A man in a suit sits at a desk. People walk up to him bearing gifts. As the offerings – a bottle of water, a bag of peanuts, a basil plant – are placed before him, the man picks up a big rock and, with as much force as he can muster, smashes them to bits, scraping the debris on to the floor. For their trouble, his visitors get a receipt, stamped and cursorily signed.
The man (or is he The Man?) is Jimmie Durham. The work is his mesmerising video ‘Smashing’ (2004). It’s the last and by far the best thing you’ll see in this exhibition by the seventysomething Arkansas-born, Berlin-based artist, writer and poet (in fact it’s one of the best things you’ll see in London this summer). Displayed on the ground floor are brightly coloured oil barrels and pipes, animal bones and skeletons (plastic replicas, we’re told) also sprayed with or mired in pukish puddles of pearlescent paint, along with various car bumpers, wing mirrors and headlights. A first-floor gallery features large sheets of white paper bearing smudgy impressions of animal forms. On closer inspection, these turn out to be cuddly toys, which the artist covered with soot and lobbed at the walls to create a kind of Disney Store cave art – spectral, sweet and sad.
Those familiar with Durham’s issue-driven art will instantly recognise the themes of creation and violence, along with the references to the artist’s Cherokee heritage. He’s railing against ecological and cultural damage inflicted in the name of progress, the way indigenous cultures are displaced, infantilised, rendered as cartoons. It reaches its apogee in his savage, absurdist masterpiece ‘Smashing’ yet every single work here seethes with infectious, righteous ire.