American poet, writer, and activist Jimmie Durham tries to cast off labels in a solo exhibition of drawings, installation and video work at Parasol Unit – Foundation for Contemporary Art, London until 9 August 2014.
‘Traces and Shiny Evidence’ defies categorisation
Jimmie Durham covers three rooms of a prominent London gallery space with objects, drawings and a 90-minute film, all made by his hand…and rejects labelling them as “art”. For the moment, though, let’s refer to “Traces and Shiny Evidence“, as an art exhibition, since Durham made lots of stuff and put it in an art foundation space (aka a gallery) called Parasol Unit: glossy barrels painted with sports car colours, spilled acrylic gel, replica skeletons, PVC pipes and other detritus and for some of it, the stuff maker seems to be merely experimenting with materials and colours. Upstairs more art-like things appear – a set of sooty charcoal drawings of teddy bears and other soft toys, and each sheet fills the entire breadth of the wall.
Then there’s “Smashing” (2004), an hour and a half devoted to a performance/action captured with “new media” (film), in which Durham sits behind an official-looking desk and waits for people to bring him objects, one at a time, in turns precious or trivial, which he bashes with a chunk of rock. Upon each item being destroyed or bounced off the desk in pieces, Durham wearing suit and tie and looking like someone at the DMV [DVLA for British people], date stamps and signs a receipt, handing it back in exchange.
And then someone else comes with another thing to be smashed – a banana (two hands needed for this one), a chocolate candy smashed flat in one fell stroke, a ceramic figurine, a potted basil plant, an intricately inlaid wooden box, one McDonalds Meal Deal including drink…as the pile of hopelessly broken things grew, I wanted to know what would be next? Would it be hilarious (chasing the escapees from a burst packet of monkey nuts to crush them again one at a time with the sound of crazy jack hammer) or slightly discomfiting as in the tube of artist’s paint that spurted blood-red on the adjacent white wall, like spray from a gunshot wound? I typically don’t have patience for video art and more than 45 minutes later, I found it hard to tear myself away…
When talking about materials he uses in his practice, for example, the “natural material” of Polyvinyl Chloride [PVC] which is the main ingredient in the pipes, Durham reminds us these are “… simply petroleum and sea water, with a little colour added in.” He goes on, “There is no such thing as ‘unnatural materials’ they are more ‘super materials’…
The material is innocent; it’s [our] ways of using them that are crazy and strange.
For Durham, categories of things are a human invention to describe other human inventions like music, literature and art. He describes such labels as a sort of “short hand” that is useful at first so everyone has a common language when talking about certain things, but the danger is, complacency and over-reliance on language sets in…and then the art (or music or writing) becomes “stupid” and a “false category”.
These “stupid” categories is why Durham says he “hates books” because not all books belong in the same group and these days, “bookshops are full of stupid things” that we (as a human race) shouldn’t bother reading and are “…written for making money out of our wish to be stupid”. Music is not exempt from Durham’s scorn, because as he points out, “…intellectual meaning is in the music; not in an interpretation of the music” – and apparently, the same goes for literature and art. What Durham is NOT saying is “if these categories of music, literature, art are unhealthy for us, it doesn’t mean get rid of them…but [these categories] are coming unwound, they’re not working, they’re no good anymore.” He is saying that perhaps we need different language to describe the things we make.
Durham doesn’t accept the label as artist, because as he says in his talk, “I don’t like the idea of art, I don’t like the idea of artists…because I try my best to make intelligent things for intelligent people…for people smarter than me, because if I make things for people as smart as me, [my work] would seem like a conversation down at the pub…just joking around and never saying anything important, never trying to change anybody.” Trying to change people’s thinking or at least make them think seems to be the most important goal for this artist.
What I took away from Durham’s work today was firstly his assertion that problems lie in the categorisation of things – for instance, calling something as “art” then as “good” (or “bad”) – because too many people call something “art” or “good” if they agree with it or “bad” if they disagree, in any case, expecting others to feel the same. And not everything, Durham says, is something we should automatically agree or disagree with. Even when the thing I’m looking at is, as Durham’s work often is, about the environment (we humans are wrecking it) or capitalism (humans wrecking other human lives) or some other social/eco/political issue that is supposed to make lives better, but doesn’t.
For Durham, it boils down to this: when in a dialogue with another person about things, such as human-fabricated cultural artefacts such as music, books and art, the wrong question is, “Do you like it?”. The right question when reading books, listening to music or looking at art is,
What do you think?
More links and information
- Read more about Parasol Unit and Jimmie Durham: Traces and Shiny Evidence
- View/download Jimmie Durham: Traces and Shiny Evidence exhibition guide [PDF]
- Join a Storytelling Family Workshop, “Oil and Bones” at Parasol Unit on 27 July 2014. £5 admission, ages 5-15.
- Watch Artist Talk: Jimmie Durham at Parasol Unit, London. 12 June 2014, 38′
- Read Stone as Stone: an essay about Jimmie Durham by Anders Kreuger in Afterall online journal. Summer 2012.
- Art review: Jimmie Durham: Traces and Shiny Evidence at Parasol Unit in Camden Review by Geoffrey Sawyer – 19 June 2014 – “Many of his works are collages or collections of discarded objects and fragments of organic matter, the nature of which he intelligently and astutely transforms and often paints in dazzling colours. ”
Exhibition details: Jimmie Durham: Traces and Shiny Evidence is at Parasol Unit foundation for contemporary art, 14 Wharf Road, London, N1 7RW from 12 June through 9 August 2014. Free admission, step-free access.