Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 1, 2009
Jimmie Durham Jimmie Durham: Rejected Stones Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2009. 232 pp.; many color ills. Cloth £45.00 (9782759600847)
Exhibition Schedule: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, January 30–April 12, 2009
Jimmie Durham. Encore tranquillité (2008). Mixed media. © Jimmie Durham.

In making art, Jimmie Durham sometimes lets his materials do the sculpting. As Encore tranquillité (2008) reveals, the forces he unleashes from seemingly lifeless objects can be startling. The work features an enormous rock settled atop the smashed halves of a small, single-engine airplane. Originally displayed in an old Russian airfield outside of Berlin, it was relocated to the foyer on the second floor of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris as the centerpiece of Rejected Stones, a major exhibition of Durham’s “European” works from the past sixteen years. The piece also made an appearance on the cover of the January 2009 issue of Artforum, providing a splash of intercontinental visibility for an artist who has had limited contact with North American audiences since he moved to Europe in 1994. Among the most formidable of the eponymous stones that appear in the artist’s multi-media practice throughout this period, the boulder seems to be taking an emphatic revenge on technological modernity, for which the airplane remains a persistent symbol.

Durham has always worked in a material border zone, where “rejected” objects signify a condition of alterity or exclusion from Western categories of history and culture. The animal skulls and bones from his earlier practice have been replaced by stone, junk wood, and empty cans from the European contexts in which the artist now works. Most of these materials exist in a raw, pre-social form, or, through willed destruction or the mutability of fashion, have been discarded by human agents. Durham tampers with existing systems of signification and value by introducing these negative and undesirable objects into the space of art. Often, he makes things behave in surprising ways that seem to defy the familiar laws of the physical world, suggesting a field of possibilities beyond what is expected or even currently, cognitively graspable. In Encore tranquillité, for example, Durham shows that a mere rock can perform the marvelous feat of reducing an airplane to an inert and strangely satisfying heap of scrap.

Other works on display in Rejected Stones contributed to the gradual unfolding of a world that is not functioning according to expectations. Odd juxtapositions of language and image appeared throughout the enormous horseshoe-shaped gallery in a seemingly endless series of videos, drawings, photographic portraits, and collaged bits of this and that. While conforming to a loose chronological order, the diverse media in the gallery cross-fertilized, producing slippages of association that made it difficult to affirm the boundaries of particular works of art and the discrete elements that form them. The manner of display complimented the tendency of the work to resist fixed meanings and stable identities. Often placed directly on the floor and unmediated by framing pedestals or display cases, slabs of wood, oil cans, furniture, and household appliances were altered in such ways that they seemed to no longer bear the weight of the cultural investments projected into them.

Near the beginning of the exhibition, viewers encountered a video work featuring Durham, dressed in a black overcoat, seated in a dry landscape of brush and trees. As he pulls a brick, a kitchen knife, and other bits and pieces from his pockets, he describes in great detail the glorious abode to which they belong. Made the same year that Durham moved to Europe, The Man Who Had a Beautiful House (1994) provoked snickers from viewers as they recognized the performance of a vagrant (Durham has been known to describe himself as “homeless”) whose fantasy erects the very architectural walls that he appears to have physically eluded. In this museum-going experience as scavenger hunt, there were many more fascinating artifacts of the imagination. In The Dangers of Petrification I and II (1998–2007), display cases hold a collection of found stones that uncannily resemble their labels, “A petrified cloud . . . salami . . . pecorino,” parodying the way that language as a formal system solidifies (petrifies) the material world into graspable human form. While this work reveals knowledge turning to stone, in Heart of Stone (2004), a shimmering slab of pink painted marble seems alive, displaying what looks like a bleeding gunshot wound. Elsewhere the artist suggested the previous “life” of now inert rocks: one lies amid the shattered glass of a vitrine (A Stone from François Villon’s House in Paris, 1996), another beneath the busted seat of a chair (A Meteoric Fall to Heaven, 2000). A classical marble statue head lying in the rubble of the shattered rim of a urinal mounted on the wall above similarly indexes a moment of collision (He said I was always juxtaposing, but I thought he said just opposing. So to prove him wrong I agreed with him. Over the next few years we drifted apart, 2005). In this last piece, Durham pays tribute to Marcel Duchamp, who famously demonstrated the disruptive potential of objects almost a century ago.

If the drive of all of this work was purely critical or destructive, Durham’s objects might be too easily absorbed into or ejected by the very dichotomy of inside/outside that he endeavors to resist. Despite the backdrop of clean white gallery walls, many of his stones, sticks, disconnected pipes, and broken furniture look a lot like detritus scattered across the floor, even when cloaked in kitschy gold or pink paint. Yet the undecided movement of these objects between culture (paint, art) and cast-off (stones, junk), captured in the process of becoming one or the other, evinces a hope that the border-zones of culture can remain a fertile space for reconsidering what makes it inside the secure boundaries of recognition and knowledge. A junk wood frame painted red and blue, with attached padlocks dangling in the open air (Arch de Triomphe for Personal Use, 2003), moves toward reoccupying the structures of language and architecture as fields for the imagination, rather than confining spaces, potent with untapped potentials that can be glimpsed, if not fully grasped, from current vantage points.

In all of these works, Durham pays close attention to the resistance material itself offers to a relentlessly anthropocentric gaze. As Anselme Franke discusses in one of several short essays appearing in the exhibition catalogue, a central tenet of modernity that Durham works to confuse is the distinction between subject and object. As Bill Brown has noted, subjects come into being in relation to objects, resulting in a strange and potentially dangerous situation in which objects define us even as we seek to control them (Bill Brown, “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny,” Critical Inquiry 32, no. 2 [Winter 2006]: 175–207). Durham’s work plays up a non-human agency that in post-Freudian discourse is a mark of the premodern, a trace that continues to haunt the modern subject as an anxiety over her or his presumed ontological stability. A self-portrait with a rock in place of Durham’s identifying features (Self-Portrait Pretending to Be a Stone Statue of Myself, 1995–2006), a door-sized stone slab settled upon a pair of white slippers (Baby, Please Don’t Go, 2000) . . . such fairytale-like reversals, in which humans and objects play at switching places, inspired Fabrice Hergott, director of the Musée d’Art Moderne, to ponder in his catalogue introduction, “Why wouldn’t the world also be like this?” Durham’s objects work to convince viewers that the ridiculous can be plausible. No matter that it is clear the artist has staged all of this; he is asking viewers to join him in pretending. Durham does not disguise that new relationships to the world can only emerge in language, through continual acts of naming, translation, and imagination. If “Rejected Stones” are to take their revenge, it is only because they have been granted the agency to do so.

It is unfortunate that, apparently at Durham’s request, the retrospective performs a clean cut that periodizes his work into distinct “American” and “European” phases, a cut that is largely mirrored in the critical response to his work. Durham’s own early artistic career, which emerged alongside his involvement in the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, paralleled the efforts of many African American, Chicano, and Native American artists to critique and unsettle the racialized coding of American art and visual culture. Since his later work is largely evacuated of ethnographic signifiers, the temporal frame of Rejected Stones arrests any desire to read the artist’s career through simplistic conceptions of ethnic identity. At the same time, it creates the illusion of a unified “European” artistic identity and style by bracketing out precisely those works that create productive disjuncture in the artist’s career. The exhibition thus misses an opportunity to reflect on the multiple implications of Durham’s longer engagement with disrupting hierarchical systems and expanding the field of relational possibilities that constitute human subjects. Durham’s enlivening of discarded materials both in North America and abroad mirrors the perpetual resculpting of subjecthood that has marked his identity as an artist: itinerant, unsatisfied, playful.

Jessica L. Horton
PhD candidate, Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, University of Rochester