Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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Jimmie Durham’s History of Heat

Jimmie Durham has spent his artistic career insulting Europeans; or, more accurately, pointing out how insulting the rise of Euro-American culture has been to its own values of equality, restraint and world beautification. As he gets older he needs fewer and fewer pieces of visual information to recapitulate the contradictory relationship the West has with its own image.

In his Documenta 13 installation, Durham has placed two vitrines in an empty greenhouse. Beneath the glass roof and polyurethane walls insulating the shelter, we find no plants or signs of gardening – only a sparse room generating a stifling heat from the sun above a planked wooden floor.

The vitrine on the left tells the history of Europe through a host of pathetic details, including the bones of a colonizing Neanderthal found somewhere in present-day Georgia and a struggle to create proper sanitation that lasted two thousand years.

To the right, the second vitrine holds two tools emblematic of their era: a stone-age blade made of rock and a rifle bullet from World War II corroded by battery acid.

What does the combination of miserable heat, Europe’s sad story and pair of out-of-date weapons add up to?

Any number of things.

Clearly, one subtext is that the West has had a good time ruining the world while making it better; but that doesn’t mean the imperialists have outlived their original, atavistic heritage just yet. Technology often merely gives an empire a means to realize destructive desires with enhanced speed, represented by the items on display. This “speed,” as a lived condition, has for the last one hundred years been defined by petroleum-powered machines and weapons.

Jimmie Durham, ‘History of Europe’

Jimmie Durham, ‘History of Europe’, left vitrine

Jimmie Durham, ‘History of Europe’, left vitrine

It may be that the oppressive heat in the room is an oblique comment on global warming – a direct result of our global car culture. Surely, the petrol industry provides one link between the emergent history of globalization and the weaponization of the planet. Is this what links the copper alloy bullet eaten by ( car ) battery acid to the ancient artifact mercilessly dulled by the eons of erosion that have passed since some desperate caveman flayed his dinner with this rock? I don’t know. But the heat trapped within this greenhouse on the edge of the Baroque Karlsaue Park did not become any less unbearably hot as I stood next to my fellow Europeans peering into the truncated history Durham offered up.