Jesse Darling: Shell Review – Part Public Toilet, Part CCTV-Infested Hellscape Art & Design

A sort ofartist poet jessie dearHis recent survey exhibition at the Oxford Centre for Modern Art slammed the tidy authority on museum displays. Glass-topped cabinets teeter into corners, metal supports refuse to do so, and a vibrant – if terrifying – roller coaster sculpture wraps around upstream before spreading out into splayed tracks.The show’s programming is directly at Exhibition by Anish Kapoor – An artist who loves impeccable materials – was ecstatic.

Coming soon, dear The walls of the Camden Arts Centre is a completely different animal. With more results from ceramic scholarship off-site than in a less Covidy context, the exhibition translates the artist’s interest in vulnerability and caring into an exploration of clay.

The material comes in many forms. London Clay – the original clay that seeps beneath our capital city – comes in the form of London Bricks, patterning walls and entrances on the floor. Rough yellow clay is made into clumsy hands that protrude from burned and unburned walls. Clay, as a processed industrial product, appears as cool white tiles, transforming one of the gallery walls into an old public toilet. The elite material in this collection is porcelain, which is crafted into bright white small plump doll bodies.

Jesse Darling's enclosure includes a TV, lace pelmet and barbed wire
“Obviously we’re being filmed too”…Jesse Darling’s shell. Photo: Eva Herzog

The clay body that makes up each element, and the nature of its participation in the structures Darling builds, thus becomes a metaphor for the human body. Rough clay hands scrub dirt from white bathroom tiles. Concrete and London brick invite us into – or keep us away from – parts of the gallery. Porcelain dolls are displayed under bell jars or placed safely on high shelves out of reach.

Darling’s early works, such as The Song of St Jerome (2018 at Tate Britain), expressed the vulnerability of the body to disease and injury, and explored the relationship between caregiver and care recipient Emerging power relations. In Darling’s reimagining of the legend of St. Jerome, the lion becomes visibly contradictory in his gratitude to the hermit. In honor of St. Jerome pulling a thorn from his foot, the legendary lion had to suppress his own nature and become a friend of mankind. While receiving care, lions must also accept loss.

In Enclosures, vulnerability is more of a social construct, and care occupies a sliding scale, from parental concerns to corporate surveillance to the threat of physical violence. Various cameras are installed around the gallery. You don’t really notice them at first: we’re so used to surveillance cameras tracking us in London by now that these plastic-wrapped electronic eyes are barely noticeable.

This material comes in many forms… attachments. Photo: Eva Herzog

A small portable monitor for the nanny’s camera was strapped to a concrete post. Its cameras are trained on the shelf of the porcelain doll’s body, approximating non-interference in parental care. Obviously, we’re being filmed too: from multiple angles, and probably less well-intentioned than the dolls. The footage of a camera located above the (barbed wire-topped) entrance door is projected onto the wall, behind a paper model of a small shed behind a white fence. Walking to the other end of the space, under a white lace hood, we came across an old-fashioned small TV box playing footage from the gallery behind us.

Red vinyl pictographs are affixed beside each camera and span sections of the wall. Some are rows of lines, like a countdown prisoner. Others appeared to approximate the text, as if in a failed attempt to communicate: “Hi!” “Surveillance cameras in use” “Smile, you’re on CCTV!”. Maybe these symbols of control have become a bit roguelike, like Darling’s wayward wobbly furniture?

Two glass cases contain old wood and metal hammers decorated with colorful ribbons and bells, such as a baby’s rattle, a clown’s baton or a Morris dancer’s stick. They are tools of violence or construction disguised as distracting toys. Are they a threat or a way out of the system? or both?

It’s not a leap from working for a sick or damaged body to a body that accepts various forms of state control (even if that control is supposed to be for our own good). We cannot make a strict division between the political realm and the emotional realm: an oppressive environment plays out in the flesh. This is not simple art. Darling takes on the tricky task of charting a thoughtful route to addressing the specificity of the body without getting bogged down in identity politics. Navigating it is exhilarating.

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