Home Architect Giorgio Verzotti on Jimmie Durham

Giorgio Verzotti on Jimmie Durham

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Naples has devoted an extensive show to Jimmie Durham who, after saying his final goodbyes to the United States in 1994, moved to this city in 2015. Durham, who died in 2021 at the age of eighty-one , had many selves: He was a writer of radical political statements, a self-identified Cherokee activist, an artist interested in the relationship between art and science, a satirical humorist who enjoyed puns, and a creator of verse elegiac. This exhibition, “Humanity is not a finished project”, organized by Kathryn Weir, director of the Museo MADRE, took place over an entire floor, with ramifications elsewhere in the museum. A master of reuse, Durham gave objects new life, but with an aggressive and provocative spirit.

The non-chronological display brought together works from different periods characterized by common themes. Additionally, he stayed true to Durham’s preferred installation approach, with each room brimming with diverse pieces. A sort of antechamber featured various large-scale sculptures, including Gilgamesh, 1993, named after the heroic bearer of both culture and violence, symbolized here by an ax anchored in a huge door supported by a large PVC pipe running through it. The first rooms contained works from thematic cycles such as “Loan from the Museum of the American Indians”, 1985, and “Museum of European Normalcy”, 2008, created with Maria Thereza Alves, Durham’s companion. Rejecting the term “american indian,” Durham challenged the cultural criteria that define Indigenous identities, identifying these categories as the constructs of white conquerors and expropriators. With great irony, he imagined an ethnographic museum dedicated to the habits and customs of the Swiss people (Model for a Museum of Switzerland2012), and a museum exhibition devoted to a reinterpretation of European history (European History2012).

Iconic works such as Cortez1991–92, and Malinche, 1988-1992, evoke personalities from the Spanish conquest: the fierce military leader and the indigenous woman who was his lover, later condemned as a traitor to his people. The first has the appearance of a robot, with a cruciform body inserted into a metal base equipped with wheels; the latter is seated on a box, dressed in a fabric skirt and a golden bra, her body fashioned in wood and her face adorned with snakeskin. Monstrous in character, these assemblages perfectly express the violence of the history to which they refer.

Much of the exhibition was devoted to Durham’s relationship to nature and his fascination with the creative relationships possible between art and particle physics. Durham understood human beings and animals as reflections of each other and, to express this belief, he mounts musk ox and bear skulls on large steel or wooden “skeletons” and adorns these bodies with blankets. and clothes (Musk ox, Brown bear, both 2017). The video Savage, 1991, produced with Alves, is inspired by the myths of Cherokee origin, according to which a coyote would have created the human being. And then there are stones. The artist flattened various objects with stones and boulders of all sizes, an act that was intended to be transformative and not destructive, ushering in an object’s passage from one state to another. In the soberly comic video (smashing2004), Durham, seated at a desk, smashes various objects offered to him with a rock, then stamps and signs a certificate.

At the Fondazione Morra Greco, a second part of the exhibition, curated by Salvatore Lacagnina, was devoted to Durham the poet. Printed on large sheets of paper stretching from ceiling to floor, a selection of verse revealed, alongside Durham’s usual political engagement, an almost pantheistic fusion with nature. “only with great uncertainty and with a lot of dialogue. . . can we do very small things for a future that we can neither see nor imagine. we must work in a strange and hopeless way, but not in a cynical way,” Durham wrote. Let’s take that as his lesson.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore

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