Work in Progress: Jesse Darling

The derelict Croydon airport, Batman as a sainted figure, and a potential new work: a road movie going nowhere

BY Jesse Darling in Features , Opinion | 13 FEB 17

At some point early on I started to become acutely aware of the inadequacy, specificity and violence of (photographic) representations of the human body, both in my work and in the world. I then got stressed out about the idea of testimony in general, which is to say, the representation of experience, which led me to stop working in text and video for a few years, and start calling myself a sculptor. The relative illegibility of the object allowed me to hide in plain sight while working out difficult things, and I believe(d), after all, in the potential of abstract works to speak and sing in their silence, like a riposte. But in a cultural moment of accelerated visual saturation, the silence of objects can sometimes become a form of self-conscious camp: theatrically abject golem girls doing their little turn and curtsy for the nice moneymen. Film, on the other hand, is explicitly manipulative and didactic, and in the time of ‘post-truth’ politics (although in my view there has never been anything like ‘truth’) it feels like a good moment to explore the narrative form again, even if it’s all just fables and fairy tales.

I started thinking about this new film last year, while squatting in a studio in the industrial outskirts of Croydon in south London. Out there it’s a wasteland, just one long road and some big barn stores and a swathe of meadow that used to be an airport. Imperial Airlines was the height of luxury back in the 1930s, and Croydon airport was home to the first purpose-built passenger terminal. Nowadays it’s a perfect repudiation of the accelerationist narrative: where-all-this-once-was-grass in reverse, with gentle wildflowers and burned out motorbikes looking like the picked corpses of wildebeests in the Serengeti. Miniature ponies graze under the pylons behind IKEA and traveller kids play footy between burned out cars. It isn’t a ghost town so much as a zombie mile: empty billboards, mountains of fly tip, power plants buzzing softly alongside rows of allotments.

Image of a garbage dump.
Courtesy: the artist

It felt like the realized iteration of a bunch of ideas I’d been putting around for years about how space is occupied and produced despite everything, and during a period in which London felt strangled by homogenous development capitalism, it was a place where the cracks in the facade were in full view. Through those cracks grew bluebells and brambles. Dead pixels on the LCD ads that nobody ever looked at. I felt at peace there. It was lonely but it was okay.

At the same time I kept having this feeling that death was encroaching, at least in the sense of a continuum in which growth and expansion, at some point, just stop. Not a physical death, necessarily, just a feeling that a world I had known and counted on was about to fall apart. Now I know that I was right, in a way. This was before Brexit and Trump, but there was something in the air, exemplified or amplified by those liminal spaces at which the city meets its limits. It was a place in between life – the long grass growing slowly over the airport runway – and death, in the form of decay, obsolescence, waste space and real estate. In the wider world beyond the old Croydon airport, it seemed like certain ideas, struggles and identities were becoming irrelevant, and this meant that I (or someone like me) was likely to emerge on the wrong side of history. This was all right by me, but I wanted to understand more about the history in question so that I would understand exactly what was unravelling when the unravelling began. All the better to let it go, with grace. 

Cartoon pencil drawing of batman.
Jesse Darling, Dont hurt Batman !!!, 2016, pencil on paper, 29 × 42 cm. Courtesy: the artist 

I started reading a lot about the inception of modernity, trying to trace the beginnings of the trouble. I was learning the histories I wasn’t taught in school: coloniality, slavery and empire, the burning of witches and the hegemony of quantitative scientism. I was reading alternative histories of technology, Black radical theory, Kant refracted through Spivak, some Silvia Federici and Wittgenstein and Latour. I wanted to understand what it means at the fundamental level to be a modern Western subject, defined in part by a traumatic and arbitrary binarism that could all be Descartes’ fault, or some kind of ‘them and us’ schism deployed by early colonials, or who the hell knows? I started feeling like someone who grew up in a really strict church and never questioned the scripture. Despite its understanding of itself, it was becoming apparent to me that the rational doctrine of post-enlightenment secular modernity was just another form of theology.

Around the same time I was making some sculptures for a solo show called ‘The Great Near’, in which I tried to ‘denaturalize’ modernity as a form of syncretic religion, and I got stuck on Batman as a sainted figure. Perhaps because of (his) inherent queerness, (his) body, like the bodies of all the great martyr saints, felt somehow permeable, penetrable – something that I could enter into, expand inside of. But Batman also embodies every aspect of the failing, flailing sovereign, being a damaged, closeted, libertarian masc. homeowner with daddy issues: a white saviour with no superpower except money and a sense of entitlement. (He) was an ideal stand-in for my own body, with its wannabe masculinity, hubris and fallibility: features my body shares with the body of empire.

Helmet covered in tape over a black garbage bag.
Jesse Darling, Saint Batman, 2016, steel, plastic, sugar, expanding foam, 110 × 60 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Arcadia Missa, London; photograph: Tom Carter

Often, my work tries to visualize the precariousness of architectural, cultural and corporeal bodies as a form of traumatized optimism: nothing and no-one is too big, rich, tough or powerful to fail (or just, you know, die). The whole project of Western modernity is vampiric on every level. Death and decline are not allowed in the picture (how else do you maintain a narrative of exponential linear growth?), so fresh blood is continually required to maintain the machine. But as the Situationists of my teenage theory crushes would have said, eternal life somehow equates to eternal death.

In my sculpture practice I’ve always been attracted to petroleum products, synthetics, alloys (the quintessentially modern materials) and, in particular, plastic. The uncanny of crude oil. Plastic in proliferation. A medium of immortality, clogging up the earth and destined to outlive us all. Celluloid (derived from cellulose, which plants use to regenerate themselves) was one of the first plastics to find its home in the modern mainstream, and now – in perfect ghostmodern synthesis – those moving images are transferred to the incorporeal digital, so the dead can keep dancing away forever on the silver screen (or at least so long as the grid holds out). In this and many other ways, the narrative feature film is the modern medium, par excellence.

And so I started thinking about Batman in the bardo: a road movie going nowhere.

Cartoon batman holding a flaming stick.
Jesse Darling, Untitled (postcard), 2016, ink on paper, collage, 15 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Because of my issues with representation, I wanted the characters to be 2D animated, in partial homage to the comic books and Disney imperialism that helped to form the idolatry of high modernity. I started drafting character sketches for these two figures I call ‘Batman’ and ‘the ghost’. Batman both is and isn’t recognizable as the superhero: he’s also cuck, buck, horned god, beast and Viking; and the ghost guy is and isn’t the grand wizard, high vizier, dunce, conehead and cardinal. They are brothers and lovers and enemies, and they’re stuck together in purgatory until they figure out that they’re dead – which they may or may not do by the end of the film.

I started reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and parts of Dante’s Inferno (c.1320) to help me think about what their world might be like. Purgatories seem common across many cultures, a sort of suspended space above and below the world that, despite the presence of orgiastic spirits or vengeful demons, are defined by a sort of dullness. Nobody wants to stay there long, like passport queues at the border zone. I felt like the bardo at the end of white western modernity would probably be a processing plant of some kind, like the workfare rule or Kafka’s bureaucratic trash basket. I imagined sex at its most baroque, without the radical promise; obsolete cellphones going to endless automated operators and ringing off in the call waiting time. That there could be a love story in this scenario felt both impossible and necessary. After all, the commitment to a certain narrative is one reason that it’s hard to move on. The characters are stand-ins, of course, and their conundrum is a metaphor, though not a particularly subtle one.

Batman cartoon drawing.
Jesse Darling, A ghost jerks Batmam off & a small hare stands erect where the ghost fingers & then fish r flyin in a perfect arc before becoming planes & disappear out of the world, 2016, pencil on paper. Courtesy: the artist

When I was about seven years old I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). I liked it alright; I liked books about animals. It was cool when they took over the farm but I was sad about Boxer. I have not read it since, though I understand I may have missed some of its nuances. Still, a story that can entertain a child while carrying the weight of history is something to aspire to.

For me, narrative film is always inherently populist and propagandist, producing total affect without consent – and I dislike works that look and feel like Hollywood but refuse this relation to the audience. It feels like fables and fairy tales are legitimate etymologies now, since fully understanding something is not truly possible until long after the fact. And as with all work produced at this time, it will be interesting to see what seems preposterous and what seems prescient in 10 or 20 or a 100 years, or what ‘survives’ at all, if anything.

Main image: Jesse Darling, from the series ‘Whats wrong Batman’, 2016, pencil on paper, 29 × 42 cm. Courtesy: the artist 

Jesse Darling is an artist based in London, UK, and Berlin, Germany. Their published texts include The Best British Poetry 2015 (Salt Press); Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2015) and Art After the Internet (Cornerhouse Books, 2014).