BY Sean Cubitt in Frieze | 06 SEP 94
Featured in
Issue 18

A Certain Lack of Coherence: Writings on Art and Cultural Politics

Jimmie Durham, Kala Press

BY Sean Cubitt in Frieze | 06 SEP 94

Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham will be familiar to London readers for his exhibitions at the ICA and Matt's gallery. At 54, he is already ten years older than the average North American Indian. A Certain Lack of Coherence collects 20 years of artistic and activist writings from this key figure in contemporary North American art and major player in the American Indian Movement and International Indian Treaty Council.

In 50 articles, reviews, polemics and poems, Durham attacks the bases of the US nation-state, its cowboys'n'indians foundation myths, its commercialisation of Indian wisdom, and the very impossibility of speaking about the Indian experience in English. For a people so massively colonised, victims of an ongoing genocide, art is no luxury. It is the necessarily tricky, duplicitous practice of the Coyote, revealing over and over again the ignorance of power and celebrating its own escapades and escapes.

On the impossibility of speaking on behalf of others and of translating between languages Durham is explicit. His keen awareness of the political struggles over semantics is a key issue in his visual art, and ensures him incisive gifts as a writer. He is aphoristic, witty, satiric. At the heart of the book is the complex, sometimes wilful, sometimes accidental failure of the Europeans to understand the symbolic universe of the people they met in North America. It has been argued that a crucial reason for the genocidal attack on the 'Indians' (a name that Durham both criticises and picks up as a weapon against oppression) was that their systems of co-operative economics and symbolic exchange resisted and undermined the capitalism of the invaders. Both his artworks and his writings often circulate around the figure of the gift, and the misunderstanding of giving. These gifts are always ambiguously barbed, as if a simple exchange were no longer possible after the history of misreadings and mistakings that have dogged the dealings of whites and Native Americans.

Durham reserves a particular venom for those who, in the spirit of the New Age, seek to identify Indianness with some magical ecological wisdom. Stealing first the land, and then the spirit of 'the Indian' by caricaturing him as wise man, is but the obverse of a stereotype of 'the Indian' as drunken savage. A third aspect of this concatenation of stereotypes is of 'the Indian' as victim - a presumption which is so deeply rooted that no show is considered complete, or completely authentic, without a statement of the extreme condition of oppression. We could say that the USA is permanently scarred by its rounding act of mass murder, but it is a scar that is worn in so deeply, its origins are lost, or remembered only with a slight embarrassment, horribly akin to nostalgia for youthful excesses. Genocide, like slavery, has become history, as immutable as the landscape and as far beyond judgement. Only for Durham, history is not a map of the past but a living experience of struggle, fought over in law courts and in representations.

These stories and arguments, ironically but necessarily expressed in the colonial language, and spoken to artists and sympathisers rather than to the Indian population, are by turns droll, sardonic, wise, scathing, vicious, and some other things that I don't think there are words for. In fact the absence of words for American things is a constant theme of these writings: 'Tear down old Jersey and build a new one there' he demands. One thinks of Carlos Williams' unsettled settlers, naming a bird resembling a thrush, 'robin', to help them feel more at home. None of the words fit the Indian world, anthropologised in the language of 'chiefs', 'squaws' and 'tribes'.

Durham's writings, like his artworks, unsettle the settlements of Europe as much as they do the principle of reservations. They concern the improper pretence to universality of Western ideas, whether of art, of life, of the environment, of spirituality, politics or interpretation. His short piece on artists' housing on the Lower East Side of New York is a model of how to think about similar issues in urban life around the world. With a strange mix of passion and calm, of history, memory and observation that illuminates his art practice and the cultural politics of North American Indians and the North American state, he challenges the assumption of centrality, identity and universality that also infects European - and especially English - thinking, about art, about culture, about ourselves. Moreover, A Certain Lack of Coherence is better written than any art book I've read in years.