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Issue 229

Jesse Darling’s Malleable Bodies 

Two exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford and Camden Arts Centre, London, examine the impermanence of power

BY Iarlaith Ni Fheorais in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 26 MAY 22

Amid a vicious attack on trans life in Nigeria, the UK and US, I spent most of April and May in a defensive huddle with my trans siblings. In April 2022, the British Equality and Human Rights Commission published guidance threatening the legal exclusion of trans people, particularly trans women, from gendered spaces such as bathrooms, changing rooms, homeless shelters, hospital wards and prisons. Shortly afterwards a government ban on conversion therapy made an exception for trans people. The community has been left mourning a lost future of safety and security, the vision of life we had once fashioned in this country. The erosion of our rights and dignity makes power a very real and tangible force in our lives. It has a physical, embodied presence: a mouth, eyes, feet and hands. It walks, rushes forward, grabs you and speaks.

Helmet covered in tape over a black garbage bag.
Jesse Darling, Saint Batman, 2016. Courtesy: the artist, Modern Art Oxford and Arcadia Missa, London

The Oxford-born, Berlin-based artist Jesse Darling’s work acts against this politics. Their show at Modern Art Oxford (MAO), concluded on 1 May, and another exhibition can currently be seen at Camden Arts Centre, London (CAC). MAO hosted the retrospective ‘No Medals, No Ribbons’, featuring work made over the last ten years. Through primarily figurative drawing, sculpture and installation, the exhibition made visible the central theme of Darling’s practice – the impermanence, vulnerability and mortality of power and its instruments of control: state, technology, government, religion and empire. At CAC, Darling presents a new commission, ‘Enclosure’, exploring histories of extraction and exhumation, addressing through clay the fallibility and malleability of humans and the things they make. 

Between protests, indignant voice notes and evenings holding each other, I grappled with doubts about the purpose of giving up time to write about art. As I was waiting in the MAO cafe, my partner sent me a quote from the US poet Alok Vaid-Menon’s Beyond the Gender Binary (2020): ‘They say we are pretending […] They say we are attacking them [...] This is how power works: It makes the actual people experiencing violence seem like a threat.’ Ballasted, I entered the airy main gallery occupied by Gravity Road (2020), a large steel rail-like structure reflecting on the common roots of coalmine railways and rollercoaster rides. Surrounded by aluminium ‘paper’ planes (Planes, 2022), Gravity Road is a familiar yet necessary allegory of resource hoarding, pleasure and hubris. The exhibition finds intimacy in the human scale, mainly figurative work in the smaller, cramped alcove-like spaces of the galleries beyond. 

Exhibition view of metal sculptures.
Jesse Darling, ‘No Medals, No Ribbons’, installation view, 2022. Courtesy: the artist, Modern Art Oxford and Acadia Missa, London

Elsewhere, in Le Baiser (No More Saint Jeromes) (2017), two disembodied hooded heads are caught in the sweet moment when time slows down before a kiss. They sit alongside the buckled animal forms of collapsing furniture seen in Epistemologies (Collapsed Cabinet) (2022) and Chaise (2016). Scattered on the ground, powdery white, blue and pink inhalers (Peak Flow, 2013/22), made from plaster, are surrounded by the dust of their own construction, a nod to the materiality of these life-sustaining devices. In Virgin Variations (2019), a suite of wooden school lockers with transparent Perspex doors appeared almost to hold court, while Watcher (2017), an exhausted-looking steal figure, was leant to one side with its head directed towards the ground.

Throughout the space, concrete blocks appeared held in arch files (Epistemologies, 2022), representing the weighty afterlives of defunct forms of knowledge. In one dimly lit antechamber hung a self-portrait of Darling, its title a quotation from Dante’s Divine Comedy (c.1308–1320): In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself astray in a dark wood where the straight road had been lost (self-portrait) (2022). The artist is nude, with a crutch in one hand and a torch in the other, held close to the groin. Their eyes are downcast. The calves and feet are human, but the upper legs resemble smooth tubes, and one knee is almost a metallic hinge. A red and yellow miasma floats above their head, a kind of halo. 

Jesse Darling statue made of white marble.
Jesse Darling, ‘Enclosures’, installation view, 2022. Courtesy: the artist, Camden Art Centre and Acadia Missa, London; photograph: Eva Herzog

Darling exposes the coalitions possible from a crip position; how vulnerable, adaptive and negotiated bodies bear witness to the whims of power on a corporeal level. This goes beyond the often-hollow gestures of care that artists and institutions discuss ad nauseam and, instead, moves towards a politics of solidarity. In this sense, Darling mobilizes crip-ness to map an understanding of what it means to be alive together. In their essay ‘Why It’s Taking So Long’ (2022), the artist Johanna Hedva reflects on how they ‘realized that the most common and universalizing condition of life – that our bodies are fragile, get sick, need rest, need support, that they need at all – had been twisted into the measure of one’s own individual failure, something to be ashamed of and sorry for and kept out of sight.’

Darling presents ‘Enclosures’ at the CAC as the fourth Freelands Lomax Ceramics Fellowship recipient. Developed over a two-year residency, the exhibition takes its title from the long series of Acts of Enclosure, passed in the English (later British) parliament from the 17th to the 19th centuries, by which common lands were made private property. The modest room is lined with rows of bricks that hint at walls, barbed wire at the entrance and metal grates over the windows. It soon becomes clear that we’re being watched – I catch sight of myself on monitors, recorded from unknown cameras. Clay hands grasp onto tiled-over arches, with limbless and headless dolls placed throughout; the only means of escape are hammers wrapped in ribbons and bells out of reach in glass vitrines. A feeling of being bound permeates the space. In CAC’s File Note 140 Jesse Darling (2022), the scholar Sebastian De Line observes that ‘rather than making kin with petrochemical by-products, society may come to acknowledge that we’re already kin,’ inviting us to consider our affinities with the materials that make up our lives. 

Clay hands making red markings on a white tiled wall.
Jesse Darling, ‘Enclosures’, installation view, 2022. Courtesy: the artist, Camden Art Centre and Acadia Missa, London; photograph: Eva Herzog

Framing the space are headless pillars emblazoned with improvised flags made from steel grids, lace and Venetian blinds. Red tally marks punctuate the tones of earthy browns, greys and off-whites. In a country where less than 1% of the population owns 50% of the land, enclosure still marks our present. ‘Enclosures’ ties questions of ownership and extraction to the body, a bound yet malleable entity. Here, clay – a material of such cultural resonance – acts as an invitation to consider how minerals flow through and form us. 

Darling’s work refuses the ordering and categorization of the colonial state, showing us that the body is beyond fixity. It bends, transforms and breaks. Though many institutions now demand work on care and resistance, I refuse to engage in clichés about the solace that art can provide in difficult times, or its capacity to be an amorphous means of resistance. As Darling gracefully reminds us at MAO and CAC, like our fragile, mortal impermanent selves, power and its grip on our bodies will inevitably wither and fade. As Darling states in conversation with the MAO curator Amy Budd, ‘it’s a hopeful feeling to know even empires fall, kings topple and governments are overthrown.’

Jesse Darling ‘Enclosures’ is at Camden Art Centre, London, until 26 June

Main image: Jesse Darling, Gravity Road, installation view, 2022. Courtesy: the artist, Modern Art Oxford and Arcadia Missa, London; photograph: Ben Westoby

Iarlaith Ni Fheorais is a curator based between Ireland and London, UK.