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Turner Prize-winning artist Jesse Darling: “Art is over in its current form”

Having just won the UK's Turner Prize, Berlin-based artist Jesse Darling discusses online trolls, the fallacy of German integration and the fact that no one really looks at art.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Jesse Darling is a multidisciplinary artist whose work takes aim at and undermines dominant Western narratives around religion, ideology and politics in an attempt to reveal their underlying fragility and precarity. There’s a great deal of wit in his work as he manipulates and alters everyday items, revealing the vulnerability of things that we so often take for granted.

Born in Oxford in 1981, he was kicked out of art college in Amsterdam but went on to complete a BA and MA at Central Saint Martins in 2010 and a MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art in 2014. His 2022 show No Medals No Ribbons at Modern Art Oxford won him a nomination for the Turner prize, an award worth €29,000, which he went on to win in December 2023. During his acceptance speech, he spoke up for the importance of teaching children art in schools, making it clear that self-expression and culture should be available to children from “all socio-economic backgrounds”.

He has exhibited around the world, most notably at the Venice Biennale in 2021, Kunstverein Freiburg in 2022 and Tate Britain 2018. In 2017, he made Berlin his principal home. 

No Medals No Ribbons, depicting a Britain teetering on the verge of collapse, won Darling a nomination for the prestigious Turner Prize. Photo: Angus Mill

The exhibition that won you the Turner prize, No Medals No Ribbons, presented a Britain on the verge of collapse. Is that really how you see it?

Britain is so self-evidently necrotic and in decline. Sometimes I think I should be over there, going down with the ship I was born on. But instead, I’m in Germany, king of fortress Europe, paying my taxes to the war machine in its fight to the death for “the West”.

Do you relish this decline?

Well, there’s nothing we can do about it. But in the Turner show, there’s some stuff that speaks to nostalgia as a complicated and, I think, legitimate response to collapse. It’s a nostalgia for how things used to be: when men were men and women were women and England was England.

I don’t have that nostalgia myself, but I understand it as a position. But that position is fundamentally incurious – an inability or unwillingness to imagine how things could be otherwise. I think some of the fear of apocalypse is being driven by a certain demographic as it feels things shifting away from its assured sovereignty.

I really try to make my work accessible, so that anybody can read it.

Is there much difference between you heralding the decline of the country and an older generation decrying the great liberal changes to society?

I’m a 43-year-old white man. Sure, I recognise some of that stuff in myself. But I want to explore those feelings and how they are enacted in the world. Of course I feel satirical about it, but there is some compassion too – like what a mess, damn.

You talk of apocalypse, but aren’t you fearful of it?

Apocalypse happens every day for somebody. In Gaza there’s an apocalypse happening right now at scale. A large number of people in Britain can’t afford to feed their children. This is either apocalyptic or just business as usual. But it’s always been that way: the same feudal classes running the world since forever.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Is it any different in Germany?

Germany has its own problems, and one of them is that there’s no way to integrate, not for the anglophone artist class, not for the Ukrainians, and not for Syrian and African refugees, either. You can learn German to fluency, and you can get all your papers in order, but real integration – to become German like the Germans – is simply not possible.

Why do you think that is the case?

Maybe Germany doesn’t have a stable enough sense of itself; it can’t even integrate Ost und West. But it’s about language, too. I’m good with languages, so I wondered why, with German, I just wasn’t getting it. It felt like my body was resisting it. Oh, German is so hard to learn, they said. Why? Oh, because it’s so strict and so precise, they said. For a long time, I really believed this.

Germany has its own problems, and one of them is that there’s no way to integrate.

And then I suddenly realised, wait a minute! Language is fluid by definition; it is created and recreated by speech. And I realised that this idea of strict precision in language was one of the projects of the Third Reich. Like, they got rid of all the Roma and Yiddish speakers, the homosexuals with their slang and street dialects, all the communities whose German would’ve been inflected by different language cultures.

Only under such circumstances is one able to say and believe that a language can only be spoken one way. And so I thought, aha, that’s why I haven’t been able to learn this. Language is fluid! Du verstehst mich doch, oder? Then klar, fuck it! The minute I gave up on speaking German with perfect precision I realised I could already speak and understand it. German is not static! Speak it however you want!

Has your life changed since winning the Turner prize?

Before I got the nomination, I was actually thinking it was about time to retire this version of myself. Because I think art is over in its current form. Making art is a skill set I’ve got good at, but I think it’s time to pivot into something else.

Unusually, critics and the public were overwhelmingly supportive of your victory…

The bourgeois press have been positive, but the people who write the comments under those pieces were all saying that “it’s a bunch of shit”, and “the whole system of art is broken”. Not that they’re wrong about that. I did this show at the Tate a few years ago, and I made some works that were archival binders filled with cast concrete, like the weight of illegible old knowledge. There is a certain amount of skill involved in casting concrete, but it wasn’t exactly Michelangelo’s David.

One of the guys from [far-right conspiracy theory and fake news website] Infowars was so alienated and incensed by this work that he made a whole video about “degenerate art”, which is how the Nazis denounced artists whose project didn’t chime with their conservative form of romanticism. So there’s a lot of that, and the idea that this ‘deskilled’ art is a “sign of moral degradation”. Then they start going on about “these are the people who want to take over our country”. As if.

Turner Prize 2023 at Towner Eastbourne. Photo: IMAGO / Avalon.red

Does it affect you?

You just can’t take it personally. Not the praise either. It does make me sad that this justified outrage is being wasted on something like that. It’s true that the ‘elites’ run the country, that money is misdirected, that taxpayers fund the vanity projects of rich and powerful people, but we’re talking about weapons and royalty and bad contracts on railways and hospitals, not a pissy art show. I mean, come on, where is our Versailles moment?

Normally, the promotional videos they make for the Turner prize are studio visits, but you hijacked the film crew and took them on a tour of desolate British scenery and container ports…

I’ve been in this game a long time now, and it gets to be so formulaic – just another apparatus to bolster capital flows as part of Tate’s content strategy. And I felt so bored and embarrassed by it. And then all the things that the artist is supposed to claim the work is trying to do – in the voiceover or whatever – and you’re like “but is it really doing that though?” And it’s just bad all round. So I said let’s not look at the work, let’s look at the world – much more interesting.

I’m not really interested in promoting my work because I’m sick of it.

Were you prepared for the media attention around the Turner prize?

The Turner prize is a battleground for what’s now being called the culture wars, and it’s always been that way. So for that reason, I had to seriously consider whether I should accept the nomination. And then I thought: I’ll do this.

So I spent the summer sober and lifting weights to prepare myself physically and mentally for what was coming, building up resilience so I could maintain boundaries between me and the work and the world and trying to keep myself sharp and clean. I’m not really interested in promoting my work because I’m sick of it, but I’m interested in the subterfuge and in putting ideas into the world.

You’re sick of making work?

It’s fun to make stuff. But if you get good at something, then it’s time to do something else. And I have a great fear of repetition. In these times of political unrest, the market is quite conservative. And it’s not going to get better.

We as artists are basically service producers in a luxury goods industry. And there’s plenty of people below the artists, in the privileged and not so privileged precariat, that constitutes the art world. So it feels like it’s time to start divesting our energy.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Would you say your work can be understood by everyone?

I really try to make my work accessible, so that anybody can read it. There’s nothing to know beyond the very simple set of signs that’s in the work, which can be read on a number of levels, of course. I’m mainly working in sculpture right now, but I’m always wondering if that’s the best way to communicate about things.

The fact is that I’m frustrated, and I’ve been so for years, by the fact that people rarely look at art – not the collectors, not the directors, not even the artists. The only people who care about the work are art students and online trolls.

Your work is often filled with altered everyday objects to reflect societal and political instability, like your chairs with their absurdly long legs…

Well, even if you don’t immediately notice that the legs of a chair have been doctored and welded, it has a somatic effect, a kind of Verfremdungseffekt, as Brecht would describe it. And they kind of start galloping, like horses. Each one has its own individual personality and they kind of grow together. I never make sketches or anything, we just work it out in the making.

We as artists are basically service producers in a luxury goods industry.

Do you have much studio help?

I do work with specific people on specific projects. It’s about a relationship. Where someone has been closely engaged with me in the thinking and making process, I cut them in on the sale since in a sense they’ve co-authored the work. They get 10 percent. It’s not enough but it’s something. [Exberliner] should put that in to make other artists feel like they should do it too; it would be a more equitable art world for everybody.

What have you got coming up?

I’d like to make a new film, but I need somebody to fund it. Right now, I have some seed funding to develop a musical. And I’m working with Roskilde Festival in Denmark next year. Everyone there is a volunteer, and they really charmed me into getting involved and making a work that would be a site of gathering for their arts and activism programme. I think that’s awesome.

You’re a vocal supporter of #StrikeGermany…

The real target of the strike is not the institutions, but the German state. And the German state understands culture as an important part of its export – Berlin, the capital of artists, etc. As I see it, one objective of the strike would be that the institutions take a public position on the actions of Israel in Palestine and distance themselves from it. But that would mean that the institution has to distance itself from the structure of the state, which might mean losing their funding. So there’s something at stake.

The strike has been criticised for not having clear objectives but it reflects the precarious conditions of cultural workers. And as artists, we’re workers of the image and the word, and these actions are what we have at our disposal.