Piles of Interesting Trash: Jimmie Durham and the Monuments

As I was soaking up the last day of the Wexner Center’s wonderful Blues for Smoke exhibition today, I finally had a moment to pay closer attention to one of the works that had intrigued me in previous, rushed visits: Jimmie Durham’s The Caliban Codex. 

Jimmie Durham Caliban’s Mask, 1992

In a sequence of diary (or as he spells it ‘dairy’) entries, Durham imagines the noble savage of Shakespeare’s The Tempest writing to ‘Dr. Prospero’ about his ambivalent gratitude to his civilizing mentor and his struggles to make an adequate self-portrait (the accompanying work, Caliban’s Mask) as a gift. (He explains how it is his nose that is giving him the most trouble). While this work was made by Durham in 1992 to ‘celebrate’ the 500 year anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, three years later, Durham was invited to mark another anniversary with his work: the foundation of Rome. His tribute to the Eternal City is no less playful and ambivalent than that to the birth of the New World. For this work, Durham created what he dubbed as ‘a large interesting pile of trash’ on a hill, overlooking Rome (you can make out the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the photo below).

Jimmie Durham Public Monument for the Birthday of Rome, 1995 (Photo by Claudio di Carlo).

While I cannot be sure of the precise location of the sculpture, from the photo it looks like it could be on the Pincian Hill, which was not one of the seven, but which due to being the location of several famous ancient Roman horti or gardens, was known as the Collis Hortulorum or ‘Hill of Gardens’. It may also have been on these slopes that the ashes of the Emperor Nero were scattered, carried in the robe of his mistress, Claudia Acte. In addition to this site-specific Roman monument, Durham also made a ‘miniature pile of interesting garbage’ in a studio in Brussels which was used for photographed for the accompanying catalogue – a maquette of the site-specific sculpture.

Jimmie Durham Maquette for Public Monument for the Birthday of Rome, 1995.

Here is what Durham says about these works in the recent catalogue Jimmie Durham: A Matter of Life and Death and Singing (2012, p. 96):

So many poets have written that poetry “comes” to them. Happily, that happens to me with sculptures also. In 1995 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev invited me to participate in a group event to celebrate the founding of Rome. For no reason I know about I decided to make a large interesting pile of trash. Carolyn needed a maquette for the catalog (or a drawing, which I can seldom do). I had no studio in Brussels but Maria Thereza had rented a space which I was able to borrow. The result is a miniature pile of interesting garbage that pleased me much. Carolyn still has it. The actual trash pile I made in Rome was so interesting that we needed a security guard to keep local peoplefrom taking parts they needed.

I feel like these two sculptures – both the large one on-site in Rome, prey to the small thefts of the Roman locals, and the smaller one, staged and shot in a borrowed studio in Brussels – go some way to explaining a key feature of this blog, Minus Plato. All the work that you find here is part of my on-going exploration of modern and contemporary art, some I encounter in person (as the the Durham Caliban works at the Wexner), which trigger further forays, and some I discover in catalogues and online. In each case, in whatever way these works ‘come’ to me, as with Durham’s Rome Monuments, what is essential for me is that the ensuing posts that I write communicate what makes these works of art interesting (cf. Donald Judd’s well-known criterion of judgment), especially to a Classicist who is open to new and exciting ways to expand our understanding of ancient cultures. Minus Plato is not only a diary of my own musings and explorations as a Classicist immersed in world of contemporary art, but also a monument to the creative processes of contemporary artists who in some way or another (Durham’s ‘for no reason I know about’) stumble across the ruins of antiquity and incorporate fragments of these uniquely interesting encounters into their works.

I want to wish you, my readers of Minus Plato, a Happy New Year, and to thank you all for reading my posts so far and with the hope that you will continue to read and find interesting those I post in 2014 and beyond!

For more about Jimmie Durham, go here.

3 thoughts on “Piles of Interesting Trash: Jimmie Durham and the Monuments

  1. Claudio Di carlo

    Interessante! Io sono l’autore della foto del cumulo d’immondizia con sfondo San Pietro, fui il suo assistente per 3o4 giorni assieme ad un altro artista… la memoria non mi assiste. Grazie

  2. Pingback: While Rome Burns: Jimmie Durham’s The True Story of How Cuban Communists Gained Control of Trump Tower – Minus Plato

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