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For anyone who’s ever endured chemotherapy, or cared for a loved one suffering through it, the experience is palpably counterintuitive: like “mainlining weed killer” is how feminist artist/writer Catherine Lord describes it in her memoir The Summer of Her Baldness (2004). Lord’s text, enacted with daunting verisimilitude by the transgender actress Debra Soshoux in Patrick Staff’s video installation at MOCA, is the oral bloodstream for the video’s intricate balance of personal suffering, pharmaceutical torture, and human survival, despite the circumstances.
Staff masterfully interweaves Soshoux’s unapologetic monologue detailing diagnostic descriptions of agony with sequences of high-definition thermal imaging produced by a camera that detects radiation along the electro-magnetic spectrum. A concrete mixer appears as a toxic brew of chemicals; the tantalizing figure nearby, gesturing in rhythmic motion to the mixer’s rotation, is like a paranormal incarnation of a chemically-induced body. The combined soundtrack of screeching high-pitched sounds paired with intermittent flashes of red light insist that the excruciating pain of chemotherapy is felt, not just heard.
The video takes a theatrical turn as transgender artist Jamie Crewe lip-synchs a love song to an audience of uninterested heteronormative men in a bar. While baldness in Lord’s text is the embodiment of survival, Crewe’s hair, which she anxiously pulls behind her ears as she performs, is a metaphor for relentless tenacity. These paradoxical portrayals of hair are further confounded by Lord’s questions: “Is hair as unnecessary a protrusion as a dick in most social circumstances? Conversely is hair as much fun as a dick in most social circumstances?” What Staff’s video makes clear is the singular voice of pain, in illness or in love, as a personal declaration of endurance under conditions of repressive or invasive toxicity.
Patrick Staff: Weed Killer runs from March 12 – July 3, 2017 at MOCA Grand (250 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012)