Lauryn Youden

It’s often only in works of art that we catch a glimpse of truth, even if vague and between many layers. For the exhibition “Venus in Scorpio” hosted by Open Forum in Berlin, Lauryn Youden made five new sculptures with a focus on revealing the inner workings of oppressive systems and their histories—those that continue to control and repress disabled and/or chronically ill bodies. Surprising for this writer (an able-bodied woman), Youden’s investigation manifested in a medical quadra-cane, a trampoline and four Le Corbusier designer chairs—the latter converted from widely praised models of efficiency, functionality and design to objects of deceit. Suspended from the ceiling via sexy black BDSM ropes and bejewelled with a mix of queer anime pics, charms, sex toys and medical accoutrements, their designer forms and materials— chrome-finished steel, rawhide and leather—began to expose the patriarchal ideologies inherent in their design. Using the language of Pharma-Fetish-Crip, Youden forces these furnishings away from the illusion of “form follows function” toward the exclusionary and dominant system of able-bodied culture.

Bitch I’m a Cow, 2023, is a sculpture. It’s made from a Corbusier lounger with brown and white rawhide upholstery. It hangs on its side and low to the ground from two thick, black bondage ropes recalling an oblique human body. The artist’s inquiry into the concept of a “cure” expresses itself here (and in the other sculptures) in a relentless stitching-up and obsessive addition of objects. In this work, holes in the rawhide are sewn shut, and partially consumed pill packets and prescription boxes are stitched into the surface—crude and temporary solutions to both a chair in disrepair and a body in distress. In case the title of the work wasn’t clear, Youden made a second attempt at reconstituting the animal once behind the skin by fashioning a tail from braided straw and basting it to the end of the chair.

Lauryn Youden, installation view, “Venus in Scorpio,” 2023, Open Forum, Berlin. Courtesy the artist and Open Forum. Foreground: Bitch I’m a Cow, 2023, LC4 lounge chair (cowhide), various materials, 160 × 54 × 80 cm, 160 × 54 × 400 cm (suspended). Background, left to right: Hot Topic Esoteric Bimbo, 2023, LC2 armchair, various materials, 73 × 99 × 62 cm, 73 × 99 × 470 cm (suspended); Beautiful … this is the skin of a killer Bella, 2023, Invertrac inversion table traction unit, various materials, 67 × 91 × 125 cm, 67 × 91 × 400 cm (suspended).

Another curiously complex component of Youden’s new sculptures is the attaching of anime images to surfaces and underbellies. It’s tempting, at first look, to read these soft paper prints as diaristic, complete as many of them are with captions. In Bitch I’m a Cow, Youden put an image under the curved metal ribs of the lounger—a Sailor Moon-like character with the caption “you are worthy of love and belonging.” Here the “inferiority of cuteness” (equally exploited and mined in the anime genre) reinforces Youden’s assortment of pastel-yellow found objects. Both work to disempower the overtly modernist masculine design. Youden’s vocabulary isn’t confusing so much as it is a queering when the word “queer” means to challenge the intentionally invisible influence of able-bodied patriarchy and its affiliation with normalcy and health. Presumably, the exhibition is titled after Alice Sparkly Kat’s 2022 text, “Loving Venus in Scorpio,” which highlights the nuances of desiring (or being) such an insidiously noxious object. Kat’s writing features lists of (fetish) items needed to feel loved, intimate and safe. Many of them appear in Youden’s sculptures. “Loving a Venus in Scorpio is sometimes about loving the suffering that is love,” explains Kat.

Youden’s expression of suffering, of prolonged and chronic pain, is demonstrated in each sculpture via an equally relentless application of charms, objects and chains. A nod to the hope found in charm-spellcasting, tiny metal objects dangle and rim her work, ranging from scorpions, wings, rulers and Bambi to miniature bags of money. As Corbusier chairs reflect a body, they might also be talismans—hung on the sides as if off a belt and functioning like the nearby proliferation of prescriptions to ingest one poison to ward off another. To hang regularly used items on the sides of furniture is an act of putting within reach, translating to increased ease or urgency, to not having the time or capacity to search and find, walk, bend and retrieve. This gesture is picked up again in ACAB (“Mary Kate” Olsen), 2023, another Corbusier lounger, with a black walking cane, medicine, hygienic masks and charms dangling from all sides. Clearly this kind of convenience is also a burden, made heavy with attempts to make do, to treat but not cure, to make available, to constantly carry.

Extending the life of the charm-chains to all-purpose utility, Youden adds sex toys to the mix and with them their own special relationship to skin, leather, pleasure and pain. (“Venus in Scorpio likes to corrupt.”) With each sex toy Youden evokes Berlin’s popular BDSM scene, metaphorically whispering seductive yet torturous taunts. As a leather whip with studded-glass handle swings gently off the trampoline sculpture (But Have You Tried Yoga?, 2023), Youden quietly points to the difference between S&M and chronic pain—a safe word and the option to stop. In other ways the agony is similar. BDSM is less about coping with pain and more about forever learning to bear it, to endure more. “Loving a Venus in Scorpio is sometimes about loving the suffering that is love.”

Lauryn Youden, installation view, “Venus in Scorpio,” 2023, Open Forum, Berlin. Courtesy the artist and Open Forum. Foreground: ACAB (“Mary Kate” Olsen), 2023, LC4 lounge chair, various materials, 160 × 54 × 73 cm, 160 × 54 × 470 cm (suspended).

Youden doesn’t transform, or repurpose, or recontextualize; she aligns and aligns again, revealing the complex and problematic layers of a vulnerable body in a culture dismissive of certain kinds of suffering and indulgent of others, purposely ignorant of some bodies while fetishizing others. As quoted in the exhibition text, Beatriz Colomina wrote in her 2019 text X-Ray Architecture, “Modern architecture remains the default everyday environment, the norm produced by vast industrial systems, rather than the transgressive work of an avant-garde inspired by a specific disease [tuberculosis]. Modernity was driven by illness. The engine of modern architecture was not a heroic, shiny functional machine suspended outside daily life in a protective cocoon of new technologies and geometries. It is the difficulty of each breath and therefore the treasure of each breath: the melancholy of modernity.”

Youden’s work attests to Colomina’s observation. By sharing the symbols of survival strategies, Youden uncovers a truth imperceptible by many of the bodies her subverted furnishings support. The significance of queer gender in early 2000s anime, medical and sexual devices, hung, stitched and otherwise inserted into the still-legendary narrative of modernism, highlights our delusional and overly romantic relationship to upholding hierarchy and prestige. “There is so much terror around desire,” the artist tells us. ❚

“Venus in Scorpio” was exhibited at Open Forum, Berlin, from February 12, 2023, to March 25, 2023.

Jasmine Reimer is a Canadian writer and artist based in Berlin, working in non-fiction, fiction, poetry, sculpture and drawing.