A poor 1992 Chrysler Spirit, crushed by a nine-ton volcanic boulder, sits in front of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
A new acquisition, Jimmie Durham’s “Still Life With Spirit and Xitle,” suddenly appeared last month where Alexander Calder’s sculpture “Two Discs” had been, in front of the main entrance on Independence Avenue SW. It quickly attracted the curious attention of the summer tourist and selfie crowd.
Born in Arkansas in 1940, Durham, who is also a poet, essayist and teacher, has been living and working outside the United States for more than a quarter-century. Next year he’ll have his first North American retrospective at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles that will also travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and New York’s Whitney Museum.
We tracked Durham down in his home of Naples, Italy, to discuss the red-basalt-heavy “Still Life With Spirit and Xitle,” which takes part of its name from the volcano that created the boulder but destroyed the ancient city of Cuicuilco around A.D. 245. The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: How did “Still Life with Spirit and Xitle” come to be?
A: It came about in Mexico. Because a collector friend wanted a stone on a car. I had done it in Sydney, Australia, for the Biennale, and he liked it and wanted one in Mexico.
Q: What was the origin of the first one, then?
A: I had been doing things with stones since I first came to Europe in ’94. And I wanted to use stone as a tool rather than stone as the object or something to work on. I first threw stones at a refrigerator and changed the shape of it. This was in a Venice Biennale a while back. One thing led to another.
Q: It looks like it would be fun to smash objects with a big rock.
A: They are great fun, yeah. They are.
Q: What are the logistics involved, from choosing the right model of car to finding the right boulder from an archaeological site to drop on the car?
A: The rock is often quite easy. But the car — it was the most famous car in Mexico at the time. It was used by the narcos on both sides — the officers and the pushers — because it’s a very fast and tough car. The Mexicans say it was the best car on the road in those days — the fastest one and the most rugged. So it was symbolic for strange things in Mexico.
As for the stone itself, when you say an archaeological site — Mexico as a whole is an archaeological site, practically. We just went into a wilderness south of Mexico City and it was just full of volcanic rock everywhere around. When I did it in Sydney, I had to go to a quarry and find a beautiful piece of marble with pink and blue streaks in it. They were going to cut it up for countertops and bathrooms.
Q: Do the boulders have to hit the car a certain way to have their effect? I imagine it would be quite different if it slipped and hit the front hood, for example.
A: It’s very exact. I wish I could do it as a performance where you drop a stone onto a car. But you cannot do that, because it might very well just bounce off. It might just glance it and hit you instead. It might do anything. So it has to be lowered very carefully and, just at the last few minutes, it has to be placed just right, lowered down more slowly, to the last moments, and then easily put down so that it will break the car and smash it there.
Q: What do you want people to take away from this when they see it, so surprisingly, on the Mall?
A: I think it’s hard to imagine what you want people to see in any kind of artwork. You want them to experience it, and you expect their experience will be very individualistic and maybe not at all what you intend. My intention was just to change a man-made object with a stone. That to me was very pure.
Q: Drawing a face on the rock seems to change the tone of the piece for me.
A: It does for me, too. I want the stone to be a little bit personified as representing nature in a certain way. Not totally, but in a certain way. Natural disasters are always so normal to nature. Nature doesn’t care about us one way or another. We could all die and nature wouldn’t notice, maybe. Or it would notice, but it wouldn’t care.
Q: What’s it like to come to a part in your life where you are getting retrospective shows, awards and recognition?
A: I never expected anything like that to happen. I left New York for Mexico in ’87 and still showed in New York. I got my first gallery in ’92, and it was not a good gallery, and I didn’t start making a good living at art until 10 years ago, when I was past 65 already. You know as an artist not to expect things. And when they do happen, it’s something quite beautiful.
Still Life With Spirit And Xitle, a long-term installation by Jimmie Durham, went on display Aug. 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 700 Independence Ave. SW. Free. 202-633-0126 or hirshhorn.si.edu.