In advance of Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World (June 22–October 8, 2017) coordinating curator Vincenzo de Bellis looks at a work from the Walker collection that’ll play a central role in the exhibition, the artist’s first US retrospective.
Jimmie Durham’s approach to art is marked by a depth of concept and a practice that takes many different forms, all of which revolve around demolishing our shared imaginary and building an alternative standard of the “normal.” The American artist has become known for disorienting operations that prompt viewers to rethink their possible frameworks of interpretation. The open-ended, shifting language he presents seems to suggest that the structure and order of the world, as we are accustomed to seeing it, may not be definitive. His work highlights art’s potential of making us look at the world from different angles, tearing down the barriers between nature and culture, between visual and scientific thinking. This sets in motion a process whereby a constantly evolving personal syntax is used to build an oeuvre with media that range from drawing, to architectural models, to readymades, to video, to sound installations. Let us stop to consider sound.
When I first met Jimmie Durham more than 10 years ago, it was a striking, unnerving, and almost disturbing experience. A long-haired and stern-looking man (he only seemed stern, which I would find out much later), Durham was supposed to deliver a lecture to a class of artists, participating in an intensive summer school course. Before saying anything, Durham placed a rock on the table and then played a video of himself stoning—literally throwing stones at—a refrigerator. In Durham’s hands, the simple violent act of throwing a stone became a conceptual gesture. When the video was over Durham began to speak, with one of his phrases making a deep impression on me: “Listen, always listen; don’t talk, but listen.” Durham has repeatedly returned to this exact advice—offered to his students in 2005, in response to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s questions at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and again most recently as part of a conference coinciding with Jimmie Durham: Sound and Silliness, his exhibition at MAXXI in Rome.
“Listen, always listen; don’t talk, but listen.” It sums up much of Durham’s practice and much of what an artwork means to him: something to be seen, of course, because sculpture and form are still central aspects of his practice, but also something to be heard. Listened to, if possible, without talking over. The importance of sound in Durham’s artistic practice is apparent in many of his works, but can also be seen from the recurrent references to sound or songs in his titles.
His 2012 retrospective at M KHA in Antwerp was titled A Matter of Life and Death and Singing, and that same exhibition included his Sound Work (2011), held in the Walker Art Center permanent collection. A grouping of eight sculptural elements, each juxtaposes materials, such as clothing, plastic tubes, and wood, to a generally anthropomorphic effect. Each form retains independent status, even though each was conceived in relation to another, to form a single work. All of the eight elements produce a different sound, ranging from white noise and ambient sounds captured by the artist to the voice of Durham himself talking, singing, swearing and shouting: “All the sculptures have sounds made by me: singing, screaming ‘fuck you,’ saying ‘get away from here,’ and so on. The Russian Army greatcoat that has one arm up has the sound of static; slightly menacing, cosmic. Sometimes the sound is mechanical, like things rattling in a box.”
Sound Work was first shown in 2007 (although it didn’t receive its current title until 2011), as part of Durham’s solo show Metaphase und Metathesis at St. Elisabeth-Kirche in Berlin. On this occasion, Durham brought together more than eight components that were placed at some distance from each other, emphasizing the individual value of each element. Later, as is often the case in Durham’s practice, the parts were repeated in different contexts like a constant mise-en-abyme, adapting to the specifics of each place. At M KHA, Sound Work was condensed, and its eight sculptural components, without following any rigid formal or compositional framework, came together as a single whole, like a group of strange friends chatting with each other, or a band playing music.
Sound is in fact made of noises, as set forward by the great Futurist artist Luigi Russolo (1885–1947), likely the first contemporary theorist of sound as a form of visual art. In relation to his Intonarumori of 1913, a group of experimental musical instruments, Russolo said that as a whole, noises—he spoke of roars, thunderings, blasts, and noises obtained by pounding on different kinds of metal, wood, hide, stone, pottery, etc.—would produce harmony and sound. Like Russolo’s, Jimmie Durham’s noises are ordinary and “silly,” without any specific apparent meaning. Yet, Durham harnesses silliness in the service of addressing the serious, as a means to inspire a light-hearted courage that helps us confront the big issues of life. It is a sort of invitation to not take ourselves too seriously, even while turning a keen eye on the human condition.