A pair of Nikes haphazardly dumped in a friend's pickup truck. Stacks of plastic chairs chained together outside a restaurant. These mundane objects hardly seem worthy of a second thought, but they provided inspiration for Vancouver artist Brian Jungen's most lauded creations-Prototype for New Understanding, a series of 23 aboriginal masks fashioned from the omnipresent footwear, and Shapeshifter, one of three gigantic 'whale skeletons' that hang from gallery ceilings as if they were floating in a transparent sea.
When you're peering at the masks, it's easy to imagine the indignant scoffing of a 13-year-old boy who's taken aback by the mutilated Air Jordan sneakers that form the wide-open beak, upright ears, and oblong head. Which is just the way Jungen would want it. Whether he is slicing and dicing trainers or chopping and reforming the ubiquitous white chairs into a mammoth sea creature, the 36-year-old artist and descendant of British Columbia's First Nations (Canada's term for its earliest inhabitants) has an affinity for forcing people to reinterpret everyday objects and the context in which they view art. 'I want to change the role of the gallery and how people interact in galleries,' Jungen told C Magazine (Spring 2006).
It's a lofty goal-but it's also intrinsic to Jungen's designs. By turning household objects into gallery-worthy sculptures, Jungen is dismantling societal norms and creating a parallel universe where the mundane is exalted and pretentious museums are welcoming. Museums, in turn, are welcoming Jungen: The Vancouver Art Gallery recently mounted the first large-scale survey of his work, bringing together all of the Prototype for New Understanding masks and all three whale skeletons for the first time.
His recent reinterpretations of mass-produced commodities strike out against sporting goods. In last year's Talking Sticks series, Jungen carved 'Collective Unconscious' and 'Work to Rule' into the smooth shafts of wooden baseball bats. Each letter merges into the next, until the messages are nearly illegible. Close inspection reveals that the result is strikingly similar to a totem pole, with curves of text forming the eyes and brows of abstract faces.
Jungen's new The Evening Redness in the West #1 also uses sports equipment to take a swing at consumer society. Softballs contorted into skulls interplay with speakers and saddles shaped from pieces of vibrating leather chairs. The tanned animal hides add more than just rich texture. When Jungen was growing up, members of his family equated leather furniture with affluence, and the piece is ultimately a reaction to their relationship with luxury goods.
Much of Jungen's work deals directly with his Native background, though he didn't specifically set out down that path as an art student in the late '80s and early '90s. 'A lot of people were expecting me to make work about my identity because I was aboriginal,' Jungen explains in an online video interview posted at CyberMuse. Yet 'it was really kind of puzzling for me to interpret . . . my identity in that respect.'
So Jungen and his cohorts took to the fluorescent-lit interiors of shopping malls to solicit common perceptions of what Native art is, uncovering stereotypes that inspired Jungen to explore his cultural background.
A historical thread continues to wind its way through Jungen's projects. 'My new work is very much about my personal history and origins,' he says in an interview with the Tate Modern's Jessica Morgan, who curated an exhibition of Jungen's art that was displayed at the London gallery this summer.
Now Jungen is playing with the idea of turning a 19th-century treaty between his band of the Dunne-za Nation and the British Crown into a mixed media piece-or making soccer balls from beaver felt. Which suggests that Jungen's future is most likely to be found through his past-as a welcome addition to the present.