Treading New Ground

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.

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