Jesse Darling’s first institutional solo exhibition in France takes place within a vast open room the size of an indoor sports court. The purpose-built 4000 square-metre gallery is situated within La Friche, a cultural complex in the heart of Marseille’s Belle de Mai neighbourhood. The facility hosts Triangle, a contemporary art non-profit organization whose director, Céline Kopp, has curated this show. Inside the gallery – named Panorama for its wall’s floor-to-ceiling glass panels overlooking the city – the metal-shell structure rattles. It is a windy day, but apparently all days are at this proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. The building is therefore a little tired, precariously holding together – and so, it might seem, is Jesse.
CREVÉ, the title of Darling’s new body of work, translates variously as knackered, exhausted, wiped out. In crude slang, it refers to something or someone being ‘fucked’ – broken, or punctured, like a flat tire. Throughout this exhibition, Darling literalizes the qualities of being ‘crevé’ through sculpture, installation and wall-based works. In doing so, they point towards some of the social and political realities that lead to the systematic inflicting of debility, by way of their own experience.
For the past two years, Darling has been affected by limited mobility caused by a neurological disease provoked by giving birth – something that they have recently begun addressing explicitly, in public. Their condition – which the artist describes as having initially partly paralyzed them and which is on-going in its inflicting of pain and illness – has impacted not only the way they live, but also the way they work. On the week of their opening at Triangle, Darling was suddenly hospitalized. The exhibition came together by delegation and in collaboration with Kopp and two local artists.
A fleet of paper planes made from folded aluminium are scattered across the gallery floor. The planes are stuck, not going anywhere, out of fuel. It does not go unnoticed that this room – with its tall windows and a loosely painted sky-blue line running across the top edge of its walls – looks like an airport departure lounge. The scenography is perhaps a reference to Darling’s requirements, as an artist, to travel, while simultaneously acknowledging the limits of their bodily and emotional capacity. Darling’s planes epitomize the uneasiness of the international art world’s normalized jet-set culture as both a privilege and a curse. As a port city, a gateway into France and Europe, Marseille has played host, albeit not always willingly, to immigrant communities from across the world. Though cruise boats and planes replete with itinerant tourists constantly arrive at and depart from Marseille’s shores, Belle de Mai, with its high immigrant population, is amongst the poorest neighbourhoods in France. Darling’s ground planes compel us to wonder how much of the local’s mobility remains stagnant – circumscribed by lack of economic power and/or documentation.
Literally confined are at least a dozen bouquets of bright yellow and white flowers installed inside two museum cases. Seemingly standing in for the artist at the opening, the flowers are fresh and voluminous, exhibiting their best selves. But in all their grace and celebration they simultaneously evoke their impending and inevitable demise. Visitors will bear witness to this gradual decay – and, with this gesture, Darling creates an entanglement with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s portraits of lovers, friends and himself, for which he used stacked piles of variously wrapped sweets – ‘candy’ – as stand-ins for bodies going and, eventually, bodies gone. Torres’s “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), (1991) – in which visitors are invited to take a piece of the sculpture, reducing its size over time – was a form of symbolic healing for his partner, who was suffering from AIDS. However, with this work, Darling prevents the possibility of being given help. Instead, we are asked to endure with the artist – to sit, watch and reflect on an image of residual perishing.
This is less about refusal and more about Darling creating a space for recognition, if not also accountability. Exhaustion is a condition of capitalism – its scale of values, its drive for production and consumption, and the systems of power, inequality and exploitation that these engender. The art world is far from exempt from this; however, Darling’s exhibition at Triangle retains a sense of hope. This materializes not only through an interview between Kopp and Darling (made available as a printed handout and on Triangle’s website), in which they unpack the context of making this show, but also through a series of leg and feet sculptures made out of steel rods and unfired clay that protrude out of the gallery’s walls. As if an extension of the building’s core structure, the lower limbs appear to be taking the literal weight of the exhibition. These forms recall previous works by the artist, where objects such as cabinets and chairs are symbiotically connected to cricked metal bars, at times also featuring crutches and walking aids. If Darling renders their sculptures bent, curved, often as stand-ins for unruly bodies, they simultaneously emphasize physical support mechanisms. Darling makes us think about dependence, not as a form of exchange or labour, but as an intrinsic part of what makes us human beings. If we are all only ‘temporarily abled’, as American philosopher Eva Feder Kittay wishes for us to understand, change or reparation will not only come in the erasing of the conditions and systems that lead to a state of being crevé. We must also come together to create structures of (inter)dependence – ones that allow us to flourish, rest, work and care, as much for ourselves as for others.
Main image: Jesse Darling, ‘CREVÉ’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Triangle France at Astérides, Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille; photograph: Aurélien Mole