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Yet what's changed for Miller is his point of view: "My understanding of the European perspective on the US became much more concrete." What he's referring to is the war on Iraq, when the politics and policies of the Bush Administration were called into question in many European countries. This doubt in America has led to an enduring sense of insecurity. This can also be seen among the younger generation: David Krippendorff, an Italian American artist, first studied painting in Berlin in 1989 and then moved to New York for five years in hopes of finding better conditions for an artistic career. Now he'd like to return to Berlin as soon as possible because he senses a flatness on every level. "You live in America like you were living in a cocoon," Krippendorff remarked, who takes images from popular Hollywood films such as "The Wizard of Oz" or "Gilda" and assembles them together in paintings and videos to create disturbing memory loops on war, emigration, and violence. "You repress the fact that the global conflicts are still going on. After the 11th of September, there was a brief moment when the Americans stopped to think about their position. But that moment is over with."

David Krippendorff: Mistake #1 2004
©David Krippendorff

Durham sees the problem similarly: being American also means critically investigating this identity. In response to the question as to how he sees his connection from a distance, he hesitates for a moment and then explains his situation with an image: "It's the same with origin as it is with family ties - you're born into a family, even if you go out of each other's way later on. What am I supposed to feel for America? First there was the invasion of my country, when the Indians were nearly exterminated; later, it was mostly workers who came to America to make money, with little interest in the country's cultural development. This is what made America sick, and it's remained so to this day: everything is based on commercial and economic thinking."

David Krippendorff: Videostill aus Running away from Home, 2000
Courtesy Laura Mars Grp.

Durham's art has not remained untouched by this stalwart efficiency thinking. It's no accident that he left New York, where he lived in the early eighties, at exactly the point in time when the city was experiencing a tremendous art market boom in new Post-Expressionist painting. Yet Durham's works didn't really fit into this fast-paced business with large formats and colorful gestures, and they still don't. Instead of producing pretty sculptures or paintings for the gallery, he preferred to create Fluxus-like conceptual games, works made from found objects, and text pieces. A sign hangs in his studio portraying an ax next to a sharpened stone, topped off by a short story of Durham's in which he compares the Stone Age to the Bronze Age and concludes with an ironic observation: as proof of its special quality, the ax is handmade, just as in prehistoric times. For Durham, this type of nostalgia concerning hand tools is odd - aren't we living in post-industrial times?

David Krippendorff, © David Krippendorff
Foto: Matthias Reichelt

In talking with Durham, one notices again and again that he likes this kind of paradox and contradiction. When he pours concrete over a computer at the museum's cash register for an exhibition, then the action is also a gesture aimed at the globalized uniformity of mega-shows and biennials and the cultural desert that ensues from this. Another time, Durham demolished a refrigerator with heavy stones in order to demonstrate the conflict between civilization and nature. Yet he's not concerned with a return to some kind of original state. Durham's interventions and objects also parody the expectations that many curators, critics, and museum people confront him with: "Apparently, as an Indian, people expect a certain exoticism, being different. People have their set ideas about how we live, even if they only know us from Hollywood films or Karl May."

In Berlin, on the other hand, Durham - a Coltrane and classical music fan - is currently working on a stage design for an opera by the composer Hans Zender, scheduled to premiere in the spring. The story is about an Indian leader who was murdered in the past century. But he's thinking of moving to Rome to get to know a new city after seven years. "That's the advantage of Europe," Durham explains about his moving plans, "the exchange between countries works well here. In the US, I can move to Chicago, New York, and then maybe two or three other cities if I'm interested in culture. In Europe, I can find new contacts everywhere. Soon I'll be traveling to Kirkenes in Norway to meet representatives of the Samic minority. That's what I like about Berlin, there are always artists from other places around the world that you can talk to. This kind of openness doesn't exist in America - at the very most in New York, maybe, but a lot has changed there since September 11."

Jimmie Durham in his studio, 2005
©Jimmie Durham

Although he often thinks about America, Durham is far more what used to be called a world citizen. When he recalls the globetrotters of former times, Alexander von Humboldt comes to mind, whose outlook and sense of curiosity he admires. He sees himself similarly, as a wandering anthropologist recording the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of local cultures: "Sometimes what I'd really like to do is make dioramas portraying Europe. Then there'd be a showcase with a Catholic priest giving a child Christ's body to eat - that would be a really strange scene." When he mentions examples like this, a little of the political wit in Durham's works sparkles through. Maybe Berlin really is the right place for this kind of humor: a melting pot, as New York still was 20 or 30 years ago. "Or like Alexandria," Durham adds after a brief pause, not without a mischievous smile.

Translation: Andrea Scrima

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