Essay in Art Handler: Jimmie Durham @ Haus Wittgenstein

(Read at Art Handler online)

During a three-year stint writing reviews for Art in America, I was asked more than once by my editors to devote added attention to the language being circulated about the exhibitions I was enlisted to cover. It was a request for better accounting on my part. Curatorial statements, press releases, wall labels and magazine reviews help account for a work; and when certainty about the alleged meaning of art is widely accessible, so becomes the capacity to assess its selling price. The result of all this seems to be an enforced split between the object in its ostensible mystery and the linguistic account in its ostensible transparency. The opposition conceals that words, too, are mysterious; that the work they do is more than simply saying what this or that thing is, assigning it a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wanted to cure the West of its notion that words are signs designated to simply say what this or that thing is. For, the assumption that words should function as efficiently as this puts the object world to work under exploitative labor conditions to which it hasn’t agreed. Take for instance, the rock. Wittgenstein gave the following example of the work we ask rocks do for us:

A is building with building stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. A calls them out; B brings the stone which he has learned to bring at such and such a call.1

If the basic function of language were a constative one—to invoke J.L. Austin’s term—this would mean that the purpose of speech and writing would be to domesticate the world for our use. Alternatively, Wittgenstein illuminated for us the intrinsic performativity of language: we understand words primarily because they are accompanied by acts; saying is acting in an environment and writing is thinking in response to one. The site-specific liveliness of words can’t be sifted out; meanings get lost when signs are pulled from their native contexts for the purpose of easy circulation. The activity of thinking with and in an environment is inextricable from the language that seals that relation just like the impact of a painting is embedded in its concreteness, its materials. The constative word is like a promotional photograph of an unfinished work in the artist’s studio, passed off as the work’s equivalent. “Slab,” “beam” and “stone” are only after-images of an intellectual-somatic encounter with the hard edges of a material fact.

In the following excerpt from his essay “The Libertine and the Stone Guest,” the artist Jimmie Durham gives his own rendering—replacing the building stones with wood—of Wittgenstein’s parable:

Wittgenstein imagined “primitive” languages, wherein Herr A would say to B, “plank,” and it would mean, “Please bring me a plank of pine wood or I will fire you.” Surely, though, the stuff of language is not objects but actions. Language begins not with names but with desires. Language is made of verbs. Adam was not naming animals in the Garden of Eden, he was walking around, observing them, speaking to them, instructing: “Eve, run! A bear is coming!” Herr A would have said, instead of “plank,” “bring.” B could then know by previous experience or by the action of a pointed finger that the boss wanted a plank. The question, “What does the boss want?” really means, “What must I do to keep my job?”2


Durham is an American expat living in Brussels who formerly served on the central council of the American Indian Movement. His works of poetry, prose, drawing, sculpture, performance and installation are equally allergic to the utopian illusion that signification is a simple operation with a readily identifiable object world as its outcome. In 1996 he did a show at the Finland museum of contemporary art where he brought in a truckload of fist-sized rocks and spread them around the building; in the exhibition rooms, the lecture hall, the offices, the bathrooms, and even the sidewalk outside and the street. The idea was that the stones would make it so that the different areas like the reception desk and offices wouldn’t look, in his words, “so serious and separate”.3For, the impulse to separate—to departmentalize—is a characteristically colonial one. There is a particular conception of outside that Durham imports into the gallery with his stones. Having crossed the Atlantic from the eastern United States to settle in “Eurasia”—his own term indicating the “strange ambiguity” of the European continent4—Durham insists that space itself will never cease to be wild, despite mercantile attempts to carve it up into proprietary parcels. The stone is not a symbol but an emissary from, say, the Hiidenvuori cliffs or the Ozark mountains. Its assignment is to smooth out space—to neutralize the jagged “architexture”5 of the museum—so that demarcations between the ticketing counter, administrative office, stockroom and galleries are softened and distributed, leveled to approximate something closer to stuff.


It’s no accident that Durham did an extension of the stone project later in a Vienna house designed by Wittgenstein. The show came with an accompanying book written by the artist, which was dedicated as follows:

…to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his beautiful house in Vienna, and to Robert Musil of Vienna and Prague. And Schönberg, which I imagine means “pretty mountain,” or “pretty stone,” and must be the same as Monteverdi if a “green mountain” means a “pretty mountain.” And to Heisenberg and to Einstein. What kind of a stein is a Wittgenstein?6


Durham’s statement here indicates the characteristic wildness of proper names, and by extension, the wildness of words at all. Another thing the dedication does is it sketches a kind of etymological family tree between early 20th century German and Austrian intellectuals, all of whom happened to ultimately face repression of some sort with the advent of the great wars.

But repression of the intellect is a commonplace and the micro-management of space is an easy way to legislate such repression. Consider the following photograph taken of the Calais refugee camp in the north of France, otherwise known as “The Jungle”:


Beginning in February of 2016, the French government began attempts to relocate its inhabitants from their homemade shelters, which you can see in the foreground of the image. The new facility is composed of converted storage containers, as pictured in the background. The inhabitants of the tent city say they prefer not to move because in the new complex there is no common space and because they will be required to enter their family names into a database in order to be allowed to live there. They’re afraid that once they’re named and identified in this way, it will limit where they’re able to go in their new lives, which they are hoping to begin soon. Now look at the man in the middle of the image. He’s standing in something like a clearing, let’s call it the commons, right in the middle of the alleged disorder of the camp. The various tents and improvised shelters carry no names or addresses, and it’s hard to tell where one dwelling ends and the next begins, so in some sense the whole place is a commons. The commons is where new paths and dwellings are thought of, named and talked about. People talk, and the jabber of their voices in conversation competes with the construction noise. But with the new facility and its registry of names, that commingling of families in the open air is now suppressed by the rule of the proper noun.


The word “family” figured significantly in Wittgenstein’s work and life. He had four sisters and four brothers. Three of his brothers committed suicide. One of his brothers, Paul, was a famous one-armed pianist. Perhaps when the defining members of a given family are both multitudinous and evanescent, it’s hard to be sure anymore what the word family means. Which brings us to one of the main points of Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations: the terrain of meaning that any word calls its own is always—necessarily and definitely—both multitudinous and evanescent. There is really no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence between word and thing. A word is as wild as a rock, a branch or a tree. It sends out spores, such that its identity is only stable for a second, before it is multiplied into a million variations. This is the word’s family. Its members are related to each other by a kind of loose resemblance according to which is it possible for a term to find more affinity with its analog in some other language than it has with a blood-related cognate.

Jimmie Durham objected to the ruling that indigenous Americans had to officially enroll with a tribe. When questioned about his Cherokee heritage, he is quick to point out that the injunction to police the boundaries of one’s tribal identity is only an expression of the penchant for enclosure that European settlers brought with them to the Americas. In his essay “Maybe I Will Do Nothing Visible in Yakutia,” he tells the following story:

I was in Paris speaking with the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. He said that American Indians originated in China. I replied that since that happened so many thousands of years ago, there was no China at the time. He said, “who were we then, I wonder?” I said, “You were Cherokees.”7

The terrain of a word’s meaning—its national territory—always butts up against other bodies. Sometimes the distinction becomes difficult to see. Perhaps I am as consanguine with my reading audience as one insight offered in speech is from the one that follows it. But what happens when I settle into a given role in my present linguistic community? What if the words that occur to me are only those words already associated with the duties of my position as a writer or reader, teacher or student, gallerist or artist, supervisor or shift worker, sergeant, private or prisoner-of-war? Recall Durham’s modification of the scene Wittgenstein imagines between the worker and his boss: The question, “What does the boss want?” really means, “What must I do to keep my job?” That language should be exact is a value which is forcibly agreed to under the whip. It helps the exchange transpire quickly and easily toward the profit of he who decides what words should mean. Ideally in speech there is consanguinity and consensus, but the bloodless relation between he who says “listen” and he who answers “yes I will” sanctions the ruling that language is meant for the sole purpose of legislating administrative categories, and not at all for family resemblance, let alone love.

We are desperately far from each other.

“Are you with me on this?”

But of course it is impossible to know, because even though members of a family resemble one another, there is nothing more separate from me than my neighbor’s unspoken experience of her own mind. How alienated I feel. But if I am whisked away from this discomforting responsibility of belonging to a species, only then can I luxuriate in the assurance that I am speaking rightly. Because the consonant music of easy communication is fascism’s ultimate promise. It says that the architecture of successful speech must be airtight. Right speech is enclosed in a form that is given and God knows who gives it. The form sustains one like water to a fish. And if someone throws a rock in it we might begin again the work of attending to our differences.

  1. 1

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1973), p.3.

  2. 2

    Jimmie Durham, “The Libertine and The Stone Guest,” in Waiting to Be Interrupted (Antwerp: Mousse Publishing, 2014), p.90.

  3. 3

    Jimmie Durham, “Between the Furniture and The Building,” in Waiting to Be Interrupted (Antwerp: Mousse Publishing, 2014), p.153.

  4. 4

    Jimmie Durham, “Eurasia,” in Waiting to Be Interrupted (Antwerp: Mousse Publishing, 2014), p.222.

  5. 5

    This term appears from time to time in Durham’s writings.

  6. 6

    Jimmie Durham, “The Libertine and The Stone Guest,” in Waiting to Be Interrupted (Antwerp: Mousse Publishing, 2014), p.73.

  7. 7

    Jimmie Durham, “Maybe I Will Do Nothing Visible in Yakutia,” in Waiting to Be Interrupted (Antwerp: Mousse Publishing, 2014), pp.57-58.


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