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Jimmie Durham: Holding A Mirror To Humanity

Jimmie Durham: Holding A Mirror To Humanity

Humanity Is Not A Completed Project.

Jimmie Durham (1)

Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.

Paulo Freire (2)

What stultifies the common people is not the lack of instruction, but the belief in the inferiority of their intelligence. And what stultifies the ‘inferiors’ stultifies the ‘superiors’ at the same time.

Jacques Rancière (3)

During the 1970s Jimmie Durham – visual and performance artist, poet, educator, essayist (and a few other western ‘categories’) – returned from art school in Geneva to become a sociopolitical activist in the US, where repressed ‘minority’ constituencies had rallied in solidarity with the black Civil Rights movement. Among the pertinent questions were: who speaks? How, for – and with – whom? Or, to rephrase, in terms later addressed to the intellectual by Edward Said: ‘How does one speak the truth? What truth? For whom and where?’ The discourse of the 1970s was dominated by anti- and neo-colonial struggles with a tendency towards an oppositional binarism that was expedient but perhaps inconsistent with Durham’s more nuanced thinking. But two books – both of which drew on grassroots practices not simply on theory – had considerable impact on thinking about a just society: Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (6) and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both authors had understood that the oppressed could not ‘speak truth to power’ precisely because those oppressed had been dehumanised by the forces of injustice – and because power wasn’t prepared to listen. Effective resistance to disempowerment emerged when the native spokesperson abandoned nostalgia for a now idealised past, as well as ingratiating or recriminatory appeals to the oppressor, and instead entered into dialogue with the people and their realities: the only addressees capable of transforming their circumstances were the people themselves, assisted by educators who drew on ‘meaningful themes’ within the community that could enable the realisation of collective consciousness.(7) In such a dialogical context, all participants were encouraged to transcend their own certitudes. Jacques Rancière was later to assert that learning takes place when ‘tutor’ and ‘pupil’ are equals in a reciprocal process: ‘Essentially, what an emancipated person can do is be an emancipator: to give, not the key to knowledge, but the consciousness of what an intelligence can do when it considers itself equal to any other and considers any other equal to itself.’(8) To the extent that Freire’s emancipatory educational programme hinged on creative thinking about socio-political realities, and Fanon’s new national consciousness insisted on the primacy of culture, both positions possessed an aesthetic dimension.

This early attempt to decolonise western epistemologies towards a more just vision of humanity provides a topography of possibilities by which we might approach Jimmie Durham’s integration of the aesthetic, the socio-political and the ethical – the extent to which his artistic and writing practices subtly disclose the dehumanising manipulations of power. Durham resists any form of art practice that anaesthetises reality; it is through his engagement with the material and political conditions of the peoples whom he encounters on his itineraries as a visiting artist, and with whom he comes to observe, to listen to and learn from, not to preach, that an emancipatory pedagogical dimension renders his work an art of agency and resistance to received ideas.

It is necessary that, with great urgency, we all speak well and listen well. We, you and I, must remember everything. We must especially remember those things we never knew.

Jimmie Durham (9)

It’s not just of a matter of speaking in the first person. But of identifying the impersonal physical and mental forces you confront and fight as soon as you try to do something, not knowing what you are trying to do until you begin to fight. Being in this sense is political.

Gilles Deleuze (10)

Gilles Deleuze(10)

My first encounter with Durham’s exceptional artistic sensibility was the mixed–media installation On Loan from the Museum of the American Indian, 1985, in Joe Overstreet’s Kenkeleba Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side. This was a collection of found and handmade – often absurdist – objects, labelled and categorised as ‘artefacts’, ‘sociofacts’ and ‘scientifacts’, arranged in museum vitrines and mounted on the wall like an ethnographic display. It was a seriocomic critique of white America’s stereotypes of indigenous peoples, with an undertone of unacknowledged sociopolitical realities, and brought to mind stories of how the ‘native informant’ would often deliberately mislead the anthropologist for a laugh. It was as if Durham was turning a mirror onto dominant culture so that it could see what he saw; looking at the world with fresh eyes was typical of his later observations of Europe. Among the first of these was an installation for the Orchard Gallery, Derry, in 1988. Outside the city walls, on the bank that leads down to the Republican Bogside, he raised a pole, which was topped by a carved wood surveillance camera and a pair of car wing mirrors facing the British military’s surveillance mast sited inside the city walls (the traditional Loyalist stronghold) monitoring the Bogside.(11) Observations of surveillance and control reappear in later work in various guises: for example, Forbidden Things, 1993 – a spindly frame that recalls the security gates at passport control – is similar in design to several ‘personal arcs de triomphe’ that playfully suggest ways to aggrandise oneself. But the Derry installation was symptomatic of Durham’s approach to making work as he travelled the length and breadth of Eurasia as a listener and observer who is particularly alert to the ‘impersonal physical and mental forces’ in the everyday that cripple our capacity for creative thought.

The vitrine display is a sculptural assemblage that Durham has frequently visited, and is consistent in spirit with those works that allude to ‘surveillance’ insofar as it mimics the European obsession with collecting, categorising and hierarchising the world, not least through the violence of naming. As critiques of hierarchical thinking, Durham’s Wunderkammer function as subversive ‘pedagogical’ tools, anti-monumental and anti-spectacle, that instruct through surprising juxtapositions. His objects – some found, some fabricated – have neither intrinsic nor hierarchical value. In Various Shapes and Materials, 2010, we find ‘glass’, ‘squarish things’, ‘spherical objects’, ‘things with similar holes’, and so forth, with an occasional item fashioned from body parts involuntarily donated by some poor animal – items that Durham will have rescued during his perambulations through the city and its environs. On the one hand, they present the joy and aesthetic pleasure of materials, the reclamation of life from Death-by-Discard; on the other, they carry a subtle political wit. Of the two vitrines comprising The History of Europe, 2012, one contains a sheet of paper presenting facts about Europe’s identity, a loose timeline of its ‘achievements’ and an account of the contents of the other vitrine: Exhibit A is a primitive Stone Age tool; Exhibit B is a rifle bullet dating from 1941 damaged by battery acid (presumably before it could damage a person).

When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders.

Frantz Fanon (12)

Stone suffers from architectural weight, the weight of metaphor, and the weight of history.

Jimmie Durham (13)

When Durham relocated to ‘Eurasia’ in 1994 he quickly turned his critical and inquisitive eye on visual expressions of the two principles of European ideology that had devastated the peoples of the rest of the world: scripture (the Biblical text and writing) by which Europeans justified dehumanising others, and the stone monument (especially the triumphal arch) as a signifier of state power and permanence. He called this collusion between architecture and belief ‘architexture’. Two of the crudest manifestations of such of state hubris – the Nazi Tausendjähriges Reich and the presidential portraits defacing Mount Rushmore in South Dakota – are alluded to in Museum of Stone, 2012, alongside examples of the unperverted beauty of stones. Included is ‘Balanced Rock’ goes on Tour! (original home, Utah), which presents photographic ‘selfies’ of the Rock’s encounters with some of the triumphalist monuments in European cities, Mount Rushmore and Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. As Richard W Hill has noted, ‘Durham understands art as precisely those communicative forms of agency that escape or undermine the ideological dimensions of state architecture and language.’(14)

The artist perhaps reserves his most acerbic wit for ‘scripture’. An earlier work The Testament According to John, 1989, is a painting of a penis ejaculating the words ‘In the beginning was the word… and the word was God’, followed by an account of how the work was received, thereby exposing authority’s power over language and meaning. Even more contentious is the distinctly anti-monumentalist Shrouds and Swaddling Clothes of Decommissioned Saints, 1996: two plastic baskets containing dirt and dishevelled clothing, which refer us again to the European obsession with collecting – this time, the ‘relics’ of Christian saints. This work is also challenging to the viewer’s ‘belief’ in what constitutes ‘art’ because, like the series of steel buckets of 1995 containing dirt, human or animal hair and cotton or synthetic clothing, or his exploding graphite drawings, they occupy an indeterminable space between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. Through this resistance to the conventions of aesthetic beauty and interpretation, Durham seems to ask us to consider what ‘truths’ are expressed in the hierarchical value we place on things. Then again, we might attend to what he means when he says: ‘What a mean, stupid and destructive little concept is Truth. I am sure that beauty has no connection to truth. Truth is simply a nasty invention of the state; first to make us “confess” and then to make us “believe”’.(15) Durham’s point parallels Deleuze’s complaint against the ‘tyranny of the signifier’, which insists on the question, ‘What does it mean?’, when, as he says, ‘the only question is how anything works, with its intensities, flows, processes, partial objects. None of which mean anything.’(16) Durham thus frees us to appreciate flows and processes that refuse closure: the conversation among differing materials, or the graphiteness of the graphite in its dialogue with paper. Humans are not the only entities that ‘speak’ if we are minded to listen.

Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and even rarer, thing that might be worth saying.

Gilles Deleuze (17)

We are, therefore I am.

Brian Yazzie Burkhart (18)

Although I have chosen ‘humanity’ as an anchor for this set of thoughts on Durham’s work, his worldview has little to do with European ‘humanism’, except in so far as, in its secular mode, humanism repudiates blind faith and selects those pedagogical practices that it recognises as liberatory. Durham’s view is anti-anthropocentric; human beings are part of a holistic world in which all our relations – non-human forms of life, inorganic and organic – are integral to ecological health and survival and in themselves deserve equal rights of existence and respect. In this sense western ‘humanity’ is found wanting. A glance at Durham’s most recently published collection of essays, Waiting To Be Interrupted, 2014, reveals the extent to which his observations of Eurasian places he has visited include conversations with the local flora and fauna (alongside stones). It is here that Durham deviates from Freire’s Pedagogy, which makes conventional anthropocentric assertions about animals based on their assumed lack of self-consciousness and agency; in Freire’s reflections, animals do not figure amongst the ranks of the oppressed. Durham’s perspective finds partial sympathy with Derrida’s critique of the Cartesian subject and thoughts on ‘human-animal’ relations as fundamental to understanding ethical and just action, and yet Derrida retains precisely the distinction between ‘human’ and ‘animal’ that indigenous philosophy rejects. (19) In his recent installation at Parasol, ‘Traces and Shiny Evidence’, 2014, Durham’s concern with ecological matters came to the fore: in the lower gallery, replicas of animal skeletons painted with Chameleon pearlised paint, auto-parts, oil drums seemingly seeping spillages and PVC tubing snaking through the gallery into the garden pond signalled the ’poisonous beauty’ that is western humanity’s relation to the natural world; in the upper gallery ghostly graphite forms on paper of what could be stuffed animals recall the ‘post-nature’ dystopia of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What, then, is subjectivity in Durham’s universe? It is a collegiate collective commensurate with the Native American philosopher Burkhart’s revision of Descartes: ‘We are, therefore I am’, where ‘we’ includes non-humans. Durham’s observation that humanity is incomplete also finds correspondence with Deleuze’s thoughts on humanity as a process, a becoming, and that the act of writing (we shall add making) is to free life from what imprisons it: ‘creating isn’t communicating but resisting’.(20) What is Durham’s interest in etymologies if not his desire to get to the root of what matters, of language’s material origins in humanity’s corporeal experience of the world, in contrast to which our stultifying entrapment in linguistic abstractions has become ‘unhomely’, incapable of articulating anything ‘worth saying’? In Durham’s work, art doesn’t speak a ‘Truth’, but discloses not-knownness, where open-endedness and suspicion of any instantly determinable ‘meaning’ opens perception to a traumatic zone of indistinction between speechlessness and speaking, listening and hearing. It is also an opening to that imaginative space of irreverence and possibility closed down by prescriptive and instrumentalised ways of thinking, and in which the liberatory function of what Freud called the ‘humour that smiles through tears’ more often than not is Durham’s vehicle of transmission.(21)

In 2000 Durham installed a freestanding cubicle on a street corner in Ghent, entitled You Have Another Chance. The front was painted with the title in English, Flemish and French and contained a simple swing door; the cubicle’s corners were bordered with lights for after dark; the back panel was roughly painted in diagonal red and yellow stripes, over which was handwritten ‘Gaterug – Go Back Reconsider – Retournez Reconsidérez – Heroverweeg.’ What was Durham urging us to reconsider? Another chance at what? Perhaps, in the spirit of true pedagogy, he was urging us to ‘remember those things we never knew’, and to reimagine a less anthropocentric, more self-critical humanity – before it is too late.

Essay published in Jimmie Durham: Various Items and Complaints, catalogue to the exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, London: Koenig Books, 2015, pp 8 – 11.

(1) Jimmie Durham (Rome 2006.), cited in Koen Leemans and Luc Lambrecht. (eds), Commitment, Mechelen: De Garage and Grimbergen: Culturuumcentrum Strombeek, 2007.

(2) Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972), trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986, pp 20–21.

(3) Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, (1991), trans. Kristin Ross, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007, p 39.

(4) A political organiser for the American Indian Movement, Durham became Director of the International Indian Treaty Council and its representative at the United Nations. His partner, the artist Maria Thereza Alves, was also a member of the IITC and in 1981 co-founded Brazil’s Partido Verde (Green Party).

(5] Edward Said, ‘Speaking Truth To Power’, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures, London: Vintage, 1994, pp 63–75.

(6) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (1961), trans. Constance Farrington, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

(7) During their years in Cuernavaca, Durham and Alves attempted to initiate an interactive educational club, but were thwarted by local politics. Durham subsequently pursued this dialogical approach to teaching as Visiting Professor in various workshop programmes such as the Advanced Course in Visual Arts, the Antoni Ratti Foundation, Como. See their publication Jimmie Durham, Milano: Edicioni Charta, 2004.

(8) Jacques Rancière, op cit.

(9) Jimmie Durham: Matoaka Ale Attakulakula Guledisgo Nhini (Matoaka and the Little Carpenter in London, London: Matts Gallery, 1988.

(10) Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, (1990), trans. Martin Joughin, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, p 88.

(11) The pole was vandalised; the culprits, according to the local people, were probably the British military.

(12) Fanon, op cit, p 252.

(13) Jimmie Durham, ‘Between the Furniture and the Building (Between a Rock and a Hard Place)’, 1998, artist’s book republished in Durham, Waiting To Be Interrupted: Selected Writings 1993–2012, Antwerp: M KHA and Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2014, pp 121–170.

(14) Richard W Hill, ‘The Malice and Benevolence of Inanimate Objects: Jimmie Durham’s Anti-Architecture’, in Jimmie Durham: A Matter of Life and Death and Singing, JRP/Ringier: M KHA, 2012, p 75.

(15) Jimmie Durham, ‘Why Beauty – (Why Not?)’, Waiting To Be Interrupted, op cit, pp 363-364.

(16) Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, op cit, p 22.

(17) Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, op cit, p129.

(18) Brian Yazzie Burkhart, ‘What Coyote and Thales Can Teach Us: An Outline of American Indian Epistemology’, in Anne Waters (ed), American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, pp15–26.

(19) Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry, Vol 28, No 2 (Winter), 2002, pp 369-418.

(20) Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, op cit, pp 143-176.

(21) The extent to which traumatic history is transfigured into ludic humour in Durham’s work is posed in Jean Fisher, ‘A Distant Laughter: The Poetics of Dislocation’, in Antoon Van den Braembussche, Heinz Kimmerle and Nicole Note (eds), Intercultural Aesthetics: A Worldview Perspective, Brussels: Springer, 2009, pp 157 176.