Jesse Darling, installation view of “No Medals No Ribbons,” with (center) Virgin Variations, 2019. Photo: Ben Westoby

Jesse Darling

Oxford, U.K.

Modern Art Oxford

Jesse Darling’s “No Medals No Ribbons” (on view through April 30, 2022) caught me unawares. I didn’t expect to be affected so deeply, but I was. In a world reeling from war in Ukraine, the fallout of Covid-19, and any number of other tragedies, Darling’s twisted metal sculptures cast a gentle spell of sadness, accompanied by just a glimmer of hope. Their work evokes, rather than represents, the fragile and contingent nature of humanity, and that is perhaps what makes it so affective.

The ambitious Gravity Road (2020) forms the centerpiece of this major solo exhibition spanning a decade of Darling’s work, almost filling the main gallery space with its twisted, broken, makeshift railroad tracks—the perfect evocation of our dysfunctional world. Its contortions are painful, its curves poignant. Its origins lie in the gravity railroad built in 1827 to transport coal from Pennsylvania mines, a design that was soon developed into the rollercoaster thrill rides found in amusement parks. Darling’s rollercoaster, however, has nothing to do with Coney Island, Luna Park, or Dreamland. Their broken anti-monument challenges the power systems that increasingly surround us as the technology of industry and empire is repurposed for pleasure.

Virgin Variations (2019), a series of 22 simple wooden cabinets arranged in two rows of 11, towers above head height. Narrow and vertical—reminiscent of high school lockers—each cabinet is decorated with everyday objects and images, not unlike the accouterments of teenage students. We do not know who they belong to, but they evoke a sense of personal ritual and meaning. At the same time, they also suggest a memorial wall, bejeweled with gifts of remembrance for the departed. In fact, Virgin Variations is a shrine to Saint Ursula, who was murdered and buried in Cologne, along with her 11,000 virgin followers. Each cabinet marks an absence, an empty tomb for those forgotten or unnamed by history. Nearby, the small provisional figure of Equestrian Statue (2015) offers a stark contrast to monumental bronze and marble public sculptures celebrating military and political leaders. Darling has created something more like a broken child’s toy. Formed from mild steel, wheels, and a metal chain, the horse is only suggested, a counterpoint to heroic narratives and structures of power. The poignancy of this little sculpture makes it the most arresting object in the show.

The raw materiality of Darling’s work is crucial to their narrative. Steel and plastic are used everywhere to great effect. The seeming instability of works such as The Deputation (2017/2022), Sphinxes of the gate (Wounded sentry), and Sphinxes of the gate (Pet sentry) (both 2018) alludes to an entropic system such that “nobody gets out of here alive, and nothing is too big to fail,” to use Darling’s words. The vulnerability of the bodies suggested in the sculptures is, at times, almost too much to bear, but there are one or two lighter moments amid the seriousness. 

In Saint Batman (2016), Darling reimagines the well-known character as a mythical saint, making a farce of his heroic masculinity. Meanwhile, in Our Lady Batman of the Empty Centre (temporary relief) (2018), the saint switches gender. Saint Icarus (attributes) (2018) also brings together the serious and the silly, reimagining the myth of Icarus in a precarious assemblage of wood, aluminum, rucksack straps, and ratchet straps. There is nothing flippant about Darling’s strategies, but the humor offers a welcome glimpse of hope in this emotional rollercoaster of an exhibition.

“No Medals No Ribbons” coincides with Darling’s new commission at Camden Art Centre, London, on view April 28–June 27 as part of their Freelands Lomax Ceramics Fellowship.