In more than five decades as an artist, Jimmie Durham has called many places home—from Houston, New York, and Pine Ridge to Cuernavaca, Brussels, Marseille, and Rome. In a new interview with the Walker’s Vincenzo de Bellis, coordinating curator for Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World, Durham goes around the world, and around the gallery, offering color commentary on specific works in the exhibition—from a piece made in the 1980s using red costume underpants once owned by a New York City exotic dancer to a piranha/shark hybrid created using discarded Murano glass found in Italy in 2015.
Vincenzo de Bellis: Let’s start out with the title of the show. What does the “Center of the World” mean to you?
Jimmie Durham: I’m not yet old, but I’m beginning to get old. And I’ve noticed that half the world is in front of me and half of it is in back. Therefore, I must be at the center of the world. I like that feeling. I like seeing all the different things here at the center of the world: the flowers, the humans, the dogs, the stones, everything. I don’t like to be in one place. I never have liked to be at home. My ambition in life, I have said this many times, is to become a homeless orphan. And it’s not so easy, because there are such nice things to love in the world. And one easily feels at home in every place, where I’d rather not feel at home. I’d rather be a stranger.
de Bellis: There’s also a site-specific link to the exhibition’s title and location. Last summer you were telling me that there’s a part of Minnesota that is at the center of the continent—
Durham: There’s a place, over close to North Dakota, called Pipestone, and it is the place where everyone gets this beautiful red stone to make pipes for smoking. Officially in the US it’s called “catlinite” because George Catlin discovered some people making pipes out of this stone. It is very sacred stone, therefore it gives people an idea that we have to do better, when you feel this stone, when you smoke a pipe in this stone. I’ve made three pipes out of this pipestone, and it is absolutely magical stone. You cannot chip it, you cannot chisel it, but you can carve it very beautifully. It’s kind of like soapstone, only much more dense, and harder. It’s flesh-colored dark pink until it’s wet and then it’s red, almost like blood. It is so beautifully red. And it really is in the center of North America. If you put a pin there you can twirl a map of America, and it’s pretty much the center.
de Bellis: The first time I met you, was in Como, during the Fondazione Ratti summer residency. You had long hair, glasses, and a stone in your hand. You were in front of the crowd, and you smashed the stone on the desk and said, “Don’t talk. Listen.” That was the beginning of your lecture. I was kind of scared at the time.
Then you showed a video, Stoning the Refrigerator (1996), which is one of the works on view here. I would love for you to describe the work a bit, because it was the first work of yours that I saw, and because as a recorded performance it informs part of your practice.
Durham: I remember this very well, because I did it pretty soon after we had moved to Europe. I did it in France first, in a town called Reims, which is where all the French kings were crowned.
de Bellis: And it’s the city where the champagnes come from, right?
Durham: Yes, indeed. Catherine Bompuis was the director of FRAC Champagne-Ardenne (Regional Funds for Contemporary Art), and she had champagne in her office, always ready for artists! And the place where we showed, the college, had been a hospital run by Catholic nuns. It was vacant after the Revolution, and then it became the art center. So it still looked like an old, giant, medieval hospital. The show I did there I called Anatomy Lesson.
I took the fridge out into the courtyard, a beautiful courtyard, every morning and threw stones at it. I wanted to use cobblestones in honor of the ’68 uprising in Paris, when people were throwing cobblestones. And I wanted to see if I could use stone as a tool to change a manmade object instead of using it as a manmade object, a tool, to change a stone. It was a little silly, but I had been using stones as a tool, as something that moves, instead of [using stones to build] monuments and buildings that are stationary, static things. So, I threw stones at this refrigerator.
I used a refrigerator because I thought it would be the one manmade thing that nobody would care about. It’s a manmade object that doesn’t have a huge weight of metaphor and meaning, like an automobile or anything else. If I threw stones at a television set, they might be happy. If I threw stones at some other object, they might be sad or angry. But I thought the refrigerator would be totally neutral. So I took an older refrigerator, not one that looked beautifully old, just old—so it didn’t look like a brand new object—and I tried to change its shape by throwing stones at it. At first I was quite happy to throw the stones. But by the second day it became very sad, because it was so innocent. It had become an innocent victim of my stupidity, of my violence. And, it didn’t make me stop. It just made me feel bad. [Laughter]
de Bellis: And you used the refrigerator other times as well?
Durham: I used one very nicely in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago or so. I had a nice piece of stone, and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it on top of the refrigerator, and that became the sculpture, the stone and the refrigerator. It wasn’t a big stone; it didn’t hurt the refrigerator. The refrigerator became, like, a very ornate base, a plinth, for a fairly nondescript stone. And I thought this was similar to what Brancusi often did. He would use a big, ornate base for a very complex or not very big art object. And together they would make something completely different. So I called my piece Another Homage to Brancusi. I made many homages to Brancusi over the years.
de Bellis: The stone leads me to another work in the show: a self-portrait in which your face is covered by stone. Misa [Jeffereis], my curatorial colleague, and I think that self-portraiture is a very important thread in your practice. The portraits have been different from each other, moving from more iconographic to more and more abstract. Do you agree?
Durham: I’m not sure I would agree. When I first started doing self-portraits it was only because Corinne [Jennings] and Joe [Overstreet] asked me to do a self-portrait for a self-portrait show they were doing at Kenkeleba House Gallery, when I had never had the idea to do such a thing. But then I had such great fun that I thought it would be nice to do more of it. Then I started thinking: why do so many—especially male—artists do so many self-portraits? And why do they do them so… cornily? [Laughter.] So, un-self-reflectively? They look at themselves in the mirror, and then they try to paint the most serious, the most flattering image of themselves, or take the most serious, most flattering photo of themselves, and then what? Say, “This is what I look like!”?
But, I never have seen Western art quite correctly. Because, the idea of illustration and representation in some pretend-real way is very problematic to me. I think all the time: you cannot make a self-portrait that looks like you. Because if it is painted or drawn, it is flat, and you are not flat. Portraits are made out of paint or graphite, and you are not paint or graphite. And if they’re sculpted, they’re made out of stone or iron or something, and you are not any of those things. So the idea of the realistic representation of the world is a childish idea of how or what art should be. Especially when it comes to self-portraits, it seems so silly. So I’ve been doing them always as kind of—“Yeah, you silly guys. You see how silly you are?” [Laughs.] Always as a joke. But, I want to tell a good joke, I don’t want to tell a bad joke.
de Bellis: So when you do a self-portrait it is always a self-portrait as something else? So that you don’t have to depict yourself?
Durham: Because, I’d have to make it out of skin, with living flesh behind it, bones behind that—I’m not up to the job!
de Bellis: Once you made a self-portrait as Maria Thereza [Alves, the artist and Durham’s wife]. Do you think Maria Thereza is made of these things?
Durham: It was a joke. Because it really did not look like Maria Thereza. I had done a mask of her face, and then I changed the mask and put leather on top of the mask and painted the mask, and it looked exactly like a Halloween death mask or something!
de Bellis: Tell me about some of the sound work we have in our collection. Speaking of Maria Thereza, one of the sounds that you have in one of the sculptures [Sound Work, 2011] is you arguing with her. Am I correct?
Durham: Yeah, and it’s a fake argument.
de Bellis: There’s one where you say, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” and another where you say, “Get out of here!” How do you approach sound works?
Durham: My idea was that each piece would have a sound that would be specifically for that sculptural object—as though that piece was supposed to say that, if that makes any sense. There’s a piece that looks like either part of a dead Russian soldier or a cannon, and it has a sound that’s kind of like science fiction static. So you don’t know what it is or why it’s making that sound. Because I don’t know what the object is. It doesn’t represent a real object in the world. It’s the first of its kind in the world, and surely the last of its kind. A little bit like a gun, a little bit like a coat. And I wanted it to sing a very strange, unearthly song—to be slightly disturbing, but very thought provoking.
de Bellis: So, very quickly, I would love to scan through the exhibition, and I’ll take one work from each room and you’ll tell me about that. Is that Ok? So: Anti-flag (1992).
Durham: I don’t like flags, so I thought, what if I don’t make a flag and instead talk about how stupid flags are, because they really are stupid. They’re made for people in battle, so that when there’s a big battle going on, you know not to hit the guys around your flag. This reminds me, in the US military there is the Marine Corps. On the top of a Marine’s hat there is a kind of a drawing made in thread, it’s a figurative thing on top of the hat. And it’s there to keep Marines from accidentally bonking their own guys on the head when they’re in battle bonking people on the head. “If you’re in battle and you see a guy with this on his hat, don’t bonk him. He’s one of yours.” So, the whole idea of being loyal to the team or the nation state is so destructive to humanity. So un-human to humanity. I just wanted to find a light way to actually talk about that, to say, “There’s no flag here, and flags are stupid. So let’s just get along with life and sing some songs or something.”
de Bellis: Pocahontas’ Underwear (1985).
Durham: We were living in New York, in Spanish Harlem. In those days, it was still quite dangerous with drugs and shoot-outs constantly; it was close to Columbia University. And it was at the time when all sorts of people were being evicted so that buildings could go co-op, and if you didn’t have the money to buy into the co-op you’d be evicted. So, an old lady was evicted and all of her things were put in a big garbage container in front of the building on the street. It was open, and all sorts of yuppies from the university were there, laughing and tossing around all of her stuff. She had been an exotic dancer in the 1950s, and I stopped and looked and saw all this marvelous stuff, including this pair of bright red women’s underwear with red feathers all over it. Any sane person would pick up ladies’ red underwear with red feathers all over it and see what you might do with it.
This was New York in those days. For me, it was a magic city of garbage. It had the best garbage in the world. It had garbage from old people, garbage from young rich people, garbage from poor people. Every kind of garbage. Beautiful stuff. We made our own apartment, and we furnished it from stuff we found in the garbage. We ate from the garbage. One time I had four dozen fresh artichokes for a trophy that I found in the garbage of a supermarket. Nothing wrong with them, just not quite good enough. So, the story of Pocahontas Underwear, sorry, is New York City garbage.
de Bellis: Jesus (Es geht um die Wurst) (1992).
Durham: I had a good friend from Cuba in those days who had just died. I never remember his first name, but his last name is Elso [Juan Francisco Elso Padilla]. He had lived in Mexico only for a little while, and we became good friends. Then he went back to Cuba and died from leukemia. He had made a carved-wood sculpture of José Martí that was incredibly beautiful. It was a cross between an Italian medieval carving of a saint and an African carving of some spirit being, and it was just super magic the way it was done. I said, “I see you could make a sculpted wooden figure if you did something else to it, and you didn’t just leave it as the sculpted wood.” And so I didn’t do what Elso did, but I did do it in the spirit of Elso. So my sculpture of Jesus is, in my own mind, an homage to Elso. I called it Jesus because I made it and then the face of the figure kind of looked like a friend of mine, Julián Villaseñor, and kind of looked like Jesus, even though Julián does not look like Jesus. So, I thought about Jesus. I wanted to do everything using the German language since documenta, where the work would show, is in Germany. There is this marvelous bad expression in German, “Es geht um die Wurst!”—“It depends on the sausage.” It’s a slang expression which means… In the ’90s people in America would say, “Where’s the beef?” It depends on the content, in other words. It depends on the ingredients of this thing.
de Bellis: And we know how important sausage is for Germans. [Laughter]
Durham: I gave this guy [Jesus] carved holes in his hands and feet. And I gave him a not very big, painted, red penis. It doesn’t even look like a penis. It looks like a dog’s penis or something. I didn’t make him look like Jesus, except that he’s got one foot and two hands with holes in them. And his other foot is missing, because that’s what happened to Tezcatlipoca. This character was in so much European mythology and also very strong in African mythology, the strange magic man with one foot. But in Aztec mythology he has one foot because he’s sacrificed his foot coming up from hell to take over the world from his brother Quetzalcoatl. So I gave Jesus one foot and a piece of old scrap iron that didn’t look like a foot. I also had done something using flaked-off white paint, to very good effect. I used a combination of white glue, blood, and dirt to make mud, to make a coating for my figure. I wanted him to look like part spirit, part animal, part human… something. I wanted to give him some importance; not very much, just a little. The same importance you might give any piece of art you might do. But when you do a piece called Jesus it sounds like you’re wanting to impart more importance. But it was the same.
de Bellis: Moving on to the next one. Arc de Triomphe for Personal Use (1996). You’ve done several of these pieces; can you talk about the series in general?
Durham: We lived for two years in Brussels, in a sixth floor attic, because we had no money, and we lived close to a park. And in the park I found two pieces of tree branch that put together made an arch. So I took them home, and our apartment had a little terrace out on the roof, just a tiny terrace, and that was my studio. I made it thinking of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and the wild idea that when there is a “triomphe,” you should pass through an arch. It’s kind of like this children’s game “London Bridge is Falling Down.” So I was thinking of those two things because it is so silly: an arc de triomphe made of big stone is such a silly idea. I’d found this natural arch, these two pieces of wood, and I said, “We just need to find a way to hold them up and this can be an arch that anyone can pass through. It’s one you can take with you, and whenever you have a triomphe, you can pass through it.” So, I found other pieces of wood in the same park, gave them nice colors, painted it pretty, and the idea was always that it would be portable, you could carry it, maybe whistle a tune or play your harmonica as you went through the arc de triomphe. I wanted it to be portable, and for any triumph that you might have. If you got a raise on your salary, you might set up the arch, walk through it whistling a tune, or playing your harmonica, having your best friend clap. It would be a personal triumphal arch, whenever you needed it.
de Bellis: Homage to David Hammons (1997). You have a lot of homages, but I picked this one because he has very nice words to say about you. Can you tell me more about it and tell me more about Hammons and if you have a relationship with him?
Durham: I’ve known him for many, many years, and I admired him even before I knew him. Even before anybody knew him in the real world, only people in Harlem and Los Angeles knew him and loved him. He’s one of the very important artists in the Western system, and certainly one of the most important artists for me.
de Bellis: And he says the same thing about you, you know that?
Durham: That’s very suspicious; very strange indeed. Well, it means he’s also an extremely intelligent guy. [Laughs.] But, everyone knows what Marcel Duchamp did with this urinal. Not so many people know what David Hammons did with another urinal…
de Bellis: Including myself.
Durham: He was in a show in Belgium out in a park. And he took another urinal and tied it to a tree, just like a urinal, so that you could pee on this tree through the urinal. Everyone before that thought Duchamp said the first and last thing about urinals. But David said, “See, human thought can go on and on. Human intelligence can go on and on.” So I loved this urinal tied to the tree so much that when I used a urinal I thought—actually I thought of more than one work about David, but that work came first. He did a work of a basketball net called Higher Goals, because the goal is the net in basketball it was so ridiculously high that nobody could shoot it, but I took that idea of the basketball net and used my urinal as a basketball net, but instead of a basketball I just had a stone that I threw at the urinal.
de Bellis: And Carnivalesque Shark in Venice (2015)?
Durham: I actually spent several years going through the garbage in Murano, Italy, because I was teaching there (and after that many times I would go back because I had friends there), and I would go through the garbage and peoples’ old warehouse stuff. They make the most incredible glass work in Murano. They can do glasswork like no one else. But they cannot make good designs. And they cannot even make good designs when they work with artists, maybe especially because the artists do not have good designs for glass they always do something stupid, in my mind. I don’t know how this happened, but someone must’ve commissioned a kind of shark called a hammerhead shark. And I know glassblowing enough to see what an incredible work this was. It was made all in one piece, one molten piece of glass, coming from the oven on a long blowing tube, and then sculpted into a hammerhead shark.
Now why would you want a hammerhead shark? It is not a very interesting looking shark. It’s kind of freaky. No one would believe, because they don’t even know about the shape of a hammerhead shark, that he’s a weird looking animal. So it was made, and then as so often happens, one of the great, giant, protruding eyes broke off. And then this beautiful piece of craft was broken, became garbage. And it was the most marvelous piece of glass, so I took it and broke off the other eye and said, “Hmm, it’s still a beautiful work. I’ll give it a face. I’ll give it a mask, since it doesn’t have a face anymore.” And in my studio I happened to have some desiccated piranha teeth, the jawbones of a piranha fish from Brazil. And then you say, “Hmm, I’d been wanting to use these desiccated piranha jaws. Here! They fit on this shark. I just have to mold them into a mask and then it will be a carnival shark.” And then suddenly my magic studio, that is not my magic but the studio’s magic, turned this beautiful discarded shark into something special. Into a carnival shark, showing his much better teeth, because they’re real, fish teeth.