Funny peculiar: When is a totem pole not a totem pole? When it's part of an exhibition by artist and Cherokee, Jimmie Durham. Nick Curtis explains

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The Independent Culture
Jimmie Durham is Cherokee and an artist, but he's not a Cherokee artist. His work in sculpture, drawing and on video in a new exhibition at the ICA is enigmatic and playful and denies preconceptions. Draw attention to the totem pole in the middle of the gallery and he will deny it is a totem pole. 'All I was thinking about was flagpoles with birds on top,' he says, before creasing his preternaturally solemn face into a grin.

The reply may be disingenuous, but it's difficult to tell. Some of Durham's artworks clearly echo his Indian heritage, while others display a magpie quality. You sense him collecting materials, ideas and influences as he goes along. The totem bears the slogan 'Choose any three' and a long, eclectic list of names including legends of the old West (Sitting Bull and Belle Starr), contemporary icons (Malcom X and WC Fields) and western European artists (Duchamp and countless others).

There are garishly painted skulls and bones. The exhibition opens with a sign proclaiming 'Veracity' and closes with a similar icon marked 'Voracity'. Where the ICA normally features a video of the artist talking about his work, there is a short film by Durham detailing his flippant search for the prehistoric coelacanth fish. 'I'm not very good at being a talking head,' he says.

It's a witty collection of work with earnest implications. Durham describes himself as 'very silly with bursts of seriousness', and he's not kidding. The search for the coelocanth is very funny but also 'an absurdist metaphor for the silly pervasiveness of imperialism'. He was amused to find that the coelacanth was rediscovered in East London, South Africa, and builds a narrative around this, exploring the obsessive need of empire builders to recreate their heritage: New York, New England, New Hampshire. As he says, 'When I was young, I used to take a train from Moscow to Palestine. In Texas.'

Some of his work may be political, but it's not polemical. 'Italo Calvino says that when you're approaching something heavy, like life or death, you have to be light about it.' That said, his light-hearted work is designed to be intellectual, challenging. 'What I dislike about most art today is that most of it is not necessary, because it can be described.' In person Durham is refreshingly straightforward. The press release for his exhibition describes him as a stand-up comedian as well as an essayist and activist. 'I've never done stand-up comedy as a job,' he deadpans, 'but I have done some work which people have mistaken for stand-up comedy.'

He says that in the Seventies it was impossible not to become politicised as an Indian, but nowadays his activism takes the form of essays for magazines. Otherwise his work speaks - albeit obliquely and wryly - for itself. For his last exhibition - an installation in Belgium - Durham's works were 'as ambiguous as I could make them'. Where, then, are his ambiguousness and his cultural and formal eclecticism leading him? 'I'm just trying to be smart.'

'Original Re-Runs', ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (071-930 3647); 12noon-7pm daily, Tues until 9pm. Jimmie Durham discusses his work, 7.30pm tonight, ICA

(Photographs omitted)