The Stone Dies Away Also: On Jimmie Durham | The Nation


The Stone Dies Away Also: On Jimmie Durham

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In many of his writings and interviews, Jimmie Durham, an artist of the most profound seriousness, uses one word more than any other, one that best sums up his attitude toward the world and himself. The word is “silly.” He uses “crazy” and “stupid” a lot too, and more than occasionally other related words like “ridiculous” and “nonsense.” Many of us use these expressions fairly regularly, even if not as often as Durham. But except for when we’re talking to children, we use “silly” much more rarely, which makes the artist’s attachment to the word so striking.

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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What does Durham mean by “silly”? He uses it in its broadest sense when, in an interview with the Belgian art historian and curator Dirk Snauwaert, he explains the political valence of his art. “I can be part of the discourse by completely disagreeing with it, but I can do it intelligently instead of just making an interruption. I can make this audience itself strange to itself and I can try and expand an audience and make it not so silly.” This sounds a bit condescending: Durham seems to be suggesting that the audience for art, the good old bourgeois public, is, as ever, in the wrong, and though the scare tactics of the good old avant-gardes—so many ways of Offending the Audience, to use the title of the almost self-parodically paradigmatic 1966 theater piece by Peter Handke—may have become obsolete, a gadfly artist can still provoke an audience in ways that are subtle and pointed, and therefore likely to goad it into some state of enlightenment.

This way of thinking isn’t entirely foreign to Durham, an artist who should be better known than he is in his native country of the United States, but it’s not the whole story. He doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a high priest, some Zen master whacking his disciples upside the head. He can be silly too, and silly precisely in wanting to be active as such. When asked on another occasion about his hectic exhibition schedule, Durham replied, “Since 1994, I’ve tried to do everything that people asked me to do, and that has got me extremely busy, often doing quite silly things that cost me money and a lot of time. But I like it all. I like being very busy and I like doing things.” Here, silliness signifies self-contradiction: the artist acts in ways contrary to his own interest, but from which he derives pleasure; it’s like smoking, only less harmful. That might be a personal defect, or more broadly a déformation professionelle, but there are nigh-universal forms of silliness also. Sometimes this is caused by the natural limitations conditioned by the human sense of time, as when a material such as stone—a constant in Durham’s art—comes to be seen as eternal. “It has become the foundation of architecture, of the cathedrals and buildings, with the idea that it is unchanging,” he remarks. “Of course it is NOT unchanging. Our silly lives are so short that we don’t notice that the stone dies away also. So in Europe, and therefore in cities in general, we have a large heavy falsity built around stone.”

The self-contradictions that make us silly do not necessarily arise from our actions, or the lack of connection between actions and beliefs. Our beliefs themselves, our ways of explaining ourselves to ourselves, can be silly, in part because our words are inadequate, our concepts childish: “I think basically the same as I used to think when I was a child,” Durham told the English critic Mark Gisbourne. “If you make something right, or with some sort of integrity, in a way I can’t quite explain, potentially it can be alive, it can have some sort of power. I do not like to use the word power, it is such a silly word, but such as to be some sort of active power.” The artist doesn’t disavow his dependence on the notion of power, or that it is the basis for something like an aesthetic credo. In fact, he insists on it, even while remarking its silliness and, implicitly, that of the barely credible animism that he (like nearly every artist I know) secretly or not so secretly espouses: that a life resides in things, and art is a way of discovering or giving birth to it. The kind of rationality an artist offers does not dissolve this belief; rather, it is the “negative capability” that allows him to observe dispassionately his own self-contradictions without being too quick to try to resolve them. It’s what allows an artist (or anyone else) to be silly without necessarily having to cure himself of his silliness.

But if the artist is licensed, somehow, to be silly, on the condition that he remain aware of it, then why should he set out to make his audience “not so silly”? Because there are different ways of being silly, more and less self-aware. If Durham proposes to make us “not so silly,” that doesn’t mean he’s given himself the harder, probably impossible task of making us not silly at all. He wants to make the audience “strange to itself,” to encourage it to see itself as an outsider, as an alien would see it, and thereby to become more self-aware. The difference between artist and public is relative, not absolute, and it resides—so Durham seems to believe—in the practice of self-consciousness, or more specifically (as Durham is primarily a sculptor) in noticing human-made states of change in things as indicative of states of mind imbued with self-consciousness.

When asked about the violence with which he sometimes attacks his materials, Durham denies it. “I don’t really destroy things, I just change them, I change their shape, just like any sculptor does,” he once explained. One of his best-known pieces, St. Frigo (1996), is a sculpture made by stoning—yes, lapidating—a common household appliance. There’s even a picture of him throwing the stones to prove it. (The stones are cobblestones, like the ones once used in Europe as ready-made weapons as well as material for barricades in workers’ uprisings.) Durham mused in retrospect: “If I try to imagine looking at this refrigerator in a museum, as someone who doesn’t know it—it’s a silly exercise, but I can do it a little bit—I would notice human intelligence having done something to this refrigerator, by the fact of stoning it so often. I might not call it intelligence, I might call it human work or human deliberateness.” Someone else might say the “silly exercise” isn’t looking at a lapidated fridge in a museum so much as the stoning of the refrigerator itself, and I think Durham wants to keep this option open. He imagines that although his own silliness and that of the audience may not be equivalent, they are equally real, and the open-ended nature of the experience he wants to create as an artist depends on the audience not according him the kind of authority a disciple accords a master. The relationship should probably be a bit more playful, a bit more skeptical, perhaps even a bit more combative than that, like sparring: Durham doesn’t want to knock you out, but he does want to jab at your weak spots so you know where they are.

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