Featured in
Frieze Week London 2023

Candice Lin and P. Staff On Their Cats and Castration

The artists, both participating in 2024’s PST ART: ‘Art & Science Collide’, talk about animality, science and Lin’s dynamic display at Frieze London 2023

BY P Staff AND Candice Lin in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine | 10 OCT 23

P. Staff: Philosopher Amia Srinivasan wrote an essay for the London Review of Books a couple of years ago called ‘What Does Fluffy Think’ that I remember us reading and discussing with each other. So I wanted to start our conversation with the question that also opens Srinivasan’s essay: have you ever experienced the love of an animal?

Candice Lin: Well, I feel when people ask that, what they’re actually asking is based on a false assumption. They’re asking, have you ever felt unconditional love? But I don’t believe there’s any unconditional love whether it’s with a non-human or a human animal. So yes, I have felt conditional love that has a basis in the things given and exchanged: food, water, comfort, rubs...

PS: And so you’re not concerned whether or not it’s a purely transactional relationship?

CL: No, because I think the emotional soul stuff is also transactional. I think Roger, and I have transactional love exchanges, like, give me my snack and I (Roger) will give you this sensual feeling of my stomach on your stomach (i.e. sex?). But I don’t think there’s meanness or a carefully kept ledger of these transactions and maybe that’s the best definition of love: transactions with sloppy bookkeeping. But why are you asking me about love? I thought we were just going to talk about our cats’ genitals. 

PS: I always come back around to wanting to talk about love.

CL: Really? That’s the worst subject for me.

PS: I love that about you.

You're probably my friend with the most deep, intimate relationship with animals. Srinivasan’s essay examines how sex with animals is depicted more broadly in culture. She points out, rightly, that bestiality features frequently in art, folklore and myth, but generally repressed as a topic elsewhere. Your new work for Frieze London isn’t specifically about bestiality, but it features animal genitalia and references animal castration, or spaying. Do you think of Roger as ‘your’ pet, and is he neutered?

Candice Lin, Everything you Want to Eat, 2023
Candice Lin, Everything You Want to Eat, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

CL: I was thinking about the essay by Anna Tsing, Unruly Edges (2012), where she talks about the role of the pet within empire-building, and how the pet as well as other aspects of the domestic sphere uphold the ideology of empire. The pet is an intermediate role that helps us define the edges of the human family by a kind of paternalism that we also feel towards our children. The loyal dog in particular, is a model for family devotion, a way of holding the love tight within the nuclear, heterosexual family model, not a way of building an interspecies sense of kinship or empathy that would lead to a greater awareness or acknowledgement of the uneven impacts and violence the imperial model has on others. The pet, linked to the child, is how we get to sublimate the violence of our colonial, imperial actions, to perform as compassionate, moral, ‘good’ people.

So the whole reason that the castration project started was because I was thinking about the circulation of power between Roger and I. He is my boss in a lot of ways – he has a lot of power in the household, but obviously he’s also enmeshed in all these roles of the pet that I just mentioned, and is co-opted, individually and as a species, into my world, and violated in certain ways, while also being given certain privileges of ease. I was wondering about how he theorizes around the way he’s obtained power from humans. And how do the feral cats theorize around this third sex of cats that humans have created?

I was reading Howard Chiang’s book After Eunuchs (2018), which reframes Chinese imperial court culture around eunuchs, layering it with more complexity than the 19th-century Western sexologists’ views, which saw castration through a Freudian lens of sexual deviance and threat of emasculation. I was really interested in Chiang’s description of the nuances of how the eunuch had value and wielded power, sometimes running entire palace courts behind the scenes, where the emperor or empress was just a puppet. So similarly I was thinking about how, like the eunuch who traded in their potential reproductive threat to the royal gene pool, Roger traded in his reproductive threat to the human species, and gave in to the human desire to show dominance through controlling the populations of other species (not to mention other races within our own species!). What, if anything, did he gain through this trade?

Candice Lin, Anal Fog , 2023 Natural pigment and soymilk on
Candice Lin, Anal Fog, 2023. Natural pigment and soymilk on silk. Courtesy: the Artist and François Ghebaly Gallery; photograph: Paul Salveson

But I don’t know…maybe all this theorizing is a way to feel less bad for what I did to him – like trying to believe that maybe Roger deliberately chose to come in and barter his balls. I was very comforted one day when I went outside and he was projectile peeing into the ivy. I Googled it and discovered that, yes, neutered cats that are really alpha can still learn to squeeze their thighs and projectile pee to mark their territory. I thought it was really great that he had found a way to still participate in feline property wars and masculinity displays, like he was still getting all the privilege and power in both spheres.

So maybe for me the castration narrative is a kind of path out of guilt, but what is it for you? You made the video about castrating yourself – was it related to the kind of violence towards and control of non-human animals in your work, On Venus (2019)?

PS: The work you mention is called depollute (2018). It’s a 16mm film in which a set of instructions play out very rapidly, flicker film style, guiding the viewer through the process of doing a self-orchiectomy: removing your own testicles. The film ends with the suggestion that it is an act of liberation, of freeing yourself. It’s a trans provocation, of course. I want my work to be on this knife edge between violence and freedom. On Venus, a video installation, leans more into an idea that there is a type of violence that has to happen to another body, in this instance, to the body of various animals, to prop up the idea of the human. There is always an elsewhere, a distant war, an inverse suffering to supposed peace. An idea in Hellenistic astrology is that Venus’s riches are always in direct relation to Mars’s war. The work hones in on the way we have to literally shred, skin, extract and tear apart various animals to maintain this precarious idea of humanity. And we are all embroiled in irrational justifications for it.

Are you interested at all in thinking through how your work deals with moralism as it relates to hierarchies of matter, species or the living?

CL: Well I want to be thoughtful in my answer to this because lately I’ve had a gut reaction against engaging in the politics and stakes of my work and saying things like, I think moral questions are the most uninteresting ones to ask. It all felt so obvious and deadening and righteous, and lately I just want to make work that’s juvenile, base and funny and assume everyone understands the bigger politics at stake under the surface and not have to spell those out.

But I was reading an interview with the writer Brandon Taylor and to the question, ‘What moves you the most in things you read?’ he answered, ‘moral depth’. I thought that was such a good answer. I think moral questions are actually really interesting when they are not about right and wrong answers they are the stuff of folk tales and mythologies, which I love. Sometimes I think, maybe I should just write children’s stories.

PS: I think you’d scare the children.

Candice Lin, Castration is Still Possible, 2023
Candice Lin, Castration is Still Possible, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

CL: Oh yeah and they’d become really popular because of that. Because all the good ones are kind of scary. I remember when I read the original Snow White story, The Juniper Tree, which we talked about in a conversation we had years ago, I was hung up on the connection between the role of children in the story and the juniper trees being abortifacients. The mother, the Evil one, says to the boy, ‘look deep inside here to get your apple’, and then slams the clasp of the wooden chest down, using it like a guillotine. Then his head is just rolling around inside this box with the apples. That was really memorable and later it just gets better and better, more and more gruesome. They eat him, or no – they feed him to the father.

PS: It makes me think of Bambi. The Disney film has the traumatic start with Bambi’s mother being shot – I think I was totally bereft at that scene as a child – but the original book is far bleaker. In just a few pages of the original, a fox tears apart a pheasant, a ferret fatally wounds a squirrel, a flock of crows attack the Thumper character and leave him dying in agony.

One of the original Bambi’s most interesting characters is Gobo, Bambi’s little brother. You find out later on in the novel that he was taken in and raised by humans, and as such becomes their biggest defender. He is the classic character of a subjugated minority that assimilates into and becomes enamoured with their oppressor. Later on in the book he frolics across a field thinking no human could ever possibly harm him, and he is, of course, mercilessly slaughtered by them. It’s easy to see why it was read as a parable for Nazism, and the antisemitism and white supremacism of the time. Salten said he wrote Bambi to educate readers on the fundamental elements of nature: starvation, competition, predators and prey, death. And so, we are back to this idea of the animal kingdom as an ante-chamber, a space we project into. Bambi is, in the end, just harrowingly existential, which is not something I would say about your work. So maybe you’re right, you should be writing more kids stories.

Candice Lin, Ball Juice , 2023 Natural pigment and soymilk on silk
Candice Lin, Ball Juice, 2023, natural pigment and soymilk on silk. Courtesy: the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

CL: To go back to this notion of moral depth: I think the easy righteousness of the art world asks moral questions that don’t lead to any depth and are built on the supposition that art can stand outside the social relationships its critiquing and make metaphors about morality that are often simplistic and binary. Those are such boring ways to engage with the world. I don’t think that illusion of standing outside of it, not being entangled and implicated in it, has ever been possible for either of us.

PS: We have both been in a no-content, no-thesis, no-overarching argument period of making work. It’s not anti-intellectual, but rather a desire, like you say, to be more in the muck of things. Both the figure of the child, and the animal, or indeed nature, get put in this category of the uncorrupted, the pure and good, whereas the opposite is often true. I always joke that if Platinum was big enough, she would kill us all.

CL:  Yeah, and she’d have that blank look in her eyes while she did it.

PS: Do you think you would be happiest dying by being eaten by Roger?

CL: No, I don’t like pain, I’m a wimp. I want to die very peacefully. Then he could eat me after I died. Although I feel like it would break a social boundary for him to eat me – he might be a little stressed about it and also he’s pretty picky. He’d be like, ‘Oh she really doesn’t taste very good, I wish she had more crunchy parts.’

Candice Lin’s commission, marking the 2024 edition of PST ART: ‘Art & Science Collide’, is on view at Frieze London for the duration of the fair. It will be activated daily with kite flying in The Regent’s Park.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, London 2023 under the headline ‘Animal Spirits’

Main Image: Candice Lin, Everything You Want to Eat, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

1 Roger is a Taurus, an 8-year-old black and white cat who wears a high-fashion, gender-queer birthday suit of a tuxedo in front, holster in back, and lives inside and outside the home of the human Candice who is obsessed with him. He is mostly a law-abiding citizen even though laws are rarely enforced, but can be quite willful when resisting things with bad smells. He likes to have the back of his head shampooed with greasy fingers, together with a neck massage, and uses sonic mind control to get whatever he wants. He does not like to eat the bean-shaped organ, nor the beak or skull.

2 Platinum is P’s 18-year-old silver Siberian cat. She is most likely a Virgo, and was originally found on the streets in Massachusetts. Notably, her facial expressions are strangely human and she is extremely fluffy and luxurious. She was given her name by Paul Monroe and was once painted by Flo Brooks.

P. Staff is a filmmaker, installation artist and poet. In 2023, they had a solo show at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland.

Candice Lin is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, USA. Recent solo exhibitions include at Gasworks, London, UK; Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles, USA; and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; and she has had work included in group exhibitions at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, USA; Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo, Brazil; and Sculpture Center, New York, USA. In May, Lin will present a collaborative project with Patrick Staff at Human Resources, LA, USA, and will have a solo exhibition at Bétonsalon, Paris, France, in September.