Artist Jimmie Durham drops boulders to stop time

By Sandra Schulman
News From Indian Country

In 2003, artist Jimmie Durham began dropping things. Big things - boulders, to be precise - onto vehicles, starting with a car in Norway and eventually bombing boulders onto a small plane, a three-wheeler truck, two more cars, and a canoe.

In 2007, he was commissioned to make a piece for a collector in Mexico City, and to create it he chose an unmarked black Dodge Spirit (the vehicle of choice for Mexican undercover cops) and used a crane to let a nine-and-a-half ton volcanic rock from a site in the Aztecs called Xitle plummet onto the car’s roof. Durham also drew a face on the rock, which a dealer attributed to his ancestry and the fact that faces make you regard objects differently.

The piece sat on the collector’s Mexico City lawn since that event, but has just been sold to a museum, like the other rocked vehicles in the series.

Durham now 75,  has been a working artist since the 60s, but took some time off to be active in theatre, performance and writing related to the US civil rights movement in the 1960s. The artist is about to have a retrospective called A Matter of Life and Death and Singing that will begin at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and travel to the Walker in Minneapolis and then to the Whitney in Manhattan (where he may become the first self identified Native American artist to have a major show at this museum of American art).

Durham was born in Washington, Arkansas and his first solo exhibition as a visual artist was in Austin, Texas in 1968. Durham moved to Geneva, Switzerland in 1969 where he studied at L’École des Beaux-Arts but was lured back to the US in 1973 through his involvement with the American Indian Movement (AIM).

From 1973 until 1980 he worked as a political organizer with AIM, becoming a member of the movement’s Central Council. When AIM fragmented at the end of the 1970s Durham, who was then living in New York City, returned to art, creating sculptures that radically challenged conventional representations of North American Indians.

In 1987 Durham moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he was based until moving to Europe in 1994.

During his time in Mexico, Durham exhibited widely, including at the Whitney Biennial, documenta IX, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Exit Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Antwerp and the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

Since moving to Europe, Durham’s work has focused primarily on the relationship between architecture, monumentality and national narratives. His “anti-architectural” sculptures, performances and videos seek to liberate architecture’s privileged material, stone, from its metaphorical associations with monumentality, stability and permanence.

His most talked about work is the series of boulders dropped onto cars, planes and boats. Durham’s images insist that something happens “away from language.”

In many of his performances - a good deal of which he has documented on video - stones seem to be the medium, or rather, the tool, for the restoration of a formless, scattered reality. His sculptures, made out of animal skulls, recycled PVC pipes decorated with feathers, tortured furniture, and found stones are fragments of a continuous ritual of disbelief that merges with everyday life. He likes meaningful garbage, sometimes even charging it with talismanic power.

Durham abandoned his activity as a leader of the American Indian Movement in the late 1970s, yet an important political remnant pervades his art. He once expressed his credo with a triad: “against architecture, against narration, against structure.”

Durham says “You look at the work and may think that I do, but I never think of chaos, except that I read mathematical theory. I’m reading math all the time because I’ve got no concept of math. And I’m just trying to understand it a little bit, but it doesn’t work. I like interruptions, of any kind, especially from my own life, because we have such a tendency - something stronger than a tendency, actually - to do the same things all the time. Kierkegaard wrote about repetition as the greatest human good, because it was close to holiness. Yet to me it is so strange that I do the same thing over and over, that I take the same route to the grocery store or when I walk home, it’s intolerable. I want interruptions, I want things to be different all the time.”

“But I don’t think interruptions are related to chaos. Interruptions are related neither to chaos nor whatever the opposite of chaos is—I don’t know what it is.

Certainly in the city. Buildings don’t change much. You must stop with the red light; you must walk down the same streets every day. In the forest, something will be different every day, and you have to be careful.”

His rebellion against architecture stems from how they tell us to live, and is at the root of why he drops stones onto transportation.

“It it dictates to us, the city tells us how to be; our work in the city tells us how we should be,” he says. “From every physical and every mental point of view, we are made by our architecture. It’s very strange. We should not agree with it.”

Durham has been a big success in Europe though he wrestles with the reasons why.

He says “It’s a kind of curse. It comes from the Hollywood idea of Indians, and loving Indians because of Hollywood. Nobody says “black artist David Hammons” or “French artist Pierre Huyghe” but they always say “Native American artist Jimmie Durham.” To me it sets up a barrier; it doesn’t open doors, it closes doors. Everyone is infected by Hollywood, and everyone thinks they know all about Indians from Hollywood. You get the craziest things. Like, okay, I’m very afraid of heights; I can’t stand on a chair without trembling. And then someone says, “But I thought Indians were good with heights!” What an absurd statement. Every Indian in the world would be good with heights? Miraculous people! We should be studied.”

Durham flows with several art forms, yet has a problem even identifying what it is he does.

“I have that problem with art. Art is a fake category, I don’t know what we are talking about when we say art. I guess the flows of migration, the various contemporary forms of exile, have put us all in the same boat. No one seems to match the script of his or her origins. Inevitably, people mistake where we come from with who we are. I wonder how you evolved, politically and artistically, within this framework of erased/fetishized origins and simulacra?”

Durham left activism and the US to pursue his art and different points of world views.

“We did some good things in the ’60s, but then at one point I left, I went to Geneva,” he says. “The situation had changed: a lot of people got killed; the FBI was bothering everybody. It got too heavy. I don’t want to talk about the old days too much. If you took all the Indians in the United States, we’d get lost in the Greek section of Queens. There are not that many of us, and certainly not in our stupid little movement, we fought, all during the ’60s and ’70s, for the rehabilitation of Indians in prison, because we had the highest number of people in prison by population.

“And we had many good artists, and most of our good artists had always been in prison because most of us had been in prison. When the Republicans got back into office they privatized the prisons. Now there are prison companies that run prisons, and you’re not allowed to have any art materials in prison anymore; you’re not allowed to rehabilitate.”

The contradictions in his work such as rigid forms stopping mobility in it’s tracks, come from his love of “making illegal combinations with rejected objects.”

The outlaw in Durham rises constantly, both in his renegade art and dogged love of disorder in the cosmos.

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