A boulder-size rock appears to have dropped from the sky, crushing a Chrysler sedan.
This is not an asteroid impact. It is a sculpture by artist Jimmie Durham. The title, Still Life with Spirit and Xitle, refers to the car, a 1992 Chrysler Spirit, and the rock, which is a red-basalt boulder from a volcano called Xitle in Mexico City.
To create the work in 2007, Durham used a crane to drop the rock, smashing the roof of the car. He painted the boulder with a smug face, one that seems to be delighting in its destructive force.
The artwork arrives on August 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where it will go on view permanently in the outdoor plaza near the main entrance on Independence Avenue.
Durham is a renowned American artist, who has made five appearances at the Venice Biennale, but few here will recognize his name or his work. “He's been acknowledged in Europe for years, but he's been under the radar in the United States for decades. [Jimmie Durham] is a highly significant artist,” says Stéphane Aquin, the museum's chief curator.
Durham's work has always been simultaneously subversive, funny and rooted in his perspective as a critic of injustice.
As essayist, poet, humorist and provocateur, his irreverence goes beyond dropping rocks on cars. He cites James Joyce and Samuel Beckett among his heroes, in part because they held their Irish homeland in low esteem. “It’s a hatred for all of the badness,” he said of Joyce's depictions of Ireland in a 1996 interview. “To love the people unsentimentally, to look at all of the badness and say, 'It’s against us, this badness. I hate this and this specifically.'”
In 1987, he wrote about the United States, “Here is the real truth, I absolutely hate this country. Not just the government, but the culture, the group of people called Americans. The country. I hate the country. I HATE AMERICA.”
"It's kind of working as hard as you can to move towards a perfect hatred is the way I think of it," says Durham recently before listing other countries he dislikes. "I hate Canada, I hate Belgium. I hate Italy. I do not yet hate Germany (where he now lives) because it's too big and complex and exotic to me.”
Born in Washington, Arkansas in 1940, Durham permanently left the U.S. for Mexico in the late '80s and moved to Europe in 1994 (which he doesn't like any better than America), where he has become widely admired for his art and writing.
As a sort of European nomad, Durham hates every place he has ever lived for long enough to get to know it. He hates governments that take land from native people. He hates corporations. He hates marketing. “You have to buy cereal for the good of your country,” Durham said in a 1996 interview. “'All America drinks Coke,' it says. But when they say that, it’s like a fascist instruction.”
“It is universal misanthropy,” says Aquin. “It's also a very critical perspective on America. . . .The obligation to be a patriot weighs so much on everyone's conscience. . . It's good to open a breach into the cement wall of compulsory patriotism.”
Durham's artistic style has always been wry, anti-consumption and anti-establishment. Picture the droll, stinging cultural criticism of Banksy's work during the past decade and that gives you some idea of what Jimmie Durham has been doing for most of his life.
“There is a spirit of irreverence,” says Aquin. “To political systems and to art forms. He's been doing his own stuff with a total disregard for the proper manners and the way to behave. There is some sort of street bravado in his work.”
“It's a marvelous idea just to see what might happen,” Durham says when asked how his rock-on-vehicle pieces would work as street art.
“I did something like that years ago when I lived in Geneva in the late 60s, early 70s. I did street performances with great big sculptures on wheels and I would tie them up somewhere and leave them. And the garbage men would finally take them away after about a week, after looking around and not knowing what to do with them. It was very quiet fun, you might say,” he says.
In 1996 he achieved something of a breakthrough by hurling stones at an old refrigerator and naming the result, St Frigo. On one hand, he used nature to pound out revenge against a symbol of consumerism. On the other hand, the fridge was transformed from an object with no personality into a dented symbol of resilience.
More works involving rocks and manmade objects have followed in the two decades since. While he has also made smaller sculptures and written poems and essays, his rocks have become boulders as the scale of his work has increased. Eventually, Durham moved up to automobiles and at least one airplane which he has crushed with enormous boulders.
“It's great fun,” says Durham, speaking of the process of smashing things with rocks. Sometimes he paints faces on the rocks. The expressions appear slightly confused and apologetic.
“His rock pieces are most eloquent,” says Aquin. “His body [of work] has an amazing sense of humor. His wit. Very few of his pieces have the power of this one.”
Placing a smashed car out in the elements necessarily invites rust and weathering. The piece will gradually change in a way that was not originally intended. “That's part of the conversation we had with the gallery and the artist through the gallery,” says Aquin.
“This car is going to be some rusted jalopy some time soon. What do we do? We have to think for generations. The artist came up with a solution,” Aquin says. “When [the current automobile is too weathered], it should be changed to one of these diplomatic limousines you see in D.C. Maybe in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, the car will be changed. It will be a typical D.C. power symbol. But it's going to be recontextualized in its new home.”
Durham's work often nods towards the idealization of nature but he says that he cannot live anywhere but in a big city. Permanently separated from the woods he grew up surrounded by in what is called Oklahoma (he would never agree that this particular area of land actually is Oklahoma in any meaningful way), the forests of Europe have only made him more unhappy.
“The problem to me is the stray dogs and stray cats,” he says. “I feel responsible. I feel like I could help but I can't help. I cannot take in every stray dog. In Italy it was a horrible problem. Every place in the woods is taken up by packs of stray dogs. They are intelligent and they are homeless. I see my hatred of Europe building and getting more and more exact.”
It would be wrong to suggest that Durham is an artist for the sake of rebelling. “I don't do art to be subversive,” he said in a 1990 interview (and has often repeated). “I would be the same subversive person no matter what I did. If I was a carpenter, I would want to be just as subversive.”
How visitors react to Still Life with Spirit and Xitle at the Hirshhorn may be somewhat different than originally intended. Since the boulder was dropped on the Dodge, America has experienced a terrorist attack in Florida; the most bizarre political spectacle in modern American history; war with ISIS in the Middle East; and a spate of shootings of black motorists followed by mass shootings of police officers.
It is a summer of violence and upheaval not seen in America since the late 1960s when Durham was a political activist. Could the weight of a boulder crushing a symbol of American culture and industry be taken in a way that the artist who loves all the people unsentimentally never necessarily intended?
“I think one of the problems of doing things where the public might respond to it is that tomorrow is not like today,” Durham says. “We don't know what is going to happen. We hardly know what has happened. It is more complex than what any artist can deal with.”
“I'm extremely happy that we were able to acquire this piece and display it in front of the Hirshhorn,” says Aquin.
“It's an immense and powerful statement. I'm not too concerned about the reactions of people who may question his patriotism. It takes us back to the fundamental point that the museum is a safe place to test unsafe ideas. It is a haven of free thought of going against the grain and going against what is normal and standard. I think that Jimmie Durham pushes that and thank God there is a room for these people to express themselves.”
Still Life With Spirit and Xitle goes on permanent view August 6, 2016, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.