Jimmie Durham

Fondazione Volume!

At the opening of Jimmie Durham’s “Templum: The Sacred, the Profane, and Other,” the suffocating perfume of burning incense permeated the dark cavelike space at the gallery, furnished with natural and manufactured articles lifted from other contexts and arranged to create the atmosphere of a religious sanctuary. One distinct message of this assemblage seemed to be that any place—equipped even with the recycled detritus of our profane commercial culture—could be hallowed. The raw gallery space, a former glass workshop, suddenly resembled St. Peter’s in Antakya, Turkey, a mottled grotto containing only a modest carved altar and a small statuette inserted in a chiseled niche—said to be the first, and thus the holiest, Christian church.

Two rows of mismatched chairs strewn with newspapers along a narrow chamber next to the entrance resembled a drab waiting room, but the white arched ceiling suggested a chapel or choir stall. Just inside the main room was a plain yet elegant wooden table, its warmly burnished top supported by bark-covered legs. On top rested only a bottle of red wine, a clock, and a cheap-looking briefcase. Beyond that two red oil drums with the white letters TOTAL supported a crudely carved log inscribed with the word TEMPLUM, behind which fumes rose from a small clay dish garnished with dried fronds. Four identical metal drums served as pedestals to display what here seemed like religious relics: a red bowling ball encased in a wood frame, a large white bone on a marble platform, a model of a mountain, and a single antler on a wood shelf. Another, filled with water, served as a baptismal font.

It was only in the final room of the exhibition, sequestered behind an arched doorway veiled by pristine white curtains, that the real point was brought home: Atop a large cube constructed of wooden slats stood a small block of wood in the shape of a house, like a devotional icon on an altar. This shrine parodied the use of architecture as a status symbol while depicting it as a blank vessel defined by its contents. Likewise the fetishization of commonplace miscellanea in the outer room seemed ironically to undermine materialism while demonstrating the power of humble objects to create alternative meanings.

Indeed, aside from connoting a house of worship, the Latin templum refers to any space—not necessarily a building—defined for a sacred purpose. And just as a religious figure can designate a place as holy, we, too, can turn a previously characterless environment into a home with personal comforts and memorabilia. In Durham’s installation, the objects placed on the drums, endowed with religious connotations, could as easily be read as domestic decorations and trophies.

An old-fashioned suitcase on a shelf in the middle of the gallery evoked a time before cheap and easy travel. With globalization and the spread of electronic communication, the question of what makes a home—and where it is made—has gotten both easier and vastly more complicated. It is also a vital political issue for Durham, whose Cherokee ancestors were dispossessed of their land and had to make homes out of places with no cultural meaning to them. He has investigated the transient nature of home in his own itinerant life, living in various foreign cultures in the decades since he left the United States. In an older work of his, the short film The Pursuit of Happiness, 2003, a Native American gathers detritus from the highway to create art in his meager trailer, later becoming a famous artist. Durham is urging us to accept the freedom to take our baggage of signs where we land and array them to make a home, sacred or profane—or just other.

Cathryn Drake