Jimmie Durham’s Manhattan Life
Curator Paulina Pobocha talks to the artist about poetry, activism, and his uncanny knack for finding dead things.
Jan 4, 2021
I think the titles of your works and how they inflect the meaning of the material is really very affecting. Would you speak a little bit about the last line of the title, which is about the separation between the cathedral and Morningside Heights?
It was such a strange thing. There is a beautiful park, Morningside Park, that I had been warned to stay away from because it was so dangerous. And when you are around the grounds or the garden of the cathedral, there is this high fence and behind it is Morningside Park and then all of Harlem stretches down below it. And at the time this cathedral was built, some of the rich people who lived up above the park hired mostly women to cook and clean their houses, and these women lived in Harlem. The rich people hired these women but didn’t want them in their neighborhood, so they built this fence, and it was such a constant insult to pass by and see it.
Skulls and animal remains feature so prominently in your work and have throughout your career. Is it because you are, on some level, looking for them? How do you think about the idea of resuscitating them, giving them a second life?
It certainly is the idea. I always needed it, at least in my own mind, to be acceptable as art, to be acceptable as sculpture and not seen as something weird or exotic. So when I lived in New York, the first show I did was a bunch of animal things I had made with found animal skulls in Manhattan. I did the show specifically because I wanted to show that you could use this kind of stuff and do this kind of art and it would still be art. I wanted to prove to people that this could be done, that what I was trying to do might work. It didn’t work, but I still tried.
There was a time that you returned to the United States from Geneva to actually practice political activism in a more literal sense with the American Indian Movement.
When Wounded Knee happened in ’73, I stopped everything and came back to the US; before that, I had not intended to come back. I was happy in Geneva, I was happy in Europe. But I had to respond one way or another to this strangeness, and I think the problem is still there. It gets worse, not better. But how to respond to things, what to do in life, nobody knows. I certainly don’t know.
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