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What do we talk about when we discuss knowledge? These definitions indicate that knowledge is not a unified field, but rather a representation of powerfully divergent worldviews. Knowledge as “specific information about a subject” or “erudition or informed learning” is very different from “the facts, feelings, or experiences known by a person or group of people.” Often treated as a neutral social good, knowledge in our conceptualization of it is in fact a battleground with real ramifications for how we interact with others in our shared environment.
Knowledge as represented in Western culture is notoriously based in metaphors of mastery, rationality, and scientific progress. From Socratic dialogue, which displaced preexisting, more ritualistic ways of understanding the world, to Descartes’ formulation “I think, therefore I am,” contemporary Western forms of knowledge are based in disembodied logic and ratio-centric capacities. Importantly, Western culture naturalizes these modes of knowing by suppressing and erasing other forms of knowledge that are based in more relational modes of understanding and which have the capacity to encompass contradiction, fluidity, and non-linearity.
Jimmie Durham’s retrospective At the Center of the World at the Hammer Museum complicated this idea of knowledge as mastery, demonstrating instead the flaws in Western rationality. The exhibition bore witness to the horrific effects of scientific progress as enacted on this continent, narrated through Durham’s experience and wry sensibility. Formally, the works were alliances between materially, conceptually, and physically disparate objects, creating poetic friction from dissonance. The first cluster of sculptures one saw when entering the exhibition were figures made of street objects, skulls, fur, feathers, shells, gems, wood, leather, and other materials, and included Wahya (1984) and New York Gitli (1984). Simultaneously precious and decrepit, manipulated and haphazard, animal and mechanical, broken and powerful, these demonstrate that physical presence doesn’t have to be unambiguous to be generative.
Durham replaces consonance and logic with incongruity and non-linearity, frequently redirecting scientific narratives and classifications with double entendres, narrative interruptions, and contradictory statements. For example, works such as Sequence of Events (1993) juxtapose onto at panels tattered newspaper pages with pieces of other printed matter and strings of fragmented handwritten statements. It reads, “First, Benito Juarez, A Zapotec Indian, Killed Napoleon’s Emperor of Mexico, Maximilian. Later, I went to Paris.”
The exhibition also gave form to histories that have been marginalized, suppressed, colonized, or eradicated by violence. Names and voices of historical and literary figures, philosophical concepts, the artist, and the artworks themselves are literally inscribed onto the works. Caliban Codex (1992) is a suite of 12 drawings, each taking the form of a diary entry written by Caliban, the native slave to Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In creating a dialogue between Caliban and his imagined diary, Durham makes the viewer a mute witness to Caliban’s heartbreaking attempts to understand Prospero’s disgust toward him and his eventual internalization of Prospero’s hatefulness in the voice he uses with himself.
Durham’s inscribed texts sometimes speak directly to the viewer and/ or are presented as internal dialogues. In The Guardian (free tickets) (1992), a placard on the sculpture declares, “I am a representation of Janus, the two-faced god,” and later, “Sorry folks! This is the artist Jimmie Durham interrupting here. As soon as Janus mentioned opposites, I could see he was going in the wrong direction…May I suggest that we imagine systems in opposition to any concept of opposites?” This approach calls into question the possibility of a master narrative, replacing singularity with multiplicity and multi-directionality. It asks the viewer to constantly reorient herself in relation to who is speaking and what is being presented or embodied.
Durham took a break from making art from 1973–1980 to work as an activist with AIM (American Indian Movement), but he ultimately came back to art making. Perhaps this is because art, as a non-linear, felt, corporeal mode of apprehending the world, posits a different form of knowing against the logic and rationality that is privileged by Western culture. Art encourages knowledge that is embodied, based on looking and listening instead of ratiocinating. A deep engagement with a work of art requires being fully present in one’s body and senses, and allowing thoughts generated by the artwork to come from this place of deep perception.
In many ways, this kind of engagement is akin to ritual. A primary form of the transmission of knowledge in many cultures, ritual requires being present for a multi-sensory experience that occurs at a specific time and place. Rituals are dynamic events that reinforce connection between the participants, the objects used in the ritual, the environment where it takes place, and the bodies of knowledge that the ritual affirms. Both art viewing and art making have aspects of the ritualistic that are not always acknowledged in art discourse.
Durham’s works are rituals in that they are concerned with the energetic transactions that take place during the making. He brings the viewer into his process not only with the physical resonance of his materials, but by also inscribing the voices that inform his many identities: a polyglot, a Native American, an activist, a peripatetic traveller, a poet and voracious reader, and an acute observer of history. Durham’s assemblages make space for this kind of multiplicity, and the different forms of knowledge that are engendered when we inhabit our contradictions.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 8.