Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
by Vivian Rehberg
It took Jimmie Durham three tries to shatter the glass display case during his inaugural performance of his retrospective 'Pierres Rejetées' (Rejected Stones). The exhibition comprises a generous serving of largely sculptural, video and installation works, but also drawings and photographs, from his 'Eurasian' period, which dates from Durham's arrival on the continent where he has lived a nomad's life since 1994, seven years after his definitive departure from the United States. Twice Durham lobbed the smooth, roundish stone, procured from medieval poet François Vilon's Paris home, and twice it gaily bounced away with a thunk (this re-enacted work, A Stone from François Vilon's House in Paris, was first created in 1996). The American in me occasionally and involuntarily thinks in sports metaphors: 'that's two strikes!' I worried. Then, when Durham heaved the stone with two hands onto the case, his entire body lifting off the floor in the effort, and the glass shattered as planned, another American saying came instantly to mind: 'third time's a charm'. Finally, as he encouraged us to gather around and listen to the faint, sparkling sounds of the settling glass, I unintentionally recalled vintage commercials for a famous breakfast cereal's 'snaps, crackles and pops', and the forgotten image of a cheery towheaded child tilting his ear toward a sputtering cereal bowl.
These reactions were quite disconcerting, but it was admittedly not the first time that Durham had stirred some unconscious, uneasy recognition of 'American-ness' in me. His 35 mm film La poursuite de bonheur (Pursuit of Happiness, 2002), titled after one of three 'certain inalienable rights' the colonizers decreed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, features artist Anri Sala playing a celebrated Native American artist named Joe Hill, modeled on Durham himself, who is of Cherokee descent and was an activist in the Civil Rights and American Indian Movements for decades. In the film, Hill travels the highways picking up rubbish (or, rather, 'found-objects'), which he turns into art. After his successful opening, he torches his camping car then moves on to France. When I first saw the film at a screening in Marseilles in 2002, the figure of Sala on the roadside immediately conjured the now-iconic 1970s 'Keep America Beautiful' television advertising campaign against highway litter, which starred a 'crying Indian' who roamed on horseback and by canoe through a waste-besieged, automobile ridden landscape.
It is impossible for me to do justice to the art historical or theoretical importance of this overview of Durham's work. Individual pieces tug at me in such a way that I am incapable of adopting the appropriate distance. On the whole, Durham's work is too archaeological in nature, too much about origins, and too playful, not to appeal my inner-child — though I somehow feel it shouldn't. After all, we couldn't be more different.
Ghost in the Machine (2005), a life-size ancient statue of a helmeted Athena coiled with rope to a refrigerator, is surely about Cartesian mind-body dualism, but to me it just appears as some miraculous treasure hoisted from the depths. Baby Please Don't Go (2000), a pointy pair of bowed shoes peeking from beneath a funereal slab of mottled grey diorite, evokes houses falling on witches and recuperated ruby slippers, as well as a blank slate ready to receive Babylonian ruler Hammurabi's code. Durham's world is one in which odd-shaped stones are believably displayed as hunks of cheese or a petrified clouds (The Dangers of Petrification I and II, 1998-2007); an aeroplane is grounded and riven by a gigantic boulder, seemingly pelted by some vengeful, or bored, sky-god (Encore tranquilité, Still Tranquility, 2008); and a minuscule bird sits in a wonky wooden cage set atop a colourfully painted branch, with an attached hand-written sign indicating that this is A Peanut Shaped like a Bird (2006).
If one merely glances in that direction, one can clearly see Durham's concern with 'anti-architecture', 'estrangement', 'language' and 'negativity' in the pocked and scratched wood slabs of Labyrinth 1-6 (2007), or the printed and stacked oil drums of Sweet Light Crude (2008): the visual evidence for those critical terms is bolstered by the artist's statements and several exegetic essays in the valuable catalogue. One can also discern the power dynamics of master-builders and labourers at work across his production. Yet, despite myself, when faced with the wondrous profusion of work here, I am inexplicably drawn to it like some whimsical mystic writing-pad and become slave to my most childish of memories.