As I wait for Darren to join me at the table, a ray breaks loose from the overcast sky and rolls across his studio, drawing my attention to a group of images on the wall. Geometric forms at different stages of creation are pinned alongside a drapery of saints, whilst loaves of bread quietly stale next to chipped masonry. The light is momentarily fractured as Darren walks past the window— symbolic of a playful auteurship which disrupts the way in which his installations are read. Consisting of dark, diagrammatic box frames, the placid collections in Metalepsis snap into razor-sharp observations of shared signs and symbols upon viewing; a self-referential dialogue of material properties and linguistic tropes, the work is as visually poetic as it is exciting. Darren pulls up a chair and smiles as I ask for context.
Words: Laura Norman
I first saw your work when Photo London re-launched at Somerset House in 2015. I met the director of that booth-
That was with Ravestijn Gallery, it would have been Jasper Bode? Or Narda van't Veer?
It was Narda. I was at the fair with a gallery I used to work for so we had things in common, a represented artist amongst other things, but I remember really enjoying our conversation about The Erratics.
Yeah, we’ve done a few shows together. When they exhibited those pieces they were from my latest body of work, which is still the last thing I’ve really put out there. It had been exhibited at Arte Contemporanea in Pisa, but Ravestijn were the first ones to show it here. Then I had a solo show of that work at Copperfield Gallery, which is my gallery in England, and book of it came out soon after.
I saw the book at Offprint earlier this year, your text was really insightful and the contact print inside was beautiful.
It was made with RVB Books, a French publisher that produces limited edition runs, so those small prints were made for the special collector’s edition. The book has been doing very well and was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award, I mean it didn’t win! But it was shortlisted, which means that it now gets to tour which will give great publicity to it. It’s the first book I’ve had and it’s taken on a life of its own. It goes out and I hear of opportunities coming my way, or feedback comes back to me all based on a project I’m not really doing anymore, but which the publishers are still pushing around. It just turns up in different places, it’s very helpful and gives me space to try and make new work.
Hence the wall of images behind you.
So you studied in Plymouth for your BA and continued your studies at the Royal College of Art. How would you say your work has developed over the years?
Whilst I was down in Plymouth I considered myself a landscape photographer, my work had been focused on the landscape even up to the point that I applied to the Royal College of Art. I had become interested in the idea that ‘landscape’ was a kind of constructed term, it denoted a way of looking rather than an object that exists, it talks about a perspective of a particular thing. So I was working with multiple exposures to give the impression of an existing object, but upon closer inspection the viewer would realise they’re instead looking at a constructed space.
I was pretty good at painting myself into corners with the landscape work so I started to work with taxidermy and animals, following a similar concept that ideas and language concerning animals are always from a human perspective. We talk about things in this way as we don’t have access to the thing itself, therefore everything is a construct from our point of view. Towards the end of my time at the RCA I began to make work that emphasised the photograph as a material object, at odds with the image that it represented. Over the next few years it centred around three core ideas: the object, the original object that I photographed, the material, the materiality of the photograph, and then the image in and of itself. The visual part of the endeavour is bringing these three things together in odd or unusual complimentary encounters. Some of the later work involved becoming more interested in the sculptural aspect of making something, with the sole intention of it being photographed so that when it was was, you thought you were looking at a property of the image, but which in fact belonged to the object.
These qualities are particularly evident in your Materialising project, I really like the work based on Walker Evan’s Beauties of the Common Tool. Am I right in thinking you physically cut the tools?
Yes, so I spliced these tools in half and joined them back together so that in the photographs they’d look like photomontage, but in reality the tools are cut in half. Those same ideas carried into The Erratics where I carved the chalk so that it became two dimensional in places, so that it lined up with the plinth in the resulting photographs. It's like preparing something for its transformation into surface. A lot of the work has dealt with the transition of objects from the three-dimensional into the two-dimensional or vice versa, investigating the relationships between them. I’m not entirely sure if that’s what I’m still doing, as there are always many detours along the way.
You’re obviously interested in semiotics, could you talk to me about the relationship you have with it, and how it feeds into your practice?
I’ve always found semiotics really fascinating, and have talked a lot about the reference and the referent and the relationship that they hold with photography. It’s been, in some ways, a constant frustration for me to consider the fact that with photography you’re bound to a referent. I’m trying to find ways to muddy that equation. I was very interested in language, and I guess a lot of the work feels like it circles around ideas of making meaning. Photography has a really interesting characteristic as a meaning-making tool because you present something that looks like the world, but is not the world. It’s a surface representation, an indeterminate middle space.
I wanted to get away from conversations about the truth of an image or a photograph, I thought it was too easy to deal with. Similarly with language, we know photography is a construct but we use it, so you have to have a dual awareness. Language is a fabricated way of talking about something but we need to use it and treat as a truth, we need a means of referring to something. It’s the same with photography, how do you treat it on its own terms whilst being aware that it’s a creative device, whilst also giving it the value of a truth.
Your website is interesting, I notice there’s no live text, everything exists as .jpgs, as images.
I've categorised things into fiction and non-fiction, the whole website is already quite a tricky thing, I have to keep going with this design which kind of works, kind of doesn’t, to the point where it doesn’t work but I’m still using it, again it's this way of talking about imagery as if it’s language. Most of the work is categorised as non-fiction because I felt like I was using imagery in a documentary way, it was not a stand in for anything else: the tool was a tool, the rock was a rock. I’m not saying you can’t read them as other things but that wasn’t the intention, it was for them to be invisible subjects. To confuse things further I made a Metalepsis installation that wasn’t really like that, it felt like the readings were far more concerned around forms, compositions, poetics and metaphoric symbolisations, so I made the fiction category for that. I’m working on this fiction/non-fiction thing at the moment and I’m not sure whether it will fit into either category, I’ll just have to redesign the website.
I wanted to ask you more about Metalepsis as it really resonated with me. How did you come to display it in this way?
It was whilst I was doing all of the Materialising work. Although some work comes very quickly and is very illustrative of a particular idea, the majority of it comes through trial and error and getting things wrong, but seeing it through until it turns into something else.
There are many of these points along the way, like what we have here, this, wall full of stuff. I like them but I don’t yet know how to contextualise them as part of a greater whole. So when I finished the show I had around the time I was making the Materialising work, I took all of the images that hadn’t specifically evolved into anything else, and pinned them up on the wall. There were so many allusions and echoes and references that were circling around these things, but I hadn’t addressed them in the same way as the other work. I hadn’t considered it finished, so it grew very organically from certain arrangements, and moving things around until the point that I felt I didn’t need to do anything more.
I initially considered it an image stream, a showcase of what had been happening in the studio, but something happened when I went to actually frame and develop it for production. As a photographer you can potentially just stick something up on your website and say ‘tadaah! new work!’, but it doesn’t really exist. The framing introduced a whole new element to the work, it emphasised size, and the graphical– almost architectural– link-ups between all the work. The frames have different depths and some of them tilt forward, so there’s an interplay between them and the way the images are mounted as objects in the frames. It's a way of bringing the ideas from Materialising into the installation. Even though the imagery developed somewhat independently of the material end result, the final things that joins them all together, the frames, makes it very inextricable. It makes them hard to pull apart.
I liked something you said earlier, about photography being invisible. I was speaking to a curator who mentioned that she happened across a bunch of kids who were evaluating a photograph, who were discussing its qualities as a print despite being a projection on the wall. I mean, I know it’s not unusual but it’s weird when you consider it a lapse.
Yeah and photography’s ability to do that I suppose, to maintain its appearance. It makes it a fascinating and frustrating medium to work with at the same time, there’s just so much possibility that as soon as you start dealing with more than one idea, like the work where I’m talking about materiality, I knew that if you break that down and you’d very quickly realise that it actually doesn't need the materiality, it can be a projection, or the image can be the same thing. It can be so hard for the work to cover all those bases. It’s a medium where, whatever area you try to talk about it in, theory and reasoning will very quickly push you in the opposite direction. It’s conceptually very-
Yeah tricky– slippery to get hold of.
You mentioned that you approach sculpture not from a sculptural perspective but from a photographic one. I wondered if you could talk more about that.
Well it's not that it’s not from a sculptural perspective, it's just that it hasn’t come from a sculptural background. Part of it is born from a frustration with photography, it’s such a scientific process and so immaterial that I wanted to engage with something physical, to use materials and get my hands dirty. I feel like I approach the idea of sculpture from a photographic perspective but don't want to restrict myself to only using it in conjunction with photography. Some of the work made when I first left the RCA was Elisions, the work around animals, and when I had my first solo show about half of it was sculptural, not photographic. Likewise, The Erratics was really half and half, I was sat right here covered in chalk dust carving these rocks, with the very specific intention of turning some of them into a photograph and for others to be viewed as objects.
I’d be curious to know, does it matter to you how you arrive at the photograph, whether it’s an analogue or digital process?
It kind of does, but it’s more about a sense of materiality in the end. A few of the works in Metalepsis were digital, one was from my own phone, but so far, when they are digital it tends to be out of necessity, if I need to preserve detail in something for example. The chequered things or the spliced tools speak in a language of manipulation, but they are the unmediated object. I still have an awareness, a mistrust, of using something to trick or to fool, and I also believe that a lot of digital photography can become ungrounded. I think that throughout my work there's still a groundedness, a materiality, which is partly due to preference, partly due to trying to keep the nature of the three-dimensional object translated, so when it becomes more floaty- I lose interest.
I saw that in reference to photographic techniques, you said that the ‘blur belongs to the lens’. I love that idea.
I did? That is nice…
You did! I thought it was really poetic, especially in contrast to straight photography, perhaps that’s the wrong word to use, but straight photography in the way that it’s representative in its truest sense, trying to be void of all agency.
Photography has a dialect of its own, ‘focus’, ‘composition’, ‘blur’, all of these are photographic tropes if you like, and if you avoid the majority of them we see an object in a very direct, unmediated way, so that it appears closest to they in which you would see it if you were standing in front of it. That's what I really like about Walker Evans' portraits of the tools, I've not seen any examples of anything earlier than that yet, so I’m not sure if they’re the earliest, but those representations would be the exact same if you looked at the objects from the above. It's a way of making the process of photography less visible. I actually think that for me, part of it comes from when I went through my photography A-levels years ago, pre-photoshop, everything I was doing was so manipulated, throwing flour around in the darkroom, pouring all sorts of shit all over paper. After a while, particularly by the time I got to my MA, I felt like it was far too easy to create an effect where people would need to ask how you made it, ‘well what I did here was a triple exposure, some dodging here, chemicals over there…’, so I wanted to try and challenge myself to work in a more direct and unmediated way. No tricks, just let the camera see what it sees, I don't enhance with my own composition or focal tricks. But of course it breeds the type of issues that I’m dealing with now, I keep thinking I need to go and try something else.
Returning briefly to your education, would you say there was a particular teaching style that you experienced at the RCA, did it set you set you on a particular path?
Yeah, in the sense that you’re strongly encouraged to work within a wider art context, I’m pretty sure it’s still the only MA that has specific disciplines housed within the school of fine art, rather than having to do photography in a separate department. The faculty would bring in practitioners for critiques and evaluations that weren't photographers, and I remember that someone once said ‘you guys aren't students, you are early career artists’ and in that context and surrounded by those people I thought ‘yeah! I am!’. But I think I do connect more to the history of art. I find more inspiration through the development of abstract art than I do in the history of photography, I find that even now photographic critique is often playing catch up to the wider art field too. I know that a photographic background welcomes my work, but in spite of that I think photography is still treated with degree of suspicion and distance within a wider art context. I think perhaps it just encompasses so much that it's hard to know where photography is situated sometimes.
Where are you at the moment? What are you playing with, these things behind you?
Well, I'm building on ideas from Metalepsis, but I’m including more religious imagery, sub-religious imagery. There’s a very interesting article by Emily Rosamond for Canadian arts magazine, Esse, and she wrote about the series focusing on a link between transcendence and abstraction, an originary link that lots of early abstract artists were interested in, regarding ideas of spirituality, but instead went on to find abstract art. I have a religious background, not a current ground, but a background, so I’m partly turning attention to that, hence the fiction element I’m also looking into. I want to use the image in a slightly different way so I've been also been looking at iconoclasm and its religious underpinnings.
So the bread is perhaps not such a strange bedfellow in this case!
It’s hard to know sometimes, as you can see I'm beginning to work with it, but I've got no idea yet whether it’ll become a sculpture or whether it'll be photographed. I also have these sort of geometric things which continue to exist, I was making lots of them and they’re largely to do with the subject matter. Because of the way I use photography, being insistent on using the camera to create true images and not manipulating things, I was completely frustrated that I'm reliant on things that already exist. So I worked on a ridiculous idea of setting up an abstract object whilst using the camera in a completely representational manner. I created lots of compositional things, some of which were around during Metalepsis, some a little after, but that’s where they all came from. Images, planes, surfaces and forms, so many of these things are still meaningful to me.
Born 1974, UK
Lives and works in London