Jesse Darling

Jesse Darling on Gravity Road and the construction of leisure

Jesse Darling, Gravity Road, 2020, steel, sandbags, soil, flowers, elastic bandage, metal coating, 15 1/2 x 19 x 53'. Kunstverein Freiburg. Photo: Marc Doradzillo.

After months of working under lockdown in Berlin, Jesse Darling recently traveled by train to Kunstverein Freiburg, in southwest Germany, to install Gravity Road, a “dysfunctional roller coaster” that consists of a suspended horizontal track, a ladder twisting to nowhere. Like the artist’s previous experiments in steel—such as The Veterans and Wounded Door 1, both 2014the work’s anthropometric scale and distorted form suggest both vulnerability and potential. The exhibition opened on September 19 and runs through November 1, 2020. Here, Darling talks about the work’s genesis and installation, with special thanks to Joe Highton, Zach Furniss, and Victor Ruiz Colomer, without whom this work would not have been realized, and Heinrich Dietz at Kunstverein Freiburg, who commissioned and curated the work.

NEVER SAY NEVER, but I can’t see why I would make anything on this scale again. The space that Gravity Road was made for was built as a swimming pool under the Third Reich. It really feels like that; I very much felt it when I went in. It’s huge, huge. A big, big swimming pool with a balcony around the top that made me think about Leni Riefenstahl and the fascist obsession with the perfect body, but also of this idea of leisure, and there being a certain way to be at leisure. With this balcony, it’s not like looking down into the marketplace, or, I don’t know, the kids’ playground where things just fall and tumble around on each other. It’s about a kind of surveillance. There is a particular construction, in this architecture, of leisure as imagined by the Nazis in this part of Germany at that time. There are these huge pillars when you come in, they’re kind of modernist, sans serif, but they have the same effect of Greco-Roman pillars. The temple, the great hall.

The first roller coaster originated at a nineteenth-century railway company in Pennsylvania, and was also called Gravity Road. Like the swimming pool, its construction of leisure was fraught with social and political conflict. Siegfried Kracauer wrote about roller coasters, and it should surprise nobody to know that the first amusement parks were racially segregated. The roller coaster is also derived or extrapolated from the mining train. The miner was not worth as much as what he would extract.

There are many institutional curators who really do think that artists are a special and qualitatively different breed of person, and they tend to be the ones who don’t see or recognize labor. My labor, anyone’s labor. Kunstverein Freiburg’s curator, Henri Dietz, is not like that. It was and is a dialogue. And Joe Highton, an artist who worked with me on this show, is just amazing. He is somebody who really thinks with his body. We worked on a small project together when I was paralyzed down my right side, and without talking much, I felt like Joe became my right arm, it was like dancing. That big curve at the end of the roller coaster, that’s Joe’s curve.

The Kunstverein has a small budget. I have never wanted to make expensive work, out of principle but also because, what are you going to do with it afterwards? So I thought of steel, old school. Steel is cheap and you can make things happen in a space with it. I hadn’t been working in steel sculpture for quite a while. I just got bored of it, or got to be better at it, and wanted to do something I didn’t know how to do. The fact is, steel itself is part of a history of the extraction and colonialism that kind of built the white supremacist West. Of course, the fascists and futurists were all about speed, and now you have the accelerationists who take up where those guys left off. The roller coaster is emblematic of this steel sickness, speed sickness. I can’t even remember the last time I was on a roller coaster, but I do feel a bit animated by the ghosts of the steel sometimes. I was talking to my friend Jonny Bunning, who is a historian, about how weird it is that people would pay to be scared, and he pointed out that the original roller coaster thrill was an industrial-collective afraid as opposed to, you know, neoliberal extreme sports stuff. Apparently, the new roller coasters are individual pod experiences where you are alone in your fear and you don’t have to sit there with the screams and saliva of everyone else there. I guess that I believe in the idea of the collective with all its problems. That, for me, is the way that I survive social media and the feed, and also the news.

Jesse Darling, Gravity Road (detail), 2020, steel, sandbags, soil, flowers, elastic bandage, metal coating, 15 1/2 x 19 x 53'. Kunstverein Freiburg. Photo: Marc Doradzillo.

If it were possible to ride this roller coaster, it would be a short ride. It’s made roughly at a child’s scale, and it’s supposed to make you think of your own body—I don’t know how successful it was in this way because it took so fucking long to make and there was such a lot of hard physical work involved. And then the install was the first time we’d ever seen it, because it was too big to put together in the workshop. So I had no idea what it was or what it did. At first, having installed it, the lights were on really bright in the space and I was like, “Okay, woolly mammoth with animal legs”—which does seem appropriate, on a museological scale and in that space. But then I walked away from it feeling really shit, thinking, “Is this what we made?” I didn’t feel what I wanted to feel.

So I took a day off, I walked an hour and a half along the river to the city limit to the big box garden center and bought some flowers for the sandbags placed around the “legs” of installation—old banking sandbags with “Deutsches Bundesbank” still printed on the canvas. The bags were filled with earth and sand and then there were these flowers. Graveyard flowers that don’t need bright sun to grow. Chrysanthemums, daisies. On the way back from the garden center, I thought that maybe we just need to turn the lights off, and suddenly, the roller coaster took on this much more serious affect. You could still see the animals, but it felt less cartoonish, much more like a relic. Like how in natural history museums they don’t blare the lights because it decays the old things. It felt sort of somber.

I’m glad that this is in Freiburg, where there’s not much of an art scene, and I’m glad that because it’s in the middle of a pandemic not many people will visit. What I mean is, sometimes art feels like a rigged game, critique just disappears after a certain point, and that’s just so dispiriting to me. I don’t believe that my art gestures do anything. It’s not activism. But I’m making art for this world. I want to think seriously about work that repels fascist sympathies. We kept the lights off at the opening and people were in there with torches like poking around an abandoned theme park. A lot of kids came. People who don’t know anything about me or my work somehow found a reason to care about it that night. And this was really good.