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Exhibition of works by Jimmie Durham explores the relationship between humans and nature
Jimmie Durham, Musk Ox, 2017, 328 x 123 x 190 cm, Musk ox skull, Murano glass, wood, steel scaffolding, diverse textile (cotton, leather, wool), Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico. Photo: Nick Ash.

ZURICH.- The artist, poet, author and political activist Jimmie Durham (b. 1940) began his career in the USA. There, alongside campaigning for the rights of indigenous peoples, he developed a sculptural and performance-based way of working, in which he also addresses ethical issues and nationalist narratives. Durham became internationally famous in the 1980s, especially for his sculptures and installations deconstructing state mythologies. Since moving to Europe in 1994, Durham has been scrutinizing his new geopolitical and culturalhistorical surroundings. For the Migros Museum fr Gegenwartskunst he realizes the project God’s Children, God’s Poems (2017), which explores the relationship between humans and nature. The artist turns the gallery space into the scene of a congregation of fourteen sculptures, made out of the skulls of Europe’s largest animal species, supplemented by materials such as metal, wood, and fabric. Durham’s sculptural assemblages featuring animal skulls reflect his audience’s sometimes stereotypical ideas about nature and society and suggest a possible way to transcend the particularly European classic dichotomies of nature vs. culture and subject vs. object.

From the so-called four-horned sheep and the wild boar to the brown bear, the elk, the Tuscan Maremmana bull, and the Great Dane: in God’s Children, God’s Poems, Durham recruits animals or, more properly, their skulls as protagonists of his own agenda. He questions cultural principles of classification and construction—especially the nature-culture antithesis—in order to deconstruct cultural-ethnic authenticity of any kind. The wolf sculpture, for example—the skull, sprayed with iridescent car paint, is mounted on a body made of pipes and industrial sheet metal—defies categorization as either natural or artificial. Even Durham’s selection of animals undercuts this simplistic distinction: for instance, he uses skulls of wild animals that owe their existence today to breeding efforts, like the wisent, an endangered European species of bison. The dismantlement of such rigid classificatory schemes is now under discussion in numerous fields of scholarship including cultural animal studies, post-humanism, and new materialism, as well as sociology. To the artist’s mind, temporality plays into this undertaking as well: by giving the animals new bodies and modifying the skulls to lend them a unique individuality, he in a sense aims to endow them with souls and bring them back into the present. Although this operation prompts the yearning for a holistic worldview integrating elements of spirituality, the exhibition project God’s Children, God’s Poems does not revive a romantic vision of union with nature. Rather, Durham studiously avoids unambiguous messages, inviting us to reflect on the rich diversity of nature and the subject’s role in it.

Jimmie Durham lives and works in Berlin. His work has been shown in numerous exhibitions in many countries, including, more recently, at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles (2017); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2014, 2003, 1993); the Venice Biennale (2015, 2005, 2003, 2001, 1999); the Museo Madre, Naples (2013, 2008); the MuHKA— Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (2012); the Swiss Institute, New York (2012); Documenta, Kassel (2012, 1992); the 29th So Paulo Art Biennial (2010); the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2010); the Muse d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2009); and Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2006).

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