Jimmie Durham

Jimmie Durham discusses his work at the NBK in Berlin and the Venice Biennale

View of “Here at the Center,” 2015.

Jimmie Durham is an American sculptor, essayist, and poet based in Europe, where he has lived since 1994. Durham spent most of the 1970s as a political organizer with the American Indian Movement, serving as director of the International Indian Treaty Council. “Here at the Center,” his latest solo exhibition, is on view at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK) in Berlin through August 2, 2015. Additionally, his work can be seen in the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale through November 22, 2015.

IN 1963, I was just out of the military and started my real adult life doing art and politics together. I’ve never been able to separate the two. Art is a thing one does socially, and if it seems politically loaded it’s because the object just gets so loaded with life. When you make things, the result is always a kind of self-portrait, so art ends up telling you whatever politics you have. I began as a poet, and then moved from poetry into theater, then into politics and the writing that came with public life, which turned to objects. I have a feeling, when you read, when anyone reads, you read publicly—though one likes to be private when within a book, it is a social act. You read to join the world, which is similar to the act of looking.

For the show at the NBK, I was just going to show non-art, different objects in my studio so the work would just look like interesting things in progress. But a friend suggested exhibiting a video I had made of myself this past February singing songs from childhood—American country music that children had to learn in the 1940s dealing with things like the blood of Jesus and children getting lost in the woods. To this day, I cannot escape this music. I wake every morning with these horrible, horrible songs in my head, a bad echo of a American childhood in Arkansas, the most racist state in America. Once it was decided to exhibit the video, the non-art idea didn't work and I started looking though old pieces I had in storage that would fit around it. The show builds on a long series of output dedicated to the idea of the euro or Europe as a whole—it’s like a twenty-year report to the Continent, almost everything in it is related to the predicament of Europe.

Artmaking always starts from the love of the materials—trying to see how I can enter the material and leave with that material in some way. For Venice: Objects, Work and Tourism, my project at the Venice Biennale, for example, I was thinking about objects for tourists. I love Venice, I love the crowds, I love the Biennales, and I hate the tourists because we’re so stupid when we’re tourists. And we don’t mean to be stupid, we mean to see everything, but we don’t even know what we mean by seeing everything. People take photos of pigeons and pizzas and they never look at any reality, which is themselves—they are the biggest part of the Venice reality. There is no Venice without these tourists, without us. And, as a tourist, you can’t go to Venice without buying some souvenir—you bring it back and treasure it mostly because you probably won’t ever go back. These are magic things that may be perceived as stupid, but the craft is always good, though the design often bad. I love the glasswork and wood tchotchkes: This is my biggest weakness. It’s not objects I love, but material. There are never conscious decisions about this sort of thing; that’s one of the things I don’t know how to do in art.

An artist who ties into this is Monet—I like Monet very much. Monet looked at the world with love and he tried to represent it. He tried to use camel hair, pigs’ hair, squirrels’ hair, stuck on the end of sticks. He put together some linseed oil and pigment to make oil paint and tried to represent the world with this stuff. It’s so naive and so childish and so beautiful. He wanted to depict the world with this goofy stuff that humans use, thinking that we can represent the world, which is at once silly and brave. In contrast, Picasso looked at himself and his talent, and to me, this is against art. If you have a good talent at art, you shouldn’t do that kind of art that your talent is good at; you should do anything but that.