Not on display
- Jesse Darling born 1981
- Steel, foam, silicone, plaster and silk
- Object: 1950 × 550 × 530 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by Tate International Council 2020
Ass Priest 2017 is a life-size abstracted steel sculpture of a figure kneeling on the floor. Two long, continuous welded steel lines create the shape of the body, connected by another line sketching the figure’s bottom, resembling a child’s drawing in space. The figure has a dirtied yellow mask for a face and an orange and beige ‘bra’ pierced by a star-shaped hole and connected to the hips by pink silk ribbons on either side. Close to the mask and staring back at it, a pink foetus sits at the end of the figure’s right arm, in place of the hand. The extremity of the left arm is covered by a used medical white latex glove and is crossed to either rest on or support the right arm. The body parts are made from cast foam (using first silicone and then clay), while the foetus is cast in jesmonite, a type of composite resin.
The work was made by British artist Jesse Darling shortly after graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art, London in 2014, where their practice shifted from earlier digital and media manifestations to figurative sculptures made from everyday objects such as shopping and bin bags, crutches, plastic foliage and school chairs, all supported by welded steel legs and arms. Ass Priest is among a group of sculptures made for Darling’s solo exhibition Armes Blanches (a French term meaning ‘steel weapons’ such as swords or bayonets) at Galerie Sultana, Paris in 2017, a show which evoked the masked characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte, presented as a queer family. Writer Ingrid Luquet-Gad described the works, stating: ‘Quite clearly, identity was here posited as socially produced, be it through archetypal political roles (the masks) or gender stereotypes (born an indistinct cell-mass, you are made to fit into a bra or a glove, be it through a medicinal straightjacket).’ (Luquet-Gad 2019, accessed 2 March 2020). As with many of Darling’s works, the title of Ass Priest playfully injects new meanings and references. Here, by simply removing a letter from ‘mass priest’ and drawing attention to the figure’s ambiguous pose, the religious and obedient position of bowing for prayer becomes submissive and sexual.
This subversive ambivalence is further illustrated by the relation between the priest and the foetus. They could each represent a threat to the other; the foetus in the hand of a scrawny crawling priest wearing a used and torn medical glove evokes abortion (and more broadly its condemning by religious institutions in many countries) and child abuse. However, even though fixed to a stick like prey, appetisingly plump and candy-coloured, the foetus is positioned slightly above the priest’s masked face and therefore can also be read as dominant. Other sculptures in Armes Blanches included foetuses that Darling described as ‘units of coiled potential & futurity, like bombs or cells or fists’ (artist’s website, https://bravenewwhat.tumblr.com/post/161313567957/only-mildly-offended-by-this-highly-gendered, accessed 3 March 2020). Alongside the other sculptures in the show, Ass Priest performed the failure of modernity’s values, highlighting masked hypocrisies. Crumbling Western patriarchal, and colonial, belief systems and institutions are defied by the foetus, brandished and exposed in all its powerful potentiality, free from socio-political and cultural constructs. These could be symbolised by the priest’s bra-shaped corset: if corsets can be medical aids, they are also used as garments that change the shape of a body, often violently, to conform to socio-cultural norms. A symbol of the figure’s repression of sexual desires, it could also be seen as a fetish object. Queer sex practices are often referred to in Darling’s work as a way to think about the dynamics between bodies. She has explained: ‘I would rather that the work queers the viewer and not the other way around.’ (Quoted in Zamboni and Darling 2019, accessed 3 March 2020.)
Like most of Darling’s works, Ass Priest resists any single reading. Whether it depicts bodies that are at once predator and prey; motherhood, fatigued after an abortion or after giving birth; sexuality and a gender nonconforming priesthood; or whether it is a take on the art historical trope of the reclining nude or on classical theatrical references to the characters of the commedia dell’arte as well as Shakespearean figures like Prospero and Caliban, Darling invites the viewer to articulate their own perception of the dynamics at play in the work. Preoccupied with the deconstruction of the myth of modernity, Darling’s practice centres on the relationships between bodies, navigating prescribed and normative ways of being that are on the verge of collapsing and revealing a vulnerability inherent to individual bodies while finding strength in collective and mutual care. For art critic Martin Herbert, ‘Darling’s approach to representation gravitates toward deliberate weakness, manifest damage, and evocations of mutual aid, as if to anticipate and then repudiate a context of toxic masculinity and wrathful white heteronormativity.’ (Herbert 2018, accessed 3 March 2020.) Speaking of this body of work, Darling described it as infused with ‘ideas of “hard work” and “DIY” and “the gesture”’, while shifting ‘towards a non-macho sculpture practice by gathering and assembling small objects in narrative formulations’ (interviewed by Sealan Twerdy, “‘Speaking from a Wound”: Jesse Darling on Faith, Crisis, and Refusal’, Momus, 9 January 2018, https://momus.ca/speaking-wound-jess-darling-faith-crisis-refusal/, accessed 3 March 2020).
Martin Herbert, ‘Project: Jesse Darling’, Artforum, March 2018, https://www.artforum.com/print/201803/project-jesse-darling-74305, accessed 3 March 2020.
Ingrid Luquet-Gad, ‘Jesse Darling. Essay’, Cura, no.32, October 2019, pp.200–11, https://curamagazine.com/jesse-darling/, accessed 2 March 2020.
Isabella Zamboni, ‘On Broken and Glorious Things: Jesse Darling’, Jesse Darling and Isabella Zamboni in conversation, Mousse Magazine, Winter 2019, http://moussemagazine.it/broken-glorious-things-jesse-darling/, accessed 3 March 2020.
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