There is an Indigenous American belief that some stones are people who turned into stone and may one day turn back. California charmstones and Oregon henwas were once free-living spirits that transformed “when Crow laughed at them.” Evidently, these stones can move around all by themselves. The Chumash people of coastal California describe certain stones as people who turned into stone, and the Navajo see some large stone formations, like Rainbow Bridge, as ‘holy people’ who entered our world and got caught in our materiality. Standing Rock, Inyan Woslata, is historically a woman who turned to stone while waiting for her Dakota tribe to return to her. There are also examples in Australia and New Zealand where stones grow and procreate. In Melanesian societies, ethnographers have recorded examples of stones believed to walk around, dance, light fires, transmit and cure diseases, speak, procreate, and kill. In Japan, this ancient idea that stones are alive and can grow is expressed in their national anthem and arguably in their rock gardens.
Unenrolled Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham evokes this Indigenous belief with his rock sculptures.
A stone sits on a sweater in Durham’s Himmel und Erde müssen vergehen (2000), on a car in Alpine Substance on Wolfsburg Construction (2007), and a large stone is grinning happily on top of a sunken boat in The Second Particle Wave Theory (2005). Stones and boulders are symbols for the more-than-human landscape, for gods and chthonic spirits, but also for indigeneity.
Durham often destroys objects in order to make art.
When Durham throws or drops stones onto things, he is essentially doing what any traditional sculptor does — chipping away to give specific form to an existing mass. Durham lets his materials do the bulk of the sculpting for him.
Throwing stones is a primitive technology, what philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls “lithotechnics,” but it also suggests desperation, employed when one has little else for self-defense against hostility or indifference. There are Biblical connections, too, where casting stones is an act of judgment, punishment, and execution. In war-torn places like Palestine, throwing stones has become a defining act of identity. Some ancient battle stones, or “war stones,” are apparently very smooth and intensely rewarding to handle.
Durham is smashing the institutional authority of museums and the hypnotizing effect of mass media when he throws rocks into glass cases and into televisions. I am reminded of the beginning of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, where the unfocused television fuzz is suddenly destroyed by a primitive ax.
“A Stone Rejected by the Builder.” There is a story in the Bible of a stone that was rejected by the builder because it didn’t seem to fit anywhere, but at the end of the project, the rejected stone turns out to be the final capstone or keystone — the piece that finishes, protects, but also can destroy the entire structure.
Stones are everywhere, but they usually don’t stand out, especially not as art objects. “Well, you have to help stones”, says Durham, “they don’t work on their own”. The artist takes it upon himself to present these stones in various ways, modify them, dress them up, label them so that they can become works of art, (while also maintaining their primal identity as stones).
“When I paint a silly, nondescript face on stone-as-nature I want to give our mother her true face. Nature does not care. If there be gods they are not witnessed as caring. It does not follow as a moral, this next statement, but is my personal note in case you think I am cynical: It is we who must care, and develop more intellect.” Ensouling the stone ensouls the human.
When a found rock can become a sculpture just because an artist paints some eyes on it, we have to return to the question, What is sculpture?
Rosalind Krauss says traditional sculpture generally follows the internal logic of a monument: vertical, figurative, and on a pedestal. “By virtue of this logic a sculpture is a commemorative representation.” These rocks don’t look human, but they are anthropomorphized, are “commemorative,” and their pedestals are cars, airplanes, sweaters, and other symbols of industrial life. In a sense, Durham’s stones are trying to be human. They want to sleep in a bed, fly in an airplane, sit on a chair or in a car, wear a mask.
Conversely, humans sometimes become stones. Or at least try to be. Rosemary Joyce, in Bodies Moving in Space: Ancient Mesoamerican Human Sculpture and Embodiment, points out how stones that are carved to look human play an incredibly important role in determining human behavior. Both the free-standing and architecturally reinforced human effigies reinforced class, dictated human movement, regulated social and private behaviors, and inspired bodily displays. We see life imitating art imitating life imitating art…a feedback loop between sculpture and identity, between material ‘artworks’ and immaterial ‘culture.’ According to Joyce, even today most people have the experience of evaluating themselves in light of these permanent ideals. And it’s not just the shape of the stone or its accouterment and posture that communicate these ideals — the hardness and rockiness of the stone itself present ideals before it is carved into anything else. The stone, as a stone, already means something. Joyce concludes: “We need theories of personhood in which the person may have many parts, not all of them unique, not all of them bounded by the skin.”
If we want to appreciate these rocks as sculpture, we should know about the history of Dada, anti-art, surrealism, decolonial aesthetics, and the importance of giving a rock hard middle finger to the establishment. These works facilitate interruptions in our conventional attitudes and ideas about art. You may find these “rejected stones” to be quite an empowering image of indigeneity over coloniality, of nature over culture, and of the power of the natural world to destroy anything man-made. We can relax for a moment — let go, and let Rock.
Rocks are generally perceived as inert and lifeless, but in Jimmie Durham’s artwork it’s easy to see that stones are agents, have active power, meaning, and to some extent, accountability.