Brian Jungen: A Deeper Well

by Jody Farrell

Shapeshifter, 2000, plastic chairs. Installation view. Courtesy of Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver.That Brian Jungen (pronounced Yung-un) is shy becomes clear the more (the less) he talks. He pauses before he speaks, and speaks softly. His words are carefully chosen: if he finds he’s getting ahead of himself, he stops and starts again. Every now and again, he briefly dips his head as if to consult some deeper well. Then with quiet, perhaps reluctant resolve, he raises it to part with what he’s retrieved from the source.”I actually chose the visual arts because I am a shy person,” Jungen confides. “I thought I could hide behind what I made… At first, when I had to give talks, I wouldn’t sleep for days… It has been hard.” He smiles. Shyly. He later allows that with all the opening receptions and gatherings he’s attended in recent years, he has come to enjoy speaking, though he would never lecture on a regular basis.

1980, 2007, golf bags, cardboard tube Courtesy of Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver. Photo: Scott MasseyWe are in my home in Grande Prairie. This famous Vancouver-based artist who spent his childhood in the B.C. Peace region has generously agreed to take time out of a hard-won holiday to be interviewed. It happened quickly – he was here only briefly to grab a few things before heading back to his family near Fort St. John – and in my own awe and excitement, I’m having trouble just letting him talk. Or not. I’ve read too much and have too many questions, and it’s difficult to sift through it all and be coherent.

Jungen is, if not the, then one of the most celebrated Canadian artists of the new millennium. Those keeping track of the contemporary art scene will have read about or seen his collection of aboriginal ceremonial masks made from reconstructed Nike Air Jordans. The pages of print that collection alone has engendered, the layers of meaning and connections drawn between such opposites as the dissolution of aboriginal rituals and the ongoing ritualization and fetishism of sports and its gear, is mind-boggling. Critics and curators employ every manner of artspeak in describing his genius: Jungen’s careful linking of the sports and aboriginal cultures in reassembling Nike footwear with as little alteration as possible. The Air Jordan’s red, black and white colours’ evocation of Northwest Coast Aboriginal art. How the back of the masks, with some still-attached “Made in” tags, link the artist to workers in the Third World where the shoes were produced. How, in displaying Nike masks in museum-like cases, Jungen recalls the state-of-the-art displays of running gear he discovered in the U.S. shoe emporium Niketown. How those shoe stores in turn mimic museums in rendering their product an artwork. How museums, in their conservative and dusty treatment of what was once a very live tradition, have reduced Aboriginal ceremonial wear and culture to something old and dead. These articles point to other famous artists, architects, and literary theorists whose work and words inform Jungen’s art. The double meanings, the intellectual layers, the myriad of “tensions,” have your brain bouncing back and forth so fast it leaves you dizzy. Jungen’s Vancouver dealer, Catriona Jeffries, offers an artist bibliography online that, downloaded, totals 13 pages, with articles in several languages detailing various exhibitions across Canada, the US and Europe. And it only dates back to 2000.

“I am not really into talking art,” Jungen confesses somewhere in the middle of our conversation. “I find it boring to talk about what I have already done.”

Brian Jungen. Photo courtesy of Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, BC.The revelation has me tuck questions about his older works away in my notebook. Still, I can’t help but mention my favourite, a series of whale and sea creature skeletons made from those familiar white plastic Canadian Tire chairs. The whales, like the masks, evoke many “tensions,” and have been reviewed extensively. I love that he took such an ungreen material – these chairs will live forever – to fashion a museum-like skeleton of a nearly-extinct mammal, embodying along the way a wide range of references to aboriginal mythology and lifestyle, its decay, and its reduction to that hands-off, museum-style exhibition.

He graciously offers that the skeleton idea was almost too obvious as he considered the chairs, which, when piled outside a restaurant, stood looking very much like stacked bones. In toying with other potential creations, he kept returning to the notion of disassembling and reconfiguring the chairs into a museum-like replica of a skeleton. I know by the mounds of articles I have pored over that he’s explained these things all too often. The initial idea and its many related themes, followed by a sometimes slow and deliberate investigation of resources, references, materials and the eventual resolution of it all, is what keeps him interested.

“Those connections can happen all at once, and you get so excited that you work 16 hour days. I get that maybe 10 per cent of the time,” Jungen concedes. The rest of the time he spends seeking inspiration.

Installation view, The Evening Redness in the West. 2006. Mixed media. Courtesy of Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York. Photo: Adam Reich.He gets more animated as he recalls preparing for a 2006 show in New York. Prior to that installation, created on site, he’d discovered “these big, overstuffed chairs you could plug into your home entertainment system. There’s a motor in them that responds to the sub-woofer channel…” I’m trying hard to keep writing as he joyfully describes how these crazy chairs move to the music and movie sounds. I imagine a hilarious scene with a person happily plunked down in front of his super-sized television and stereo, physically jerking around like that dog you plug into your iPod. With some difficulty, he purchased two of these over-the-top chairs and proceeded to take them apart right there in New York’s Casey Kaplan Gallery. In the three weeks preceding his show, he built two western saddles and stands. The special motors from the chairs were attached to the saddles and wired to a home theatre/stereo system. He added eight handmade human “skulls” that he created using old baseballs he and his dog had found in an overgrown park in Vancouver. Some of the balls had writing on them, and he constructed the skulls keeping most of the baseball features. He wired mini speakers into these skulls. The installation, with its mounted saddles and skulls bumped and bounced and moved to a surround sound system that pumped out at top volume the music and words of big budget films. Jungen chose the sounds of movies that represent the flag-waving American consciousnness, including Unforgiven, Saving Private Ryan, and Platoon. Critics and visitors loved it.

Study for The Evening Redness in the West, 2006, softballs. Courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York. Photo: Bob Goedewaagen.Jungen still creates in his studio but finds it “way more exciting” to explore an environment and its particular culture, making art using objects that refer to that place and its people. His courage and determination in pursuing on-location installations has created a demand for this approach from galleries around the world. He has been invited to Sydney Australia’s Biennale in 2008, with the understanding that he will research and produce a public artwork that somehow relates to that region’s culture.

His success is not only critical. While public galleries have clamoured to purchase his art, Jungen is awed at the interest among private collectors. One patron bought a 6,000 square foot installation Jungen had mounted in Harlem, New York. The exhibition was in a converted factory where he joined 300 old sewing tables and painted a basketball court on their surface. The collector is erecting his own building to house the work. The irony of it all is staggering. Interest in personally owning such big works reflects some of the very “commodification” of culture that Jungen addresses in his art. Still, it has allowed him to continue exploring new ideas which often demand space and materials he could not otherwise afford. His job is to stay the course of the artist. He is now able to employ two assistants in his Vancouver studio, where work is anything but dull. “I phone one day and say, ‘find out everything you can about golfbags,”’ Jungen laughs. It helps too, to have help handling the sometimes repetitive work of disassembling the various sports gear he favours using.
Lately, Jungen has been researching suits of armour, fascinated by how different cultures protected themselves. In particular, he’s intrigued with the historical battle gear worn by the Japanese. “It was angular, and made with cloth and leather. Very different and delicate,” he says. But for these few precious weeks in July, he has returned to his roots. His late mother was Dane-zaa, his late father, Swiss. He likes “hanging out with family, eating caribou and elk and canoeing on the Doig River.” He notes with pride that the young children are keen to “do art,” and he enjoys the drumming and dancing.

To questions around why his works evoke the Northwest Coastal peoples’ culture and not the Doig River First Nation’s, Jungen says that British Columbia, by filling its airport and museum walls with the coastal nations’ art and ceremonial attire, has created a sort of “branding” of all Aboriginal traditions, pulling them all under one roof, and rendering them dead in this tired and formal representation. This feeding the public a specific culture is one message he addresses in his art. He also hints that, like everyone, everywhere, his family has suffered dark times. Those are not what fuel his bouts of creative inspiration. He doesn’t look to the sadness for answers. Who would, he asks.

“I am often asked why I don’t speak the (Doig River First Nation) language. I’ll be in Europe, and they will ask me that, and I think: ‘You took it away, and now you want me to be able to speak it? My art is more about what people see in their everyday environment, not my immediate family. I look out at the world.”


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