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.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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