Jesse Darling Won the Turner Prize. But Does He Still Want to Be an Artist?

Jesse Darling Won the Turner Prize. But Does He Still Want to Be an Artist?

A few years ago, the English artist Jesse Darling was standing in the vegetable aisle of a grocery store when he had a kind of epiphany. Staring at plastic-wrapped produce, he suddenly felt an acute awareness of the path the items had taken to get there: from cultivation to processing, to packaging and shipment, and then to their place on the shelves.

“I just stood there transfixed on the spot,” he recalled in a video posted last year. “I had this overwhelming sense of how fragile and precarious and preposterous it was: utterly in excess of requirement and in excess of possibility.”

Darling hopes to provoke such revelations among viewers of his works, which include sculptures and installations of manipulated found objects. He wants to expose the “fairy tale” of “the nation-state, the apparatus of capitalism, the structure of modernity, and race and gender,” he said in a recent interview — like “when someone is wearing an invisibility cloak and someone throws paint or talcum powder on it and it suddenly comes into view.”

Last year, this approach won Darling the Turner Prize, the prestigious British award for contemporary art whose past winners include such heavyweights as Steve McQueen and Anish Kapoor. The win was met with unusually widespread praise: An article in The Guardian called Darling’s work “full of personality, vulnerability, weird detours and alarming collisions.”

Darling had been scheduled to open his first U.S. exhibition since his Turner Prize victory at Chapter NY in Lower Manhattan on July 11. He said that he did not want to talk about the gallery show and that he would make most of the works at the last minute. This 11th-hour approach “was a high-risk strategy, but it’s the only way of doing things for me,” he added. (On Tuesday, a Chapter NY spokeswoman said the exhibition had been postponed and would most likely take place in 2025.)

His Turner Prize show — also hastily assembled — included items embodying the ways that both abstract ideologies, including nationalism, and concrete institutions, such as the police, shape everyday life. Darling altered familiar items to make them simultaneously absurd, precarious and threatening: street barricades whose legs have been welded so they look like gallivanting figures, piles of folders affixed with self-made flags, a modified roller coaster track emerging from a wall.

Martin Clark, the director of the Camden Art Center in London and a member of the jury that awarded the Turner Prize to Darling, said the artist’s work captured the “sickening sublimity and horror” of globalized capitalism and the power of the surveillance state. It evoked “wonder” alongside “this unbelievable apocalyptic sense of nihilism, which felt timeless, but also incredibly specific to what we’re living through,” Clark said.

Many news outlets saw Darling’s Turner show as a particular comment on economic and social decline in post-Brexit Britain. Yet Darling no longer lives in the country and has made his home in Berlin for much of the past seven years.

In the interview in the living room of his spacious, cluttered apartment in the city’s Neukölln district, Darling was self-critical, playfully confrontational and prone to tangents about economic and political theory. He emphasized that he did not enjoy public attention: After agreeing to an interview, he evaded and postponed a meeting over several months. When asked about his age, he said he was born in 1981, then added, “That’s not actually true.”

He also expressed ambivalence about winning the Turner Prize and a growing resistance to the art world in general. “Success in the art world means nothing, it doesn’t mean more money, it’s not additive, it doesn’t mean any kind of stability,” he said. Increasingly, he questioned his identity as an artist, and was considering stepping back from commercial artmaking, he said.

Born to a teacher and postal worker in Oxford, England, he said that encounters with wealthy students at the city’s famed university had imbued him with an early awareness of class difference. The way that “those students moved their bodies left a lasting impression,” he said. After discovering that “you don’t really have to go to school,” he said, he began skipping most classes except art and moved to Amsterdam after graduation.

He ended up attending the Gerrit Rietveld Academy art school there by day and doing sex work in the city’s red-light district by night. The school threw him out after a year, he said. “The other students were these nice upper-middle-class Scandinavians and Israelis and Germans, and people would talk really seriously over cigarettes about color fields and feminist performance,” he said. “I was having this secret life at night and trying to survive psychologically in ways the other students were not.”

Addicted to drugs, he ended up living in squats and working as a cook. “I was very young, quite vulnerable and an addict surrounded by addicts,” he said. But he continued making art by building props for elaborate parties held by friends in Amsterdam’s left-wing activist community.

“I didn’t get why someone would make something for a gallery,” he said. “My work was all for my community.”

He eventually returned to Britain and enrolled in 2008 at the Central Saint Martins school in London, where he studied theater stage design and then sculpture. He learned how to weld and began creating his found-object installations, guided by associations he made between the materials and their historical and economic contexts.

“Plastic is this zombie medium,” he said, because it does not decompose and is made from fossil fuels derived of dead organic matter. “Steel is a technology of empire that enabled guns, the colonial project.”

Darling has shown works shaped by these principles at galleries in London, Paris, New York and Marseille, France. Several of his pieces, including an installation of chairs teetering as if on stilts, were featured in the main exhibition at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

For a 2020 exhibition at the Kunstverein Freiburg, in southern Germany, he built a buckled roller coaster whose rails end up splayed out like twisted limbs. In an essay about the show in Artforum, Darling said this presentation in a Nazi-era swimming pool was partly an exploration of “the fascist obsession with the perfect body.”

Darling’s interest in this subject is partly biographical. In 2017, he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that causes weakness and pain on one side of his body and saps his stamina for making art. For him, he said, “Disability is not a metaphor.”

And although many news reports described him as the Turner Prize’s first trans winner, Darling deflected when asked about his relationship with gender. “I usually tell the papers I am openly bisexual because it gives people something to talk about,” he said, adding, “I have never met anyone who is heterosexual and cisgendered.”

Concerns about disability and gender were raised in “The Ballad of Saint Jerome,” a 2018 show at Tate Britain that centered on the legend of a saint who tamed a lion by removing a thorn from its paw. The show featured medical devices, sex toys and other objects arranged in provocative tableaus: a mobility cane contorted to look like a snake, a strap-on harness holding up cloth hangings from an improvised flagpole, and metal hands emerging from a wall to hold a ladder rising to the ceiling.

Sebastian Thomas, an artist in Reading, England, who helped assemble the works for several Darling shows, including for the Turner Prize, said the installations come together in an improvised way. “It’s not high production values, it isn’t about this glossy luxury product,” he said. “It’s about having a gnarly object and a direct relationship with it.”

Thomas added that he was moved when Darling sold one of the pieces they had worked on together and paid him a portion of the earnings. “That is a mad thing I’ve never encountered before,” he said. “He lives by what he preaches.”

That also includes advocating political causes: Darling held up a Palestinian flag during his Turner Prize acceptance speech and signed an open letter protesting Israel’s participation in this year’s Venice Biennale. He also refuses to show his work in Germany because he believes that arts organizations there censor views that are critical of Israel. “Dissenting opinions” were being punished in the art world in the wake of Israel’s war in Gaza, he said.

He admitted that it was awkward timing to have won the Turner Prize when his commitment to making art was faltering. “The problem is not the art, it is the condition of capitalism and the market, and the way that this whole gig operates,” he said. He added that he had been avoiding going to his studio, which felt like “clocking on.”

This fall he will try something different when he returns to his hometown to take up an associate professorship at the Ruskin School of Art, part of Oxford University. “I’m going to the citadel to see what it will be like,” he said. “What will I be now, if I’m no longer marginal and precarious? I don’t know, man.”

He said that he hoped he might learn to enjoy making art again if it were more of a “hobby” than the focus of his career — but that making such a pivot after all the Turner Prize hype was awkward. “I really didn’t wish I had to always do my learning in public,” he said. “It’s a vulnerable time because I don’t really know yet what I’m going to become.”

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