Artist Jesse Darling Wants Us to Think About What Hurts

"The apocalypse is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed."

A man wearing a black jacket over a blue shirt stands in front of an installation of sculpture
Jesse Darling. Victor Frankowski, Hello Content

Berlin-based, Oxford-born artist Jesse Darling believes in community but openly reckons with Western colonial history, artistic appropriation and the ugliness of modern manufacture. Darling won the 2023 Turner Prize—one of the art world’s most prestigious awards since its inception in 1984—for his sculptures built from ordinary objects like Union Jack bunting and pedestrian barriers. He’s in good company, as past winners of the prize presented to an artist born or working in Britain include Anish Kapoor, Steve McQueen, Wolfgang Tillmans and Grayson Perry.

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Darling, who studied at London’s Central Saint Martins and Slade School of Fine Art, was awarded the prize for his solo exhibitions “No Medals, No Ribbons” (his largest show to date) and “Enclosures”, which were presented at Modern Art Oxford and Camden Art Centre respectively. He’s known for artistic output that elevates everyday objects: what was cheap, free or easily accessible in the realm of man-made materials like steel, plastic and silicone. Darling completes his creative thinking with a lot of reading, under the imperative to understand and situate what humanity has done and reaped.

Observer spoke with the artist about reimagined fairytales, having lived-in experiences with objects and saying no to the traditional studio visit.

When you won the prize, Tate Britain’s director described vast categories that your work encompasses (e.g., Brexit, nationality, identity, bureaucracy, immigration, austerity). When you conceive of a work, how much are those guiding you? Or does the narrative come later?

They always say that my work is about identity. To which I would say: everyone’s work is about identity, not just mine in particular. I don’t work from concept. I work more or less site-specifically. If I’m making some public output, it’s like, Well, where’s the show gonna happen? Who’s likely to see it? In this case, it was the most public show I was ever going to have in the UK. It’s also the only show that I’m ever going to have in the UK in which the public has any kind of stake. For that reason, I wanted to make something that was very accessible to that public—and I do genuinely believe that the work is accessible. The trolls don’t think so; they think it’s a bunch of rubbish that alienates people, but then they say that about everything, which is fine. I think that literally anyone, with any amount of educational knowledge or none, can walk into that show and understand what’s being communicated.

In some ways, it’s really unsubtle. If you’re talking about the UK, you are talking about Brexit, land enclosure, coloniality, the necrotic empire… that’s part of what’s going on with that country right now. It’s not that my work is “about Brexit.” I am interested in working with all the stories that we grew up with as naturalized meta-narratives—things are this way or that way. I want to tell them back as fairy tales so that the arbitrary, constructed nature of those stories becomes apparent.

I think about everything and read about things and care about things, and what I say to my students is: what you’ve been reading and what you’ve been living and what you think about — it’s in the work. There’s no need to insert it as a concept. I would say the same of this work. I study a bunch of things at the same time. I’m not very interested in art at the moment, but I’m interested in psychoanalysis, so I took up a seminar group in that, and I study theology a bit on the side. I have a reading group. We’re reading a lot of Palestinian authors. Before that, the Black radical tradition: Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, Cedric Robinson, W.E.B. DuBois. All of those things are technologies to understand what the hell’s going on. I’m engaged in the work of trying to understand what the hell’s going on.

Right—art is not just about self-expression, but about looking at the world with a critical eye. How do art and criticism work together from the point of view of the artist? Can art be activist?

It’s the kind of question that I wish people asked more often within this gig. I think critique doesn’t exist anymore: your rigor, as an artist, is down to you alone. Do I think that art can be activist at the moment? No, I don’t. I think there are big shifts of power happening in which many of the old ways are being exposed as completely corrupt and violent. All of this produces crises in people and cultures. Art is not simply a form of self-expression. Or it shouldn’t be. You can be kind of ambiguous and ambivalent; you can speak on many levels at once, which is not possible, say, on Instagram. The creative arts have a special ability to hold complexity. And that’s what we really need right now.

On the other hand, the operating system of contemporary art as we know it is very conservative, as we’ve seen recently with the spate of firings and cancellations. It’s basically about tax breaks and luxury goods: it’s a rich man’s game. I was very heartbroken about this, but now I’m kind of over the heartbreak. It feels like people at large are kind of structurally disempowered from feeling that they can access or understand art. But then, you know, I did need a fucking Master’s to finally figure out that there’s nothing to know when it comes to looking at art. It took me that long to really get this! You know what? Just look at it. Do I like it or don’t I like it? That red there makes me feel a bit weird. It’s as simple as that.

But for whatever reason—as with many things—the most fundamental truths have somehow become alienated for many people. So, no, I don’t think art can be activism. But this is also a roundabout way of saying that I do believe in that space of creative expression, which needs a certain formalism. I feel like I’m getting better at what I do because everybody who responds to it is right about what they have to say about it—even when they hate it. As in: something that I was trying to say has been communicated.

SEE ALSO: Everything You Need to Know About Turner Prize Winner Lubaina Himid

After seeing a Tate show I made a few years ago, one of the InfoWars guys was sufficiently moved to go and make a whole YouTube video about the degeneracy of contemporary art. He was irritated by these unskilled objects being in a vitrine. In other words, he understood very well the juxtaposition, the deadness of the objects in context, exactly what the work was trying to communicate. He completely got it, and it pissed him off. And if my work irritates my friends the fascists, it’s working just as it ought to. The general public all have something to say about it, and they’re all correct.

In terms of formalism, can you talk about how you work through that for yourself? How do you intuit what kind of materials feel right for articulating something that’s almost inexpressible? 

I do believe in embodied knowledge, which is not intellectual knowledge. Maybe your hands start to access it; and then they completely bypass your thinking ego (these are probably not the right psychoanalytical terms). All subject positions can be used to good effect if you know what you’re doing, and if you stay attentive. Our generation’s problem is how to tell a story: whose story is this to tell, and how should the story be told? And I think that this is a formal problem as well as an ethical problem.

As to the kinds of objects and materials that I’m drawn to: I need to feel a genuine intimacy with the thing. I need to know it, inside and out, and I come to know it because I’ve been proximate to it. I’m careful to stay within this probably pretty limited remit of things that I know that I have a personal relationship with. I have started to learn to see—in myself and in other people—when you’re reaching too much, like your concepts are trying to cross too many air miles. Leave that alone; go closer to home. That’s how I work with things in the first place. Things come into my mind or they come into my life or they come into my hands. But with some of the objects, I still have to live with them for a long time before I can use them. Especially if I’m using found or acquired or secondhand things that had a life already.

For example, in the Turner show… you know the say that Eastbourne is ‘God’s Waiting Room’?  Well, I found a lot of old walking sticks that ended up in the sculptures called The Grandads. I was in a charity shop looking for some lace curtains, which I didn’t find. Instead, I found six wooden walking sticks in a job lot, some hand-carved. Some old guy had died I guess, and they’d cleared out his place, and these sticks were his. Some of them were easily 20 or 30 years old. I spent some time with them. Because they’d already had a life,  they had things to tell me—and not the other way around. Sometimes things that don’t make it into a show because they’re just not willing to talk. Not yet, maybe not ever. I learned not to push my will on objects or ideas, because it just doesn’t work.

An installation of sculptural works with an industrial feel
Installation view of Jesse Darling’s show at Towner Eastbourne, 2023. © Angus Mill Photography +44 (0)7973 308 404

I love this idea that they have stories to tellthat it’s key to be attuned to some wavelength to hear that.

You have to take seriously this animist idea, and I say idea like it’s a belief system, though it feels to me that this is really how things work. Objects like animals, plants and people have their own song, almost a frequency. I started working with plastic bags, for example. Now, if you apply heat to plastic… how exquisite its dance. But also, suddenly, plastic appears like a burned skin, shrinking away from the flame. But then, what is plastic? It’s a zombie; it’s a kind of walking corpse. All objects and materials contain their own past and history.

In the accompanying Tuner Prize video, you visit a site and talk about manufacture and investigate these huge storage units. How did that come about?

They called me up at the Tate and said, Can we come to your studio? I was like, No, please don’t. Because I don’t work that way, and because I knew it was going to be really awkward and self-conscious; everything about it sounded cringe. So I pitched them: Can we make a road movie instead? Let’s look at the real world—that’s the true story of my work at its absolute best. And so we went on this trip.

All of this petrochemical chemical toxic waste that we inherit, the wasteland which is everywhere, and the wasteland-to-be which fills up every fucking Walmart and TK Maxx… sometimes you walk into a big store anywhere in the world and you’re just like there’s just too much stuff here. There’s too much of it made, there’s too much of it used, way in excess of need; It’s just so obscene. You could stay with the obscenity and get very angry and you could go on a personal quest to consume less and all the rest of it.

But talking of animism, I came to think that we need to take lessons from Indigenous pedagogy—ways of thinking and of living that understand we are a part of the world. The hippies and shamans and pagans and back-to-the-landers of the Western world do feel aligned with the land and the water, even though some of them are settlers; but we perpetually disavow the spirit of crude oil, which runs through all of us, and is in everything we wear and do. What would that deity look like? I want to spend time thinking about that guy, a bit like the devil itself, a seducer, a trickster. I’m not interested in disavowing difficult things. Where possible, I’m interested in looking at them, illuminating them and thinking about them—even though that really hurts sometimes. I’m also a white European with settler ancestors. Of course it’s not nice to think about all that stuff, what we are, what we’ve done. But that is our toxic waste and it’s not going anywhere. Like James Baldwin said, not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

In the video, you use a particularly striking phrase: ‘The apocalypse is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.’

I don’t think I originally came up with that phrase, though I’m not sure who said it—in any case the language of apocalypse, the fire and brimstone shit, is not universal. This is particular to Christian countries. The linear idea of apocalypse is also very culturally specific. We don’t use this rhetoric to talk about the First Nations and Indigenous people whose apocalypse is ongoing—like the Palestinians. And yet in the global north, it’s the big libidinal obsession. A general—disavowed—understanding of what we have already done to others, and then also the vengeful moment where the Christian Hell is manifest on Earth, the End of Times. I healed my own apocalypse fear by reading history and becoming a bit more relativistic. It’s good to remember that it’s just one of the fairy tales I grew up with.

You’re speaking about Western culture as a chunky ensemble, as opposed to looking specifically at the U.K., but I don’t know if being Berlin-based gives you extra perspective, not being on native turf. 

I’m coming out of the closet about actually being, in some ways, really an Englishman, or at least a Brit. But for a long time, I was like: I’m cosmopolitan. I can live anywhere! I have not lived in England for a lot of my life, or Britain, I should say. And Germany is like the king of Fortress Europe. For years I thought it was important to understand this thing called the West because it’s going down and it’s important to let go gracefully. If we all go down with that ship, so be it.

But I feel like some of the more extreme manifestations of the crisis of right-wing populism is more or less what happens when you don’t think through what has been lost—with criticality and compassion. There are deep and incredibly dysfunctional belief systems at work, and it’s those belief systems that I’ve been trying for years to understand and take apart, not just for myself, but for everyone—well, not for everyone, maybe. But there’s a lot of work to do right now, isn’t there? That’s how I feel. I’m trying to show up for it however I can.

Artist Jesse Darling Wants Us to Think About What Hurts