In the single-room space Tate Britain has devoted to the current ‘Art Now’ exhibition, there’s a crooked forest made from crutches and open ring-binders, clustered in front of a wall with a large, cartoonish hole punched through it. The piece is Jesse Darling’s ‘St Jerome in the Wilderness’ (2018). Walking between the sticks and peering into the gap in the wall, you’re confronted with the slapstick tragedy of physical existence. ‘Brazen Serpent’ (2018), a walking-stick coiled to look like a snake, seems to follow you through the “trees”. In trying to protect or medicate ourselves, perhaps we’re in fact acknowledging our own fragility. You can’t avoid the threat implicit within contingency plans.
Darling’s new show centres around two figures who are deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness. One, St Jerome, is best known for translating the bible into Latin, giving us what we now know as the Vulgate, the 16th-century Catholic church’s official text. The other thing he’s famous for is taming/domesticating an angry lion by removing a thorn from its paw.
But he’s also more recently become the unofficial patron saint of UFO conspiracy theorists, thanks to the traditional attribute of his red, disc-shaped hat which often lies on the ground next to him in paintings. It’s usually depicted as a cardinal’s hat, a lozenge with a domed top. The flaked cords trail away from it, mistaken by spaceship-spotters for the kind of quick brushstrokes which might suggest motion. Darling doesn’t make any direct mention of this strange new chapter in Jerome’s story, but the idea of a supernatural object zooming around through frames, through time and space, suits this exhibition down to the ground. At any moment things might fly. At any other moment things might perish.
Or both. Which leads us to the second important figure, Icarus. Another proponent of supernatural flight, Icarus is the poster-boy for flawed ambition, the straw-man for the western world’s obsession with the art-versus-nature debate. Daedelus dared to over-reach the limits of man through his art, and for that he lost his son. Or maybe, Darling seems to suggest, he just wasn’t quite good enough at building wings.
Darling is so interested in Jerome and Icarus because of injury, contingency and containment. Darling is as interested in ugliness as beauty. Interested more, perhaps, in the wounded than the healer. In the story of Jerome tending to the lion, Darling seeks out the crisis between thorn and paw, then finds tragedy in the lion’s subservience. ‘The Lion Signs ‘Wound’’ (2018) shows an infantile beast behind glass using sign language to communicate its pain. A sterilised, sheathed human hand has melted through the glass, soothing and scorching at once.
In the story of Icarus, Darling zeroes in on the bolts holding the wings together - ‘St Icarus (attributes)’ (2018) is a pair of metal wings placed high above the doorway, exposing the artifice of his flight.
Darling activates the entire space - from the serpent-like crutch at your feet to the sketchily painted fringe of ‘sky’ around the vaulted walls - to immerse you in a zone of bodies and related apparatus. Disability, or the limits of ability, are called painfully to the front of your mind, and categories like gender and history are revealed to be as shaky on their feet as the warped and buckled bookcases in pieces like ‘Epistemologies’ (2018).
It’s unclear whether we’re celebrating flight or commiserating after the crash, here. What makes this show so effectively bittersweet is its observation that, even though we can foresee a painful landing, we still throw ourselves skyward time and again. Darling perfectly diagnoses the yearning with which people want to have spotted a UFO in a Renaissance painting, or want to take flight themselves. Or, like an angry lion with a thorn in its paw, simply want to be understood, to be healed.