Among obsidian stones, an upturned police barricade, a beat-up refrigerator, and cow vertebrae, the detail that lingers longest in Jimmie Durham’s retrospective, on view at the Hammer Museum, is Durham’s absence. Born in Arkansas in 1940, Durham left the United States thirty years ago for Europe and has largely refrained from exhibiting in the U.S. since, giving a provocative tone to the retrospective’s title, At the Center of the World.
The first work in the show, A Pole to Mark the Center of the World in Berlin (1995), is a staff of hawthorn wood with a hand mirror attached, nonchalantly leaning against the wall. At first glance a send-up of self-absorption, the work carries significance belied by its relatively slight proportions. Durham made and placed several of these poles in different locations, alluding to multiple centers of the world. It’s not fixed to the gallery wall or floor, but in true slapstick form, liable to roll off of its resting place against the wall. In creating the marker as a lightweight, movable, and contingent form, Durham presents a “center” that transcends the conventional boundaries of a specific location, similar to the “I” in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe… and am not contained between my hat and boots.”
Durham was a writer as well as a visual artist, allowing his morals to dictate his travels. After studying in Europe, Durham moved back to the United States to organize for the American Indian Movement. He later curated exhibitions in New York City responding to the exigent political issues of the ’70s and ’80s, highlighting under-recognized artists.
At the Center of the World is a testament to Durham’s background as a writer. He references Whitman in his own poem titled “Song of Myself,” and nearly every work in the exhibition contains text revealing a wicked sense of humor. Take for instance, Untitled, a veritable mini-trebuchet in a plastered, hand-painted red that presents a pair of incisors to the viewer. The contraption is counterbalanced by a weight with a canvas note tacked on, featuring a handwritten statement: “iT’S [sic] GOT MR. DURHAM’S TEETH!” Elsewhere, his poem “What the White People Thought When They Saw Manhattan Island for the First Time” begins:
Oh goddamnshitlordhavemercy lord save us oh hell oh
goddamn bring a blanket bring a comb oh shit look (don’t look
Priscilla) lord god look at that lush wild heathen dancing green
and black rock and rolling sumac sugar sweet maple place!
Fucking barbarian place quick bring fire guns weapons under-
Durham’s language and material judiciousness are poetic, and his engagement with art history is aloof and humorous. In Types of Murder Weapons by Maigret, he presents two tobacco-smoking pipes, several pipe fittings, and metal and copper pipes on a board with “Inspector Maigret” written in ink in the bottom right corner—ostensibly a reference to the fictional French police detective Jules Maigret. Right next to this, Durham presents the exact same display of pipes with the nearly anagrammed “René Magritte” written in the bottom right corner.
Durham’s work contains inflections of Fluxus and Dada, especially his performances that directly engage the audience. In his video Smashing (2004), audience members bring an object to a longhaired Durham sitting behind a desk, wearing glasses and an ill-fitting suit. He picks up a large rock and pounds the object into bits. Durham then wipes the detritus to his left, pulls out a stamp, ink pad, and a piece of paper. He signs the paper, stamps it, and hands it to the viewer with bureaucratic efficiency. One participant places what looks to be a dog’s squeaky toy on Durham’s desk. Durham pounds it repeatedly until it stops squeaking and repeats the paperwork.
Positioning Durham within an art-historical lineage, however, feels like an equivalent act of smashing; it wouldn’t do justice to his efforts to stand aside from the dominant historical narratives. His standoffish style takes elements of art history and American culture and views it askew, with the curious bewilderment of an anthropologist in a foreign culture. This might be partly by choice, partly out of necessity. Durham was exhibited in the landmark 1993 Whitney Biennial, which addressed debates around multiculturalism and exhibited more women and people of color than ever before. But this was also the biennial shamefully reviewed as “Victim Chic” by the Washington Post, “a fiesta of whining” by TIME, and “the worst ever” by Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice.
So, then, where is Jimmie Durham? His sense of humor allows him to speak from dual positions of “marginality” and “center.” But this approach is also “unhomely.” As Homi K. Bhabha has written, “To be unhomed is not to be homeless. The unhomely moment creeps up on you stealthily… and suddenly you find yourself ‘taking the measure of your dwelling’ in a state of ‘incredulous terror.’” As with much of his work, Durham’s A Pole to Mark the Center of the World in Berlin, with its comical installation and numerous variations, presents a center that is “unhomed” but accommodating, transient, and multitudinous, in the way that Whitman’s “Song of Myself” states: “I contain multitudes.”
Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World is on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through May 7, 2017.