Museum Classic: 1992 Chrysler Spirit – Do Not Let Your Spirit Be Crushed

Still Life With Spirit And Xitle - Jimmie Durham

Many bad things may happen to us as individuals over the course of our lives, but most of them would pale in comparison to losing hope.  In my forty-plus years, I can look back at times when it had felt like all of my metaphorical cylinders were firing in harmony.  I have had great employment and corresponding pay, meaningful relationships with people I care about, a solid feeling of family and where I come from, and a sense of self-love and worth that permeated my endeavors and interactions.  Conversely, there have been times of great, simultaneous disharmony in many aspects of my life when it seemed like even temporary relief from my swirling thoughts and negative feelings could come only in turning off the hurt and certain parts of my brain in the bottom of a pint glass on weekends.  Many of us have been in a similar dark place at some point, coping in our own ways.  Tomorrow, I will celebrate one year of total sobriety.

Adversity, by itself, doesn’t necessarily have to have the power to unmoor us from a solid foundation.  In this final, full week of Black History Month, I think about my African American predecessors who never lost hope in their pursuit and fight for the ideals of racial freedom and equality that I enjoy today.  Bad things are going to happen to you in this life, no matter who you are, so making friends with that reality is a good idea.  Sometimes, though, it can take a combination of awful, individual happenings – whether personally, to you, or collectively, to a group to which you belong – to make you ask, “Why?” or “Why me?”  It is both possible and necessary to go through bad times and persevere instead of giving up, acting out, and/or self-destructing.  This can be difficult or next to impossible, though, once you have lost hope.

Still Life With Spirit And Xitle - Jimmie Durham

Looking back at the previous calendar year (which I am being very careful not to invoke), it was palpable from what I read in the news and in my social media feeds that many had experienced a loss of optimism that better times were ahead and could be possible.  With a new year solidly underway, and with the lessons I’ve learned so far during the current pandemic, things are looking up.  In fact, with all of the new mask-wearing and handwashing protocols established since COVID arrived on the scene, I have recently realized that last year was the very first of my adult life (and perhaps of my entire existence) that I didn’t get sick once.  I consider myself a healthy adult, but I will usually catch a cold at least once or twice in a normal twelve-month period.  In a broad sense, there is something to be said for a little extra cleanliness and precaution.

I was back in the Washington, D.C. area visiting my older brother and his family when I spotted the featured car-themed exhibit.  We Chicagoans do not lack for regular access to world-class art and museums, but I am always hungry to nurture, feed, and challenge my creative side.  When the suggestion was made to take a field trip to the National Mall for the afternoon to absorb some culture, my hand shot up in agreement.  I had been to a couple of the Smithsonian museums before, but the one that always seems to draw me back repeatedly is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which focuses on modern and contemporary art.  The building, itself, is a beautiful piece of modernist architecture originally constructed in 1974.

Still Life With Spirit And Xitle - Jimmie Durham

After a fun and peaceful hour or so at the museum (which is about the maximum amount of time that kids can handle at a place like this), I saw something outside the exit doors facing Independence Avenue that prompted me to dart outside ahead of everybody to see it.  There was a destroyed 1992 Chrysler Spirit (these models were Dodges in the United States, but Chryslers elsewhere) with a large rock of some sort crushing its cabin.  Of course, I realized that this was probably a deliberate work, but I was still confused, as it was outside the museum building and exposed to the elements.  (Could this have been an act of terrorism?, I thought for a split second.)  With traffic passing behind it on Independence Avenue serving as a contrasting backdrop, this messed up Chrysler sat there looking sad, dejected, and unloved.

1992 Dodge Spirit print ad, as sourced from the internet

Still Life With Spirit and Xitle was a very literal and visual metaphor for a crushed spirit, and such a bleak representation of what happens when something that was never really celebrated to begin with is no longer valued.  I liked the related Dodge Spirit, Plymouth Acclaim, and Chrysler LeBaron sedans well enough when they arrived for model year 1989 when I was in high school.  They were not beautiful cars by any stretch, but they seemed like attractive-enough, modern upgrades over the K-Cars they replaced.  They were still K-derived, though, with boxy, utilitarian styling that seemed vaguely in the idiom of the concurrent Honda Accord, the benchmark for that segment.

The Dodge Spirit R/T arrived for 1991 with its turbocharged, 2.2L four-cylinder engine with 224 horsepower.  It was capable of going from 0-60 mph in under seven seconds and was even named Motor Trend’s “Domestic Sport Sedan Of The Year” for both ’91 and ’92, beating out the celebrated Ford Taurus SHO for those honors.  Aside from that, though, the AA-platform cars from Chrysler Corporation were just… there.  The Spirit sold well enough, with over 460,000 sold (in both Dodge and Chrysler variants built between 1989 and final-year 1994) in all markets.  Not earthshaking, but not shabby, at all.

Still Life With Spirit And Xitle - Jimmie Durham

The artist behind this sculpture is American expatriate Jimmie Durham, who was born in Washington, Arkansas in 1940.  There is much to be read about him online, and I have included some links to external reading about him and this work at the bottom of this essay.  I was able to identify the model year of the donor Spirit only after having read about this piece, and the rock on top of it is a nine-ton red basalt boulder meant to symbolize a volcanic rock from the Mexican volcano Xitle, a name which means “spirit” – another tie-in with the car itself.  The smiley face painted on this rock was not an act of graffiti, but intentional.

There may be individuals who may smile, either secretly or in your face, when you fail at something.  Such is life.  In a way, I think this Chrysler Spirit ultimately had the last laugh, having been born as just another example of a capable-if-forgettable domestic sedan, but later sitting outside a prestigious art museum in the United States capital city, being written about almost thirty years after rolling off the assembly line and close to fourteen years after being sacrificed in the name of art.  It may appear as a mess of broken glass and crumpled metal, but the spirit of this particular Spirit hardly seems crushed, as it’s being reexamined right now, as you read this.  Beauty may be found even amidst the ugly, and take it from me that no bad situation has to last forever.  It often starts with making different choices, but don’t ever let your own spirit be crushed.

Washington, D.C.
Saturday, November 26, 2016.
Thanksgiving Week.

Click on the following links for related reading on Jimmie Durham and Still Life with Spirit and Xitle.

Click here for William Stopford’s excellent precis on the Dodge Spirit.