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The wit and wisdom of Jimmie Durham, poet, sculptor and rolling stone

Show at the Serpentine in London is all about living in Europe—but he can’t shake off his Native American roots

With his southern drawl and Cherokee blood, the poet, writer, political activist and artist Jimmie Durham is as American as you can get. He is known for his involvement in the Native American and US civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s, but this survey show at London’s Serpentine Gallery is an attempt at “moving away from an understanding of his work from a Native American stance”, says its curator, Amira Gad. Various Items and Complaints, Durham’s first exhibition in a UK institution since he moved to Europe in 1994, is a celebration of this quintessentially US artist having become a European.

At the entrance of the show is Arc de Triomphe for Personal Use (London Version) (2015), a wooden structure in the shape of an airport-security metal detector. It is a way of “framing this concept that we have of Europe”, Gad says, and the “increasing security” we deploy to protect these concepts. Durham, as both an outsider and an insider, tries to pick away at what Europe is and what Europeans make it out to be. His “seminal” work, The History of Europe (2012), looks at its “violent history”, Gad says. Durham’s text, contained in a vitrine, describes Europe as a “fat-looking peninsular protrusion on the west end of the continent of Eurasia”. But the seriousness of the text—accompanied by another vitrine displaying a 30,000-year-old stone-cutting tool and a bullet from 1941—is undermined in characteristic manner by the artist’s description of the bullet, which “was never used because someone spilled car-battery acid on it”.

Durham’s use of language is key to the show. “He’s a witty artist,” Gad says, and his wry sense of humour seems to creep into even the most—on the face of it—serious works. In When Maria Thereza left I sat and cried… (1991), the artist details his misery over being left by his partner. Even in the depths of despair, Durham cannot resist making an aside: “I just made that part up so you would think I am a serious artist.”

Durham often adapts works, makes additions or changes titles for new shows, Gad says. Steel, Air and Stone (1972-2012), for example, has been reworked since it was created but has not been exhibited since the 1990s.

The artist’s most recent work, Songs of My Childhood (Part One: Songs to Get Rid Of, Part Two: Songs to Keep) (2015), underlines the fact that it is impossible for Durham to get away from his US roots, even though the show is largely about his relationship with Europe. In the two-channel video, Durham sings a capella, providing “a soundtrack for the exhibition; the sound will bleed throughout the space”, Gad says. It is difficult not to hear longing for the 75-year-old’s homeland in the songs. “Today has been a lonesome day, and tomorrow looks like it’ll be the same old way,” he sings, at times reminiscent of the late Johnny Cash, before he finishes, coughs and says, “that’s all”.

• Jimmie Durham: Various Items and Complaints, Serpentine Gallery, until 8 November