ESSAYS Mousse 42

Is This Interesting?

by Jimmie Durham


Is wood really a sentimental material? The art market has often dictated the substances with which artists should or should not work, and the interests they ought to address. Jimmie Durham has developed an artistic relationship with wood over decades, and he is ready to demonstrate just how noble and powerful the material can be, beyond any pre-set notions and constraints of a commercial nature. The tale starts at the dawn of time, moving on to the appearance of the first trees and their mammal companions, the Age of Trees and the Age of Humans. Since then great evergreen Sequoias, pistachio trees with multicolored fruit, hardy olive trees, Jacarandas offering diamond-hard wood, have all colonized the earth. Durham, arriving from his native America, has encountered an amazing variety of species over the years in Europe as well. The following story is a narrative in steps marked by European trees and those of other lands, described with a literary clarity that calls forth the aroma of their wood.


Back in the early days amphibians were the first vertebrate animals to live on land. Long before reptiles and dinosaurs existed, amphibians—that is, salamander and frog-like animals—developed over millions of years.

During that amount of time of course they became many varied species—and they became large. There were several species of the size and shape of wolves. Salamander wolves. That hunted salamander sheep, I suppose.

OK, maybe they got big, and strange (but frogs and salamanders really are strange anyway: did you know that most kinds of salamanders have neither lungs nor gills?) because they were the only ones around. Then again, maybe not; soon (in terms of millions of years) dinosaurs developed. As the amphibians retreated into history the dinosaurs began to get larger. Why? What might be the principal involved?

When the dinosaurs died out, mammals began to get larger. And during the Age of Mammals there were giant ground sloths, super-giant bears, wolves, boars, mammoths, a giant porcupine.

During the Age of Dinosaurs, for most of the time, there were not yet any real trees, just giant ferns, palm trees and some intricate grasses. Honey bees and butterflies were stupid drab little things who wouldn’t know a flower if they saw one. (Flowers and bees invented each other.)

During the Age of Mammals trees began to come into their own time. In North America there are two kinds of trees that are the largest in the world and also the largest that ever existed. These are the California Redwood, or Sequoia, which is the tallest tree in the world, and the Ahuahuete of Mexico, the largest in girth.

The number and variety of existing trees are astounding. This era should clearly be the Age of Trees. It would certainly be that, were it not so obviously the Age of Humans. Of course we can see that the general physicalities of the earth have made us continually more human—every other animal knows that we can throw rocks, and strictly human ability has given us math, computing and, indirectly, music.

But it is the trees that have most directly and complexly contributed to our development. We say we learned to use fire. We learned to burn wood—for heat, light, cooking and destroying each other’s homes, which were usually made of wood. We used these wood fires to extract and heat metals, with which we could stab each other and cut down trees.

Really, just try to look at the ways we have depended on wood and upon trees. In Nevada, Shoshone Indians depend upon pine nuts as a staple, and I myself more or less depend on walnuts. When I was growing up we ate pecans, black walnuts, and our “national dish” is made of hickory nuts and maize.

Nut trees, by the way, evolved directly from ferns. This was discovered, and is most visible, by comparing a Gingko tree and its nuts to the kind of fern called “Maidenhair.” We eat many nut-like things that are really the seeds of fruiting trees, of course, such as almonds, cashews, pistachios. Did you ever see a pistachio tree? The female tree looks really nothing like the male tree, and has a beautiful multicolored fruit that is good to eat. The same is true for cashews, except in their case the nut, or seed, grows outside the fruit, and forms before the fruit does.

In Naples I have a small olive tree, and this year I harvested and cured a few handfuls of olives. This is one of the mysteries of human beings: the use of olives and olive oil. I’ve heard that there is an olive tree on Crete that is 6000 years old, still bearing fruit.

But the use of olives and of olive oil is mysterious. The processes of making olives edible and of pressing the seeds for oil are complex and tedious—how could they have developed? It’s not like picking nuts from trees, where the oil is easily accessible. It takes work, time, and special presses. Still, it has been the real center of Mediterranean sustenance for thousands of years.

In 2012 Maurizio Morra Greco gave me two very large olive tree trunks which I used in Naples, in a show that he sponsored. It is difficult wood to use for sculpture; the results always remind us of salad bowls. It is a noble wood, hard and tough. In Apulia and other parts of Italy there are many trees over a thousand years old, and they have been planted over vast amounts of land; so much so that other wood for daily cooking fires was not available. People would use the dried centers of the old olive trees as firewood.

Now in parts of Italy, Spain, perhaps Greece and Portugal, young olive trees are planted plantation style, and in seven years they bear fruit. At that point they are machine-harvested and destroyed in the process. A new crop of trees is planted and the harvesting moves on to the next field.

Why should we care? They are just plants—like giant celery. Except we do care, don’t we? We have ideas of proper and improper ways of acting on earth.

When I began working with this Italian olive wood, a friend asked if I could go to Palestine and think of a project with the ancient olive trees the State of Israel is destroying so relentlessly and implacably, as a way to erase Palestinian identity. But what a stupid old form of punishment! By that method, one punishes oneself as well. One punishes the earth; what a strange concept. Anyway, I could not go.

The show in Naples was not really my first work with wood in Europe. When I came to Belgium from Mexico in 1994, the first two pieces I made were of wood: the first was a simple pole, a tree sapling that had been cut by the city in the local park. It became a pole to mark the center of the world in Brussels. The other was similar found wood mixed with construction lumber. It was an “Arch de Triumph for Personal Use.” In neither case was there anything like a celebration of wood, though. My favorite material has been stone since returning to Europe (and in the early 1970s I made some small pieces in Geneva, in serpentine and black granite, which I still like).

A change in my work happened with a show in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago. The Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves and I have been partners for thirty-five years, but I had been to Brazil only once before and not with her. Then we went together because we were both in the São Paulo Biennial. We stayed five months, in São Paulo and Ubatuba where her family is, Rio and Pernambuco. At the flea market in São Paulo I found a massive block of rosewood (Jacaranda) not a log but a squared block; that means that the outside part was trimmed away. It is about a hundred and twenty centimeters high, by maybe seventy-five or eighty wide and sixty deep. Magnificent. It was like finding a giant diamond for me. I have carved small pieces of this incredible wood since the sixties, but did not know it could be so big.

It had been cut at least a hundred years before, probably much more, and for no known purpose or use. Must have been only the scrap end of some truly impressive beam. When I said that it was like finding a giant diamond, I was just trying to describe the intense feeling I had. The piece of wood is like a holy relic. More. There are no such trees in Brazil anymore, and hardly any Jacaranda at all. They have all become fancy chairs and desks in Vienna and Boston.

The entire Atlantic coast forest of Brazil has been more than decimated, and the Amazon and inland forests are being rapidly cleared of trees. In warehouses of salvaged lumber, old beams and furniture parts all over Brazil, one finds beautiful old hardwood pieces, often of woods that are no longer easily identifiable, or from kinds of trees that no longer exist.

I decided that the show in Rio would be made of old wood, and that each piece would try to talk; that is, I would give each one a text—not about its history or predicament, but about something unexpected.

My studio was in an old factory in Santo Cristo, and every day I worked on these beautiful relics. Every day I got sicker. I had skin rashes, my eyes swelled up, I had trouble breathing. It turns out that most of the South American hardwoods are poisonous to work with.

After that show I began to work more with wood in Europe. An area of Italy southeast of Rome called Molise has forested hills with walnut, chestnut, oak, olive and apple wood. It is a poor, sparsely populated area which I’ve been visiting for the past three summers. Deirdre MacKenna, who lives part-time in Filignano there, gave me a large old walnut tree that had died. We decided to start an annual workshop with local wood, using vacant facilities and machinery from defunct woodworking shops and inviting artists from around Europe.

Then last summer Maria Thereza Alves and I were invited to Sila, in Calabria, to judge a show of students’ wood sculptures. The person in charge was an artist from Naples, Rosaria Iazzetta, a most excellent person, constantly active in valuable work with different communities and students. She, other teachers at the Academy of Fine Art of Catanzaro, and Mario Talarico, the instigator of the show, had also invited the architect Eugenio Giliberti, Raffaella Spagna and Andrea Caretto. He is an artist trained in geology, and he told me about the various stones we saw on walks. It seems an amazing group to me. People with their feet solidly on the ground—the only basis for intellectuality.

One of Maria Thereza’s sculpture teachers at the Cooper Union Art Academy in New York (not Hans Haacke, the other teacher) told her that it was not possible to sculpt in wood. “Wood is too sentimental,” she said. What a sentimental idea! Especially in the early 1980s when there was so much sentimental metal sculpture around.

In the 1980s and 1990s an artist could not admit to having thought beyond the silly little confines of the art market’s frame, much less about ecology or the state of the environment. That has stayed especially true in my case because the art public “knows” that an “Indian” artist makes work about “nature.”

Here I must interrupt my rambling thoughts to say that I have been making things from wood practically all the time I’ve lived in Europe. I had a residency at the Calder Studio in France and worked exclusively with local wood and with a great beech trunk from Strasbourg.

I do not know the reason for my lapsed memory but I know why I’ve been doing so much work in wood; the situation is similar to that in Brazil. There is such incredible wood in Europe.

It is part of all the European languages that oak is a noble wood, and that the oak tree is true. But there are so many noble woods here. Acacia, used for fence posts, is hard and beautiful. Of the hardwoods, beech of course, that old workhorse, walnut, cherry, apple, plum, lemon, hawthorn, laurel, holly. Each with such different and beautiful characteristics that make it difficult to do art with them. But the same is true of pigments, yet many people have been able to employ Neapolitan yellow and burnt Sienna to make paintings that are not exactly sentimental.

When I have time I will write a book about European trees and the lore about them: hazelnuts for All Hallow’s Eve, the powerful woman who lives in a giant yew tree, and much else.


Originally published on Mousse 42 (February-March 2014)


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