The title of the show In Ekstase is really that feeling. Where you’re coming up on drugs and you don’t know if it’s gonna be too intense or not, and you kind of can’t stop laughing, and you think, ‘I don’t fucking know, I don’t know where this is gonna go.’ My friend Carmen Argote, who is an amazing artist in LA, always refers to it as the flip, this moment where the thing is familiar, and is flipped in some way. You feel when the thing is transformed through the pro- cess of making, so I’m just chasing that feeling all the time.”

P. Staff. “To Live A Good Life Vi” (2022). Epoxy Resin, Inkjet Print, Steel, Glitter, Ink, Hair, Sweetgrass, Gold Leaf, Acid Etched Aluminum Frame. 24.25” X 24.25” X 1.5”. Courtesy The Artist And Commonwealth And Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City.

The feeling of mushrooming panic culminates in the final room, with Staff’s new film, La Nuit Américaine. Borrowing its title from the French term for simulating the midnight hours with a complex set of lenses and filters, it shows a world enrobed in an endless twilight. “It’s very, very aggressive,” Staff describes, "and really forces the viewer out of the room with an intense strobing.

In those little chasms, those little in-between moments, the images are really beautiful. It’s an understanding of the tools that are at your disposal, and honing in on what compels you to look and engage and what pushes you out at the same time. The first patient that gets experimented on is always myself. It’s a feeling that I pull from nightclubs or roller coasters. A moment where you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, shit, we’re all in this’ when you start to become more aware of the other people in the room, because you’re like, ‘When am I about to start screaming? Or is the person next to me going to start screaming?’ and that we are all navigating this space together.” 

P. Staff. “La Nuit Américaine”. In Ekstase, Kunsthalle Basel (2023), Installation View. Photographed By Philipp Hänger. Courtesy Kunsthalle Basel.

Written by Julia Smith

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P. Staff, In Ekstase, Julia Smith