Jimmie Durham (*1940 in Washington, Arkansas) was active in the 1960s on the Texas theater, literature, and performance scene, as well as in the civil rights movement. In the 1970s he was politically active as the co-founder and director of the International Indian Treaty Council and the American Indian Movement representative to the United Nations. 1968–1973 he studied art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. Ever since his first solo show in 1965, Durham's work has been shown many times, most recently in a comprehensive retrospective at the M HKA in Antwerp (2012). Durham's work was seen at the Venice Biennial (1999, 2001, 2003, and 2005) and the documenta IX (1992); he is currently participating in the dOCUMENTA (13) (2012). His essays are published in various magazines, such as Artforum and Art Journal, in books, and in exhibition catalogues. After living in many places in the United States, Europe, and Mexico, the artist now resides in Berlin and Rome.

"Humanity is Not a Completed Project"

I want to think about art. I want art to be a part of humanity’s thinking process, not humanity’s ‘feeling’ process. We already have enough emotions, enough feelings, but we don’t have enough thoughts.” (Jimmie Durham)

At the documenta IX in Kassel, to which then-artistic director Jan Hoet had invited North American Cherokee Indian Jimmie Durham, the artist presented a rather unprepossessing sculpture: a divided sandstone block. One side was inscribed with “This Stone is from the Mountain,” the other “This Stone is from the Red Palace.” An ironic commentary on the art audience’s reverent, even awestruck way of regarding art.

Stone is a material that plays a central role in the work of the artist, author, and former political activist. Since finally moving to Europe in 1994, Durham has had plenty of room to explore the confrontations among nature/culture, religion, architecture, and (European) history. For instance, Durham shows “how states define themselves through their use of architecture and monumentality,” as Eva Scharrer, a dOCUMENTA (13) agent, says in the guidebook. Consequently, Durham uses stone, a material much favored by architects, to free it from its metaphorical associations with grandiosity and permanence. 

In the action Stoning the Refrigerator (1996) the artist used stones as a work tool: for days Durham threw paving stones at a refrigerator—a symbol of capitalist consumer society—until he turned it into “the opposite of a sculpture,” which he called St. Frigo. “It took nine or ten days. Every morning I threw stones at the refrigerator. It was as if I were just going to work. You leave home early in the morning and throw cobblestones at the fridge, until you’ve changed its shape … Instead of carving a sculpture out of the stone with tools, I wanted to use the stone itself as a tool. Not to create a new form, but to change an already existing object.” For the 2004 Sydney Biennial, he created a work called Still Life with Stone and Car, in which he had a gigantic basalt rock placed on top of a red Ford Festiva. “Like most of my recent work, this piece is concerned with monuments and monumentality, but also with nature; that implacable hard stuff.”
In an exhibition titled Rocks Encouraged at the Portikus in Frankfurt am Main in 2010 Durham on the other hand assembled fossilized tree trunks into an installation in a room that was sound-proofed, darkened, and accessible to only one visitor at a time, so that each visitor could observe the natural monument in a concentrated, “meditative” experience, “without jabber, without comparisons, without distractions,” as the artist says.

Besides stones, Durham uses many other kinds of materials and has a broad range of artistic expression. He draws and makes assemblages sculptures, and installations (often out of found natural objects or rubbish). Inspired by his partner, the photographer Maria Teresa Alves, he also experiments with the medium of video, which he uses to record his performances.

The artist’s animals skulls and figures—made of found objects, brightly painted, or with glued-on feathers—recall totems, and they are often hastily interpreted as “Indian art,” without any consideration of Durham’s critical attitude toward the depiction of indigenous culture and its search for a new kind of symbolism that is far from any sort of Indian stereotype or Hollywood cliché.

Durham’s works are frequently accompanied by serious, sometimes ironic, mocking written messages that underscore his decidedly critical view of society and his now more than five decades of commitment to what he calls “humanity’s thinking process. Der Spiegel called this his “thoughts about our place and our responsibility in this world and toward other cultures.” In the artist’s own words: “Humanity is not a completed project.”

Durham contributed two works to the dOCUMENTA (13). Besides his installation,The History of Europe, he and Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev planted two apple trees in the Karlsaue in Kassel. One is an Arkansas Black tree, a type of apple he recollects from his childhood, and a Korbinian Aigner tree, named after the Bavarian priest and gardener Korbinian Aigner, who cultivated four new kinds of apples on a patch of grass between the barracks at the Dachau concentration camp.

August 20, 2012 Stefanie Gommel

Veröffentlicht am: 20.08.2012