Jimmie Durham: They will be smashed


Jimmie Durham, Encore tranquillité (2008), fiberglass stone and airplane, 150 x 860 x 806 cm. NGC


The handmade German airplane lies on the ground, its cockpit crushed to smithereens by a giant boulder, seemingly dropped from the sky. Calm is restored. Encore tranquillité.

Jimmie Durham’s 2008 sculpture, Encore tranquillité, was one of the most popular works in last summer’s exhibition, Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art. Still installed in the lower Contemporary Galleries in a two-storey atrium, it invites viewing from many angles, with flight paths in mind. Whimsical and “a bit mean,” according to its maker, it turns the normal order of things upside down. 

“I imagine someone who is bothered by a fly and swats it down, having peace again for a moment,” the American-born Durham told NGC Magazine. “But I actually admired the plane: such good and artisanal work on it, and people still flew in it!” He bought the aircraft in Berlin, where he now lives, and staged the smashing at an old Russian airfield outside the city on July 4, 2008. “My frame of reference was, and is, simple: Nature falls on us. Our clever efforts are smashed. But to me this is funny tragedy. Our efforts ARE clever, and they WILL BE smashed. A person says, ‘I'm going on vacation,’ but instead, he is run over by a truck or cancer.”

Big rocks often fly through the air in Durham’s world. In 2004, he dropped a stone onto a Ford Festiva at the Sydney Biennale. In 2005, he staged the sinking of a granite boulder, painted with a crude Mr. Potato Head face, in a river in Sunderland, England. For St. Frigo, made in 1996, he threw stones at a refrigerator and displayed the dented result.

For Durham, stone is a metaphor for architecture, monumentality, the power of the state, and the oppressiveness of centralized belief systems. “I love stone,” he declares. “But I do not like the way states turn stone into metaphor. So I decided to use another metaphor, and have stone represent Nature en toto. We tend to say that stone is permanent, immovable, when in fact it is just slower and tougher than us, or sometimes much faster.”

Jimmie Durham. Photo: jef byttebier/het pakt

Born in Washington, Arkansas, in 1940, to Cherokee parents, in his twenties Jimmie Durham began making carefully sculpted objects from local wood, leather and granite. An untitled work from 1970 is a delicate mahogany sculpture inlaid with marbles. At the same time, he was active in theatre, performance and the Civil Rights movement, and through most of the 1970s, was a political organizer in the American Indian Movement. After travelling widely in the United States, South and Central America, he settled in the 1990s in Europe.

It was there that Durham observed the relationship between stone and state power, as expressed in architecture and monuments. “Europe is, more than anything else, an architectural construct,” he said in a 2008 interview, “and architecture has had, through the centuries, such a strong state program of inventing and enforcing belief.” 

Encore tranquillité also has strong roots in America and Indigenous culture. On a recent visit to  Ottawa, Candice Hopkins, an independent curator of Indigenous art and Sakahàn co-curator, spoke about Durham’s propensity for throwing stones. “Even though these gestures are humorous,” she said, “there’s always this deeply political message. Jimmie once said that stones were like Cherokee people, because they’d been kicked down the road, and moved, and moved, and moved. Cherokee were among the many tribes forcibly relocated to Oklahoma.

Durham’s vast creative output takes varied forms, from poetry, essays and other written work to drawings, photographs, sculpture, multimedia installations and performances. His work has been recognized in at least four major retrospectives in Europe—in Paris, Marseilles, The Hague and Antwerp—and he has exhibited at documenta (1992) and the Venice Biennale (1999).

Encore Tranquillité is on view in Gallery B105 until August 25, 2014.

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