Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Dialogue & Distance
Warren Arcan

Seven pieces. Some on the floor, some on the wall. Pretty Paint on Blue Granite (2005): a piece of granite about the size of a cow’s head is painted hot pink and sits near the entrance. Anti-Brancusi (2005) is a smooth rock from the Po River. Serpentine, the size of a foot, it sits atop a stack of boxes printed with commercial messages; a stick is attached to the rock and to the stick, a cardboard message. Black Walnut (2005) is a cluster of objects and text hanging on the same wall and connected by a title. Street Level Treatise on Money and Work (2005) is a grouping of flyers, handwritten notes, and scraps of trash, individually framed and hung on the wall. In Memory of the Exxon Valdez (2005) is a short length of PVC piping presented at an angle with a dribbling of paint coming down its side. Your Face and Science (2005) is a piece I barely recall, except that it’s a collection of objects—found materials—and text. Finally, there is a DVD about an action Jimmie Durham did in Lille.

The objects are grouped, named, and sometimes given colour and text. Their status as things stands. They resemble themselves, the way real people are credited in movies (“Also starring PVC pipe as himself”). As Durham explains: “One of the interesting properties of both words and objects is that they repel each other. I often like to combine them in artwork by nailing or gluing them together because of the vibration this causes.”1

Art and writing, the relations of objects and language, are a major muscle group in Knew Urk. The exhibition’s inclusion of text is not an attempt to finalize the destiny of objects. It describes a relationship, something temporal and meaningless outside a dialogue and interaction, and is in that way non-hierarchical. I don’t think I’m being idealistic when I say this. It’s about Durham’s way of working with materials that becomes the work. Perhaps it’s better to say that he and the materials collaborate. This is his account: “[I have] the material first, and the material begins to talk, and I begin to think because I’m working with the material.”2 He calls it a kind of play. Not intellectual play, but monkey play, which I understand as being a way of thinking with the body. Durham has a past in political work at the international level, including time spent at the United Nations on behalf of Aboriginal interests. Since the 1970s, he has been strategizing and alliance building, looking to gain legitimacy for Aboriginal groups as nations among other nations.

As a Cherokee, Durham conceptualizes Aboriginal political predicaments as international crises. This is a view that has informed his art practice: “I make something and then I join that something to another something and there begins a kind of political work and it begins to be political at that point.”3 This joining of found objects, materials, and text exists as a kind of congress that occurs at all border regions. Whenever strangers meet there’s an erotic effect and hybridity result: half-breeds, mixed bloods, orphans, the homeless, refugees, itinerants, and wanderers along with their strange children, fragments, and odd skill sets. The pieces in Knew Urk wander like alluring vagrants in the international zone.

The political work of joining comes perhaps from the desire to parse the Cherokee stories of pain, loss, degradation, and death as collisions of ideology. It is an attempt to resist a view of politics and history that preempts the fullness of being Cherokee. Knew Urk suggests ways of decoding and synthesizing a dominant culture’s methods of denying other realities. Durham shows a drunken master sleight of hand in this work: the clowning is serious; revolutions begin as jokes.

It’s easy to make this non-hierarchical relationship to materials seem sham-shamanic, flakey, and apolitical. I think it’s more that Geneva taught him something: that telling stories of injustice never results in people rushing over to help. But what can a person do? Perhaps that’s not the best question for this predicament. If the Knew Urk exhibition is seen as moments in a conversation—Durham, with the materials that makes a thinking that makes a joining that makes political work—then that work and that conversation is, let’s say, virulent. We’re all born with story engines: connecting, joining, building, making. We can’t help it. I became attached to the pieces in Knew Urk and against my will (or before my awareness) I am making stories. Maybe the stories are incoherent, rambling, and inconclusive, but the voice is confident and strong. And as I sit with the work the stories become clearer.

Dialogue is key to the work. Invisible chutes and channels exist all through the pieces. My story engine attaches to them and churns away. It isn’t until later that I become aware of Durham’s anticipation of this, making the work appear at first incomplete. It seems that it is my attention that completes the work. It’s a choice that demonstrates compassion and sensitivity. The obvious seams and joins mark time and the products of dialogue. But it’s not to make any intellectual points; it’s to embody the fact that all bodies are multiple. The insistence on wholeness—that we all be who we are, that we insist and maintain borders and national cohesion—is like a habit. More is possible and is, in fact, happening all the time.

As an artist and person, Durham’s concerned about our “bad situation” and the work he does is to make it better, somehow. One way to do this is to acknowledge and make room for those small things hidden by monoliths. The activity of cleansing surfaces and hiding seams is an end stage in production. In the interest of his aims, his art does away with finishing. The urge to smooth, purify, and perfect is reactive. Exploring the motive behind the reaction, bringing it to the surface, shows that certain images—of history, of a people, or simply of what it is to make things—forecloses the thought of other things being possible, other bodies, other worlds, other relations.

Let’s say “the political” is a provisional name for strategies and devices that seek to augment and inaugurate—which means, looking at the root of the word, “being in conversation with the omens or taking omens from the flight of birds.” This shamanic colourant sometimes appears in critical appraisals of Durham. This is something he’s aware of. He’s not quite uneasy about it, but it’s not something he promotes, either. He does have a certain perspective that nudges up against non-Western imagery. But in that, every nation on earth has its Aboriginal roots: everyone’s from somewhere.

So this imagery of oracles and shamans points to the ancestry of democracy and society. And his experience in Geneva suggests that the UN doesn’t own democracy, and the West is not the apex of what the institution can be. The existence of the Aboriginal as a political idea is partial proof of missed opportunities and basic human “badness.” I have a partial memory of a Hopi prophecy. Before contact, a seer dreamt that the Spaniards were coming. They would arrive led by a man holding a standard with a symbol on top. If, said the seer, the symbol is a cross in a circle, greet them as family. If the symbol is just the cross, run away and hide. I’ve always loved that image of history. As the cross, so the term “Aboriginal.” In this exhibition, Durham’s not talking about these things directly. He’s not talking about himself. That’s hard to do. It’s easier to talk about a rock or a pipe or about scraps of paper in frames, instead. That’s a narrower field for mutual misunderstanding and a good place to start if one is concerned about how things went so wrong.

  1. Jimmie Durham, “Second Thoughts,” Jimmie Durham (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2004), 22.
  2. Nikos Papatergiadis and Laura Turney, Jimmie Durham on Becoming Authentic (Cambridge: Prickly Pear, 1996), 4.
  3. Ibid., 42.


About the Author

Warren Arcan is a Vancouver-based interdiscliplinary artist.

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