This is conceptual art – if indeed that is what it is – at its best. The exhibition surveys Durham’s last fifteen years, that is, since he moved to Europe in 1994. There are a variety of sculptures, paintings, installations, videos, performances and photographs, all of which cohere around the stone. Real stones are thrown, on display, used in performance pieces (for example as a passenger in a hand crafted boat), they are carved, imbued with metaphoric and symbolic meaning, even given personalities. There is even a “petrified” meal on display in one glass cases. Stones are used as weapons, artistic tools, transformed into delicate ornaments, broken statues, waste products and meteors appearing to fall out of the sky. Like all the materials in Jimmie Durham’s oeuvre, whether they be found, recycled or created anew, the stones in Pierres rejetée are lovingly transformed into the stuff of magic that both carve out and are carved into complex temporal narratives.
Knowing where to begin a discussion of Durham’s work is difficult because it is so rich and complicated that there’s always the chance of not doing it justice. I can’t remember ever having laughed out loud at a conceptual art exhibition in a major museum. In fact, I usually spend most of my time in such exhibitions wondering what I am supposed to be thinking and worried that I am not quite up to the esoteric profundities of the work. My experience of Durham’s survey at the Musée d’Art Moderne couldn’t have been a more different. It was sheer joy. At the same time, it’s historically and culturally steeped, providing intellectual challenges rather than mere “spot-the-reference/allusion” games. For example, Durham makes quite clear that his stones carry all the weight and intellectual profundity of centuries of art history. The head of a greek statue that seems to have been thrown, seconds before, at a now broken urinal, embraces layer upon layer of references to the historical uses of stone in statues. Antiquity, Duchamp, the toppling of dictator’s heads from their statues as symbol of their literal overthrow, all come alive when we look at Tête en marbre, urinoir brisé, 2005. It is, at one and the same time, a statement on modern art, a disrespect for antiquity and an anti-monumental tirade.
The material and histories he engages with is wide-ranging and profound. There are references to the gentility of art history, cultural history, Greek myths, not to mention the statues that appear periodically tied to fridges seeming to allude to old rituals of sacrifice, sometimes even the Bible. In Ghost in the Machine (2005) Athena strapped to a fridge could be interpreted in any number of ways: the shrewd woman needing to be tied down for fear of her heroic endeavors? Her cunning intelligence in contrast with the body’s need to feed itself?
In another example, St Frigo, 1997, a refrigerator that we saw “stoned to death” in the town square in Stoning the Refrigerator (1996), draws on ancient practices of humiliation and sacrifice. We laugh hysterically, but as time passes and the stoic fridge is repeatedly battered and beaten, it becomes personified in our eyes. “Poor fridge” we think, as injustice in its most violent and corrosive form is dealt to the helpless fridge. Simultaneously, in Stoning the Refrigerator and St. Frigo, Durham’s work communicates the destruction of an everyday object that comes to signify the comfort of modern life.
As well as the obsession with stones, there is a lot of wood on display in Pierres rejetée. In the videos scattered around the exhibition, we watch Durham meticulously building (usually wood) structures. There are tables and beds and boats, lots of boats, and then the minute they are built, a meteorite falls from the sky and crushes the object. Clearly, he has a deep concern for the environment, a concern that is realized in these works.
In one of the most beautiful series on display, in 2007, Durham created a series of works under the title Labyrinth, for which he used the trunk of a tree in Strasbourg by the storm of 2001. There are slabs of wood, carved out to “reveal” little secrets, objects, absurd bits and pieces supposedly dead and alive found inside the tree when it was cut open. The wood itself is beautiful, with its grains and in such big slabs. In Slash and Burn made from wood from the same fallen tree, Durham paints the logs a bright, kitschy pink. This final “meditation” on the Strasbourg tree has all these evocations of what we do with wood – painting it pink – so it no longer even looks like wood, and either used to build something trivial or thrown in a pile to rot. This work is again infinite in its associations, its hermeneutic layers, its challenges and the stories it tells.
The complicated layering of both the meaning of the works and our responses to them comes together in art that is, all at the same time, a peaceful reflection on the not always productive interaction between the natural and cultural worlds, a searing critique of the apathy of bourgeois life, a deeply ironic perspective on cultural and artistic mores (see, for example, the self portrait in which he poses as the cultured European man), and great fun. Even when he is throwing stones at fridges and sinking sailing boats in rivers, or building contraptions that await their destruction by “meteorites” falling out of the sky, no one is hurt and humans are never the subject of anger or violence. It is always benign objects that are used in the performance pieces and installations. In one video his cat curls up on the carpet next to the bath in which he is constructing a contraption, you just know is going to be brutally obliterated. But the cat shows no concern for the banging and hammering, and does not seem that bothered when it all collapses thanks to a huge rock thrown its way. Somehow Durham manages to create the most peaceful and serene spaces through sculptures, performances and videos of the most violent acts. This ability to create art that is, all at once, kitsch pop, extremely smart, silly, filled with allusions to centuries of high art, low art, relevant to the cultural and historical past as well as the present, is what makes Durham’s work magical.
And the fact that, in among all of this layering, Durham’s work is political, is what makes it ingenious. Its ingenuity comes because it’s not political in the sense that, say, Martha Roesler or Hans Haacke are with their deliberate and highly self conscious engagement with real political issues. It’s political in the way that a cross between Joseph Beuys and Buster Keaton would be. Just like Keaton, Durham uses the objects he finds on his path, and the world around him to make us laugh at its absurdity. And like Beuys, whose work also took the form of performances, vitrines, sculptures, environments and drawings, Durham is breaking the boundaries and expectations of art through its reach into the everyday.
One aspect which is neither familiar to Keaton or Beuys is, I believe, what makes these works so compelling. It is, what I want to call, its aspect of “vient de.” It is as though Durham is watching us from around the corner, having just stepped away from the action the traces of which are the object we are left with – like a shattered glass display case with the stone still sitting smugly inside it. Like Keaton, it is extremely accessible because of its primalness – the traces of anger, sex, violence, rape and heartbreak. And like Beuys this work is challenging to the intellect.
I do have one criticism of the exhibition: its major flaw is that, in typical French museum style, only works produced when the artist was in Paris are on display here. So visitors to the exhibition could be forgiven for believing that Durham only began working as an artist fifteen years ago, that is, once he moved to France. A context and history of his oeuvre in all its variations would have been helpful in getting a better understanding not only of the prolific output of this great artist, but also the history he both comes out of and creates for those to come. Every time a French museum does this, it does a disservice to the artist and to the audience who is eager to understand what’s on show.
Nevertheless, I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun in an art gallery. A word of warning: there are sixty pieces in the exhibition, and because you will want to spend time with all of them, set aside a whole afternoon. I spent two hours there and felt I could have stayed twice as long, and then there’s the time you will want to spend afterward savoring its brilliance and magic.
(Images top-bottom: Jimmie Durham, Encore tranquillité, 2008, avion, pierre, 150 x 860 x 860 cm, Courtesy de Pury & Luxembourg, Zurich, photo credit: © Roman März. Jimmie Durham, 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, Tête en marbre et urinoir brisé, Courtesy de Pury & Luxembourg, Zϋrich, photo credit: © Thierry Langro, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Jimmie Durham, Stoning the Refrigerator, 1996, Performance au Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain Champagne-Ardenne, photo credit: © MC/DGA, Lisbonne. Jimmie Durham, Labyrinth, 2007, Bois, balles, photographies, Courtesy galerie Michel Rein, Paris.)