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Animals Like Us – Looking At Jimmie Durham’s Musk Ox

We posed noted Swedish-born curator Magnus af Petersens the question; If you would put pen to paper for us about one specific artwork that made a strong and lasting impression on you in recent time; which would you then arrive at?

Jimmie Durham, Musk Ox, 2017,musk ox skull, Murano glass, wood, steel scaffolding, diverse textile

(cotton, leather, wool), 328 x 123 x 190 cm. Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York. Photo: Nick Ash

Musk Ox, by Jimmie Durham, is a life-size sculpture representing the animal. Made up of construction-site scaffolding; iron tubes with joints for a skeleton, a structure then covered by a heap of clothes, bed covers, quilts and rugs that form the large, hunch back-like body of the animal. The skull of the musk ox, hanging a little low under the back, has only one horn and the lower jaw has been replaced by a wooden prosthesis. The beast with the thin legs and bulky body looks awkward; both impressive and sad, like a ragged but dignified outcast. Of course, it is always easy to project human qualities onto animals and representations of animals.

First shown in Zurich and later at the Venice Biennale, Musk Ox is part of a group of sculptures by Jimmie Durham, representing the largest mammals that, like the artist, have their habitat in Europe. Each sculpture has the real skull of an animal, but their bodies are made up of various other material; wood, steel, glass, textile but also slick industrial materials, like brightly coloured plastic and wire. Parts are recognizable as furniture, they could be considered assemblages, or as the artist describes them; “illegal combinations with rejected objects”.

Durham’s choice of animals, the ones that share his continent, and the way he constructs them with objects from human civilization, makes it difficult to separate nature from culture. In Europe, the most densely populated continent, humans have either pushed out, exterminated or domesticated other species. Durham has incorporated animal skulls in sculptural objects for many years, but his work seems to have gained a renewed relevance in the last couple of years (which perhaps contributed to being awarded the Golden Lion for life-time achievement at the last Venice Biennale). Durham also showed some animal sculptures at Fondazione Morra Greco in Naples last summer.

Jimmie Durham, The Beneficial Catastrophe of Art, Fondazione Morra Greco, Napoli, 2019, © Maurizio Esposito (Courtesy Fondazione Morra Greco)

There have been many group shows thematising animals in the last couple of year. Also, Animal studies have become an increasingly important field, drawing interest from art, philosophy and interdisciplinary post-humanist and new materialist theories. For centuries it has been of marginal interest to western thinking. Other animals have mainly been something we define humans against. To think of humans as primates, as one species of animal among many, is a paradigmatic shift that is difficult to comprehend the consequences of. Giorgio Agamben points out that Carl von Linné, the founder of modern scientific taxonomy, argued that from a biological point of view, there is very little difference between human and primates; “In a note to Systema naturae he dismisses the Cartesian theory that conceived of animals as if they automata mechanica with the vexed statement “surely Descartes never saw an ape’”[1]

Each of Durham’s motley animal assemblages, some with their skulls painted in bright colours, is so individual and unique that they are not as easy to see as merely metaphors or representatives for a whole species. This signals a kind of respect for the animal as a subject, something that all anthropocentric versions of the animal-human distinction lacks. From the hollow sockets in its skull Musk Ox looks back at us.

Magnus af Petersens is an independent curator and writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously held positions including Director of Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm, Senior Curator and Head of Collections at Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Chief Curator at Whitechapel Gallery in London. In 2011, he curated the The Nordic Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale.

[1] Agamben, G, The Open. Man and Animal, Stanford, California, 2004. S. 23

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