The Stone Dies Away Also: On Jimmie Durham
If you’re in the mood to spar, you could go a few rounds in Belgium at M HKA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, where a retrospective of Durham’s work, “A Matter of Life and Death and Singing,” curated by Bart De Baere and Anders Kreuger, is on view through November 18. Durham may be the most important American artist whose work you’ve never had a chance to see—unless you travel frequently to Europe. He hasn’t had a one-man show in the United States since 1995, except for a small show last spring, which—perhaps to make a point of his status as an exile—was held at the Swiss Institute New York. While his works have been seen in the occasional group show, the exposure they’ve received has mostly been low-profile; his work is more likely to be shown at an alternative space like Art in General or the late, lamented Exit Art, both in New York City, than at either commercial galleries or big museums. Abroad, things are different: it’s been only three years since Durham’s last retrospective, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and he is a usual suspect for inclusion in big exhibitions like Documenta (where he appeared this year for the second time) and the Venice Biennale. In Europe, somehow, as the Italian curator and critic Giacinto di Pietrantonio put it, even when Durham’s “work is part of a local language, it always tends toward the supranational-universal.”
It may not please Durham to be described as an American artist. Born in 1940 in Washington, Arkansas, he lived in Geneva (where he attended the École des Beaux-Arts) between 1968 and 1973, when he returned to the States. In an anguished text published in 1987, the last year he lived in this country, he wrote, “Here is the real truth: I absolutely hate this country. Not just the government, but the culture, the group of people called Americans. The country. I hate the country. I HATE AMERICA.” Did he really mean it? I don’t know, but that year Durham moved from New York to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he stayed until 1994, and ever since he’s dwelled in various cities in Europe—Brussels, Marseille, Berlin, Venice, Rome, Berlin again. Being abroad has been good for him, apparently: in his writings and interviews, he is no longer consumed by righteous fury. It’s certainly improved his prose style. And his art has flourished.
Durham is a Cherokee, and he has absented himself from America for so long because America is the country that dispossessed him. Having spent much of the 1970s as an activist in the American Indian Movement, he ended up believing that, owing to political confusion and government infiltration, “there is no AIM to leave.” Today he laments that Indians “bought this Hollywood idea about our own spiritualism, and we are becoming religious fanatics in the most idiotic sense of American spiritualism.” Alienated from his nominal country of birth, disillusioned with any community to which identity politics would solder him (and to which he devoted years of his life), Durham is now in the strange—I don’t have the heart to call it silly—position of being a man who nonetheless heartily believes in art as a collective endeavor, who tells his students that “one is not smart on one’s own, but in dialogue,” who says he “would always rather participate in a group show than have a solo show,” and for whom “the social discourse about art is part of the practice of art.” Yet he is also a figure of profound detachment, who likes living in Europe because there he “can be homeless and still be engaged.” There’s a great loneliness somewhere back of his art. Speaking of a book he tried to write and didn’t finish, Durham said it was “just trying to continue a conversation with the world that the world never wanted and still doesn’t want.” I never expected this artist to echo Emily Dickinson, with her “letter to the world / That never wrote to me.” But maybe every artist knows this situation.
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Perhaps I have things backward. I’ve said Durham is an important sculptor, yet I’ve hardly mentioned any of the objects I saw at M HKA. I’ve focused mostly on the artist’s words. But then the artist himself has said, “I have never made a separation between writing and making sculptures.” They’re not the same, but “they do not bother each other.” Durham’s sculptures—and his videos, photographs and drawings too—may have a visceral impact, but they are intellectualized as well. You have to see them and you have to read them. Often the sculptures demand reading in the most literal sense: there’s a lot of writing in them, and in a Babel of languages, at least some of which are likely to be foreign to each comer. Those who can read the inscriptions in English (which is most of them) may or may not be able to puzzle out the bits in German or French or Spanish. Generally, though, the linguistic challenge isn’t too imposing. You probably don’t need to know that much French to figure out, say, Une machine désire de l’instruction comme un jardin désire de la discipline, the sentence handwritten in block letters on a sheet of paper pinned next to what look like the tops of a pair of wooden coat trees transformed into bobbins, in the 1996 work of that name. Despite the apparently dismissive stance toward the fantasy that things like machines or gardens can desire, the sculptural portion of the work is strangely anthropomorphic. It’s easy to see one of the wooden cylinders as a recumbent figure, the other as struggling to lift itself up off the floor.
Durham is still caught up in his childish will to see things as alive, and he wants to persuade us that we should be too—but he doesn’t want us to forget that this is childish, silly. Many of his sculptures are figurative, usually in the lowest, most ridiculous ways. Because it has been visibly battered, St. Frigo, that old refrigerator, is meant to stand in for some martyred saint: “I started stoning it and then it wasn’t neutral anymore,” Durham says. “It started being brave.” Often enough, it’s even easier than that: just draw a couple of eyes and a mouth on anything and you’ve given it a face—and by giving it a face, you’ve made it hard not to see life in it. It’s a trick that Durham resorts to time and again; it always works and, yes, it’s always childish. He likes from time to time to smash a car (and even, at least once, a small airplane) by dropping a big boulder onto it; in this case, it is not the vehicle that is humanized, but the innocently destructive stone itself with a goofy face painted on it, head and body all in one. And Durham has even bigger things in mind: in 2000 he made a model, Une maquette pour un désastre horrible, with those words painted on a wooden sign above a stone of contented countenance that appears to have landed splat on a bit of earth, leaving various humans (represented by found plastic figurines) trapped under it. Let’s hope he never gets a chance to realize this idea. In any case, by this silly gesture of painting a face on a stone, Durham not only vivifies an inanimate thing and gives it a character, but he also endows a thing that is heavy—and its evident effect on the thing it has fallen on demonstrates this heaviness, and the danger implicit in that—with a sort of lightness. He makes it almost unreal.
Durham is—he insists on it—an intellectual artist, with something of the philosophical penetration of Marcel Duchamp and the broad historical perspective of Joseph Beuys. Painting faces on stones is not everyone’s idea of intellectual work, but the transformation in perception that every child achieves by such simple means is an intellectual event because it happens in the mind. Pittura é una cosa mentale, as Leonardo said—and that’s child’s play, as Durham implies. Of course, there’s something disingenuous in his claim that he doesn’t destroy things but merely changes them. Often enough, it is through destruction that he changes them, and he destroys with relish and without inhibitions, as a child might. You want to get a stone into a glass vitrine? OK, toss it in, and then the broken shards of glass will be on exhibit too. You will notice the stone now, as you are asked to notice anything in a display case, and this way you will notice the glass as well, which you might have ignored otherwise as simply an expected part of the display case. Having been destroyed, the character of the glass has changed: it’s clear, but no longer transparent. A lot of Durham’s art is like that. n