BY Dan Fox in Features | 04 APR 03
Featured in
Issue 74

Like a Rolling Stone

Sam Durant

BY Dan Fox in Features | 04 APR 03

Sam Durant's work is self-effacing. It never talks about itself, and it enquires only of others. Like arriving late for a drink in the pub, I try to find a point at which to join in the conversation. A friend puts on an LP in the background: 'Check the record, check the record, check the guy's track record, check the record, check the guy's rock record', sings Mark E. Smith on The Fall's clattering Big New Prinz (1988). I decide to take Smith's advice and check the records, the registered historical facts. With the lifetime of rock and soul music in Durant's work, records seem as good a place as any to enter the conversation. But on joining in, I discover that here music is ultrasound - bouncing off people and places in order to traverse social histories. The audience is just an echo chamber reverberating his core ideas. All there is to see of the artist himself is a blur. The wooden, plastic, paper, fibreglass, glue and pencil manifestations of his thoughts are what lie in the wake of a quicksilver messenger who takes history out of the past and into the present.

Like all histories, Durant's work is essentially a rolling dialogue between then and now. But if we're talking conversations, the dizzying vortices of elastic interconnected-ness Durant creates are more like the cosmic epiphanies of the 4 a.m. stoned conversation than the careful parries of academic debate. Like some renegade historian let loose in the library after dark, he weaves a lattice connecting the faded glories of Modernism with the tarnished moments of rock music, and dredges the idealism of civil rights era protest for its darker undercurrents. If you try to describe the referential nature of Durant's work, however, you sound like a hippy overcome by some discovery of universal karma.

Start with Upside Down and Backwards/Completely Unburied (1999). The Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter' (1969) swaggers arrogantly from speakers surrounding a model of Robert Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed (1970). Smithson's work was commissioned for the Kent State University campus, Ohio, in 1970. Four months after it was built a student was killed by National Guardsmen during anti-Vietnam protests, and the sculpture retroactively became a monument, of sorts, to the killing. One year earlier three people died at the Stones' notorious Altamont festival in California, sounding the death knell for 1960s idealism, as the cliché goes. Neil Young wrote 'Ohio' (1970) as a tribute to the Kent State massacre. Which takes us to Reflected Upside Down and Backwards (1999), in which two models of Smithson's woodshed are stacked one on top of the other. The model on the floor is clean and untouched, but its twin is burnt and charred. Nestled in the lower model are two CD players connected to four surrounding speakers arranged to face inwards towards the models. They emit a cacophonous blast of music but if you carefully pick apart the tangled strands of sound, you can hear Neil Young's 'Hey, Hey, My, My, Out of the Blue' (1978) and Nirvana's 'All Apologies' (1993). Kurt Cobain quoted Young's line 'It's better to burn out than to fade away' in his suicide note. Another line from the song, 'There's more to the picture/than meets the eye', clues us in to the idea that Durant's work lies elsewhere, amid the layers of our collective social memory, rather than in the objects themselves. A whole set of Durant drawings, such as a detourned diagram from Rosalind Krauss's famous essay 'Sculpture in the Expanded Field' (1979), pulls the Stones, Smithson and Cobain together in order to stain hermetic histories of Modernism with the influences of popular culture and protest.

Proposal for Monument at Altamont Raceway, Tracy, CA (1999) in turn connects the Stones to the disillusionment of 1960s idealism but also links their dubious appropriation of black culture to Proposal for Monument, Friendship Park, Jacksonville, FL (2000-1). Here allusions to the racial conflicts of the Deep South enmesh themselves within the references to lynchings and black popular music that appear more explicitly in Upside Down/Pastoral Scene (2002). With its roots reaching into both earth and sky, and speakers playing music ranging from Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' (1938) to Public Enemy's 'Fear of a Black Planet' (1990), Upside Down/Pastoral Scene presents us with mirrors and trees, bringing us back to reflecting on Smithson again, perhaps the one figure at the root of Durant's system. Earlier this year that system stretched its tendrils into Europe with the work Echoplex Joseph Beuys Ideas/Crash, Fat, Felt, Amerika, Politics, Recovery, Monument (2003), which invoked another charismatic artist concerned with the political potential and social responsibilities of art. Speaking of which, go back to Proposal for Monument, Friendship Park, Jacksonville, FL, and you'll find Durant referencing the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, a figure whose life thread connects Constantin Brancusi, Martha Graham, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Moses and Louis Kahn. You'll also find that the genre of 1970s Southern Rock touched on in the piece (Friendship Park was where bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd used to jam together) can be linked to 'Southern Man' (1970), a song by Neil Young. In this referential helter-skelter your head spins like Spiral Jetty - connections sink and surface in rapid succession. 'My memory', as Smithson wrote, 'becomes a wilderness of elsewheres.' 1

Criticism is a zone of elsewheres - light flaring off the myriad surfaces a work presents us for contemplation. Perhaps Durant's practice is a truly critical one, but critical in the way Stuart Morgan suggested: a world of 'half-truths', instances in which you experience 'some sudden awareness of a pattern which was previously only intuited, a flash of similarity between what is inside and what is out'. 2 You see a piece of work and, like it or not, your history begins to map itself out on to the object of its own accord. You may understand what that Frank Stella abstract is supposed to mean, but you sure as hell can't shake off the fact that it reminds you of a nasty curtain fabric at your parents home in the 1970s.

Like returning to reread an old book, you could say viewing Durant's feedback systems is an almost entropic experience. Smithson described entropy as a 'sand box divided in half, with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise; but the result will not be a restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness ...'. The processes that construct our lives are irreversible. Objects grow meaning like stones gather moss. They have no autonomy. Untangling one Durant piece from another becomes impossible. The world is just, as the title of one drawing named after another Smithson work suggests, 'a heap of language' (Heap of Language/Soul on Ice 2001).

Reading a language, however, begs questions of literacy and legibility. Do we have here a matrix of literate reference points in danger of referencing itself out of the picture? Aren't there only so many times you can fold something in on itself before it implodes? The egotistical display of knowledge inherent in the sloppy artist's hip allusions is absent from Durant's practice. The planes of reference he stacks like a house of cards are made mutually dependent in order to spark wild tangential connections off each other. His work generates levels of association at the speed of light. It isn't just about someone else's idea of entropy, it is entropic itself. It's work made from the inside out. A set of posters that form part of Proposal for Monument in Friendship Park, Jacksonville, FL makes this explicit. 'Free Sunday Jam with Isamu Noguchi Ideas', declares one statement in front of a rainbow haze. It goes on to quote Noguchi: 'Every rock gains enormous weight, and that is why the whole garden may be said to be a sculpture whose roots are joined way below.' Ideas are jammed with the awareness that one melody or rhythm cannot always be understood without the support of another.

Like the protest culture he speaks of, Durant's work is polyphonic. Multiple voices testify to how the times they are a-changing. The perception of American culture by the rest of the world has altered since the 1960s, since the heady days of civil rights sit-ins and anti-war love-ins. Not that US culture is some easily graspable discrete concept - going back to Smith- son's analogy, its grains are as much a part of the sands of the 'old world' as the 'old world's' are of its.

The Stones strut their way around the woodshed and Jagger wails 'war, children, it's just a shot away, it's just a kiss away'. Durant understands history is nothing but people. People are the problem. People are the solution.

1. Robert Smithson, 'A Cinematic Atopia', 1971, in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1996, p. 138.
2. Stuart Morgan, 'Homage to the Half-Truth', 1991, in What the Butler Saw, ed. Ian Hunt, Durian Publications, London, 1996, p. 234.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).