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.
Yoshua Okón, Oracle, 2015, four-channel video installation, color, sound, 24 minutes.
Earlier this year, Mexican artist Yoshua Okón travelled to Oracle, a small Arizona border town, to record the AZ Border Protectors. Oracle, 2015, the resulting four-channel video installation, includes footage Okón shot of the group reenacting a protest it had staged in 2014 against unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in record numbers that summer. The work will be on view in a show curated by Julio Cesar Morales at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe from July 4 through August 22, 2015.
ORACLE includes a chorus of nine Guatemalan kids from the approximately sixty thousand unaccompanied minors who migrated to the US last year. They sing a song based on a US Marines’ Hymn that narrates a history of US invasions beginning with the invasion of Mexico in the nineteenth century (“From the halls of Montezuma...”). In this version, the kids sing about the invasion of their own land—beginning with a CIA-led coup in 1954—with specific emphasis on the complicity of the CIA and the United Fruit Company. The second section of the work is a two-channel diptych in which we see one of the protesters driving in circles—a metaphor for nationalism—in a white truck with a huge US flag. He is shooting his guns out the window.
Last year, I learned about the protests when I saw a picture of a lady in Oracle holding a sign that read, “Stop Invasion.” Knowing the history of the US invasion of Guatemala, I found this image incredibly ironic and revealing of the nationalist bubble in which most people in the US live. The arrival of these kids to the US is a direct result of US foreign policy, but the root causes are almost never brought into the immigration debate, be it in conservative or progressive circles. The right-wing media tries to make the anti-immigration groups look like heroes who are defending America, while the media on the left tries to make them look like dehumanized, racist, and fanatic savages, and tries to portray them as the source of the problem. Some people from the counterprotest in Oracle even compared them to the KKK, which is a big distortion. Many of the people involved in these groups are mixed-race and they openly acknowledge it. This is not about race. These people are angry because they feel the national pact has been broken; they feel betrayed and frustrated by the complicity between the government and transnational corporations. But holding on to nationalism is making matters worse and generating a lot of hatred against immigrants who are victims of the same forces the protesters are ultimately opposing.
I titled this piece Oracle as a reference to the town as well as to the Oracle corporation, which has strong ties to the CIA and also symbolizes our current geopolitical paradigm, where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between governments and corporations.
Oracle is a very small town. It wasn’t long before I was able to interview the leaders of the protest. I presented myself as an artist who uses video and told them that my goal was to put their issue on the table and then let people make up their own minds. I told them that I am not pro or against them—which is true. I assumed they liked attention and cameras, so I decided not to interfere much and to let them do their thing. The protesters even offered to perform what they call “Camouflage Operations” for my camera.
You have to remember that most members in these militias are ex-cops or ex-military. These secret activities mimic special-ops missions. For instance, they mentioned to me that they did some camouflage operations to monitor the Sycamore Canyon Academy, where the Central American kids were taken. But, as tends to happen with these kinds of works, after a few days they began to feel exposed, so they canceled the extra shoot.
I wouldn’t say that the protesters completely take control of their own image in Oracle, but I would say that the portrayal I am constructing gives a wider perspective and is more nuanced than the mainstream media. To me, as a symptom both of the disastrous effects of neoliberal capitalism and of the inadequacy of nationalism to counteract these effects, the anger of the Oracle protesters should be taken seriously.
View of “Jesse Aron Green: Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik,” 2015.
Jesse Aron Green’s 2008 multimedia installation Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik has been exhibited in parts at Tate Modern, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and ICA Boston, among other institutions. His current exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums, which runs through August 9, 2015, is the first time all sixty-five components—including photographs, prints, video, and sculpture—are being shown together.
ÄRZTLICHE ZIMMERGYMNASTIK is basically a workout video, so it’s no surprise that some people start to exercise in the gallery. Mirroring the thing in front of you—judging its scale and size against yourself—is fundamental to being with an artwork, or for that matter to being with other people. We’re all bodies. The exercises in the video component of this installation are drawn from an instructional book by a nineteenth-century German doctor, but the invisible center of my piece is really the doctor’s son, Daniel Paul Schreber, who lost his mind as a result of the abuse he suffered as a child. His experience of intense physical subjugation—being tied down in bed, strapped into a rigid chair to fix his posture, forced toward a bodily ideal—led him to reject the position he later held as a powerful lawyer and judge and instead identify with people who were considered powerless at that time whose bodies were believed to be different and inferior.
As a kid I was also subject to intense physical regimentation, although nothing close to what Schreber went through. I spent three hours a day, six days a week for ten years speeding in circles and hurling myself in the air as a figure skater. The real sticking point was the dissociation I felt competing in a context in which my worth was determined so externally to my self, and by such contradictory means. In figure skating, success is measured with two opposing metrics: a supposed objective one, in which points are given for the “cleanliness” with which you complete jumps and spins, and a subjective one, in which the “artistic merit” of your skating—its beauty—is adjudicated.
Thinking about achievement in this context—how bad it can feel to lose but also how ambivalent to win, how the capitalist concept of self-worth never matches up with the emotional complexity of being—became a useful analogue against which I could figure out how making art might be meaningful. It was in acquiring a language—both spoken and aesthetic—for describing difference that I began to see how ideologies of sickness and health were constructed, and how conceptions of care could apply to interpersonal and political relationships. Seeing the Guggenheim’s retrospective of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work when I was fifteen was the start of this understanding.
Recently I’ve had to reevaluate my own health and fitness. I got a little bit of cancer, now gone, and I elected to start taking PrEP—Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis—which are prescription drugs that help prevent people from becoming infected with HIV even if they are exposed to it. At the moment, PrEP is underadvertised, underprescribed, and subject to misinformation about its risks (which are very few) and effectiveness (which is very high). The people who take it in this country are the ones with resources to know about and access it. African American, Hispanic, Latino, and prison populations along with all people living in poverty continue to disproportionally contract HIV.
I was asked recently if the recent shifts in my health care have made me think about Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik differently, but they really haven’t. For me the project was always about sickness as much as health, and about being excluded for your lack of fitness as much as for the value of being fit. If one thing has changed it’s that the project has proved itself to have legs—it’s being shown and being added to a few good collections, which means that it will be cared for. I guess that’s supposed to confer legitimacy on the work, but experiencing such symbolic gain is not necessarily a feeling I value or enjoy, and I don’t think I ever will.
View of “Sarah Cain: blue in your body, red when it hits the air,” 2015.
Sarah Cain is a Los Angeles–based artist whose work explores boundaries between painting, sculpture, and installation. “Bow Down,” her solo exhibition at Honor Fraser Gallery in Los Angeles, is on view through July 11, 2015. In tandem, her first solo museum show runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, in La Jolla through July 19, 2015. The latter includes selections from the institution’s permanent collection as well as the artist’s personal collection, which Cain discusses below.
AT THE CORE of my work is a challenge to abstract painting—an attempt to expand it. It comes from a deep love, but also from an unsettled feeling. I never studied painting in school. I studied new genres at the San Francisco Art Institute and ended up painting for myself while at UC Berkeley in 2005–2006. It was very much my secret project. In the meantime, I was producing site-specific works. There is a freedom in the found object—for example, using an old dresser and transforming it, as I do in my current exhibition at Honor Fraser. Palm Afterlife, 2015, features a palm frond, which was in “freedom is a prime number,” my last show at the gallery, in 2012. There’s a constant recycling of materials in my work.
The exhibition in San Diego is the first in a series of new projects at the museum in which the institutions invites artists to produce solo projects and also select works to be shown from the museum’s collection. There’s A Pythagorean Notebook Suite, 1965, a mystic vulva lithograph print by Alfred Jensen, and a goauche on paper work, Threaded Piece 4, 1973, from Regina Bogat, his widow. I really wanted a Beatrice Wood ceramic in this show, but the museum didn’t have her work in the collection. So I went to her foundation in Ojai, California, where she had lived, and bought an amazing little sculpture she made in 1968 and kept her whole life until she died. Andrea Zittel’s A-Z Aggregated Stack #11, 2012, was something I first saw in her house and it has always stuck in my brain. She, along with everyone else, is in the show because she relates to a specific point in the trajectory of my own practice. My work is very much my own, but I think it is important to show the context it comes out of. I included a John Divola photograph in the show because before I worked with galleries my studio practice was all in abandoned buildings on either coast—wherever I could find them. Ana Mendieta is also in the show—a photo of her body imprinted into sand. She was one of the first artists who resonated with me. Fred Sandback was a similar early inspiration. He did everything I am trying to do now honed into one gesture.
I put in seven paintings of my own, along with a suite of works on paper. These are important to me so it was great to assemble them. Also, there is a painting that I have always liked but feel like no one else likes it. Its title is the same as the show, “blue in your body, red when it hits the air.” It works incredibly with the Robert Irwin window piece in the museum.
Steffani Jemison, Promise Machine, 2015. Rehearsal view, June 7, 2015.
Responding to the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works,” Steffani Jemison’s recent commission for the museum, Promise Machine, includes multiple parts: a research phase, a reading group, and a semi-improvised composition that will be performed by several musicians traversing the institution’s galleries. The performances will run at MoMA on June 25, 27, and 28, 2015.
JACOB LAWRENCE studied art at a community center called Utopia Neighborhood House in Harlem, which provided a range of services for kids and their mothers—everything from dental care to summer camp. The proximity of the words utopia and neighborhood seemed like a really interesting point of departure from which to think through the political possibilities of Lawrence’s work. The alliance between utopia and abstraction, in particular, is critical to this project. In order to develop this work, I had to shift my focus from the historical content of the “Migration of the Negro” series panels to Lawrence’s formation as an artist, including the complicated system of patronage and support that enabled and restricted his work.
The Promise Machine commission for MoMA is rooted in research, writing, and dialogue, and the project’s many parts span the course of a year. I began by visiting Harlem-based organizations, facilitating a series of conversations around utopia, nostalgia, and the future. I used these discussions to develop a vocabulary that served as a foundation for the rest of my research. As a conceptual tool, utopia really incisively connects politics, distance, and desire. I learned so much from the rhetorical choices people make when they talk about the ideal and the possible. Some devices—simile, analogy—recurred constantly and were very clarifying for me as I tried to understand what political work “utopia” has done and can do, in Harlem especially. Another part of the project is a reading group at MoMA focused on historical accounts, advertisements, and descriptions of black intentional communities in the US and Canada, including real places such as Nicodemus, Kansas, and Soul City, North Carolina, as well as fictional accounts by authors such as George Schuyler.
The most publicly visible piece of the commission is a series of performances taking place in late June. I worked with the museum to create a temporary walking trajectory through the permanent collection. The path places a diverse group of paintings in conversation with Lawrence’s paintings, linking him to artists whose careers coincided with his, especially those who were considering issues of abstraction or undertaking utopian projects. The performances, which feature two vocalists and a saxophonist, process from the fifth-floor galleries—where there’s a large Basquiat painting—down to the fourth floor, passing works by Mondrian, Sam Gilliam, Jo Baer, and Barnett Newman, and conclude on the third floor, where Lawrence’s work is featured in “One-Way Ticket.”
The performers—Jade Hicks, Russell Taylor, and Darius Jones—draw from a vocabulary of musical tropes derived primarily from R&B vocal traditions. As I considered how to work with composer Courtney Bryan on the composition, I was interested in thinking about the tension in any form of vocalizing (including speech, but more dramatically singing) between language and excess. We fantasize about the possibility that “text” can present itself as information, when in fact language is only ever encountered in particular visual, narrative, performative contexts. Timbre, pitch, melody, even font all represent processes of abstraction, in the sense that “to abstract” means to pull away or divert. There’s a tension there, that abstraction can be an activity of reduction—in Lawrence’s process, turning figures into geometry, color, gesture, and symbols—and at the same time it can be an activity of inflection or ornamentation of the real, an activity of diversion.
I decided to focus on two specifically excessive strategies in R&B, melisma and falsetto. I was listening to songs by Al Green, Deniece Williams, Minnie Ripperton, Maxwell, and so on, that offered really beautiful instances of these. Bryan took these moments (and added some of her own), identifying the shape of each musical gesture to assemble a lexicon, the building blocks for the composition. Courtney also mapped this vocabulary onto my libretto in carefully considered sequences. Arranger and musical director Justin Hicks interpreted these sequences for our specific group of performers. Through a combination of composition and improvisation, these individual components yielded new melodies.
The vocalists interact with each other, drawing upon their own deep knowledge and intuition of the material. The saxophone provides both a harmonic framework and a structure for the vocalists, while also serving as an analogue for the voice. And because the music unfolds in a continuous iteration, drawing primarily from a vernacular musical heritage, it connects to a tradition of task-based performance that compiles “found” gestures. I’m thinking of Yvonne Rainer. And Lawrence’s work, too: He worked with mostly unmixed colors, almost as if they were found material, and he would make, say, sixty panels at once, laying down one color at a time on multiple canvases. So, even though his paintings are so often positioned in conversation with portraiture or picture, his process was extremely systematic.
On April 10, 2015, Space Lee Ufan opened at the Busan Museum of Art in Busan, South Korea. It is the second permanent venue dedicated to the artist (after the Lee Ufan Museum in Naoshima, Japan); for this project, Lee chose the site, conceived the initial design of the building, selected the works to display, supervised the installations, directed the size and location of the wall texts, and even designed the wooden chairs for the café. In sum, the space is a Gesamtkunstwerk, one of the most significant projects of the artist’s career.
I’VE ALWAYS been suspicious of any proposal to build a museum for my work, because a “museum” is fully charged with the preconceived idea as a privileged establishment. I am against the notion of the museum as a place for artworks to be presented and appreciated. Whether painting or sculpture, my work is meant to incorporate its surrounding space. Therefore, I don’t want my work to look like an independent artwork in a gallery. This is why I was initially against idea of Naoshima, but the architect, Tadao Ando, persuaded me by emphasizing that he would create a “space” for my work, instead of a “museum,” although it officially became a “museum.”
So, when Ilsang Cho, director of the Busan Museum of Art, offered this vacant lot within the museum campus, I thought an annex to the museum would be acceptable. As the relationship between the space and the works is crucial, I conceived the basic design of the building, and architect Yongdae Ahn took charge of the structure and construction at site, dealing with all the difficulties, including all the red tape.
This is a space for vibration: One can feel the vibration between the works and the space when strolling about. I am interested in relations and began using the word relation to refer to my art in the late 1960s. I was influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, which claims that every object originates not from things but from relations among things. These days, a lot of people are talking about such “relations,” and relational aesthetics. I am not sure whether those ideas are relevant to my work, but I think it’s also problematic to be restrained to “relation” too much. For I believe a relation should be concealed rather than exposed. My recent use of terms such as conversation and vibration all point to the existence of the surroundings beyond the scope of the art object. In short, my work always exists outside of itself.
Not all audience members understand or appreciate my work. For them, this is not a sculpture but a piece of stone. Some have even been angry. But I would ask those people to question at least once why an artist would place a simple stone in a gallery, and try to forget about any of their preconceptions and look differently. Still, I don’t want to force anyone to accept my intention. Contemporary art is a present progressive form. Its value is still under determination.
Being an artist is a lonely path. You basically do everything by yourself. But when you delve to the bottom of art, you see it is connected to society. No matter how lyrical or surreal, all artworks engage the world. An artist’s job is to challenge everything. Therefore, an artist cannot justify reality or conform to it. In other words, an artist by nature is anti-institutional, and to participate with certain social movements or political activities is not within art’s dimension. That is more of a civil dimension. As an artist, I’m always trying to reduce my ego. When people see my works, such as From Winds or From Dots, they frequently ask, “To where?” For me, there is no end, but only beginning.