Brian Jungen hails from Fort St. John, a small city of fewer than 20,000 people located in the northeastern part of British Columbia. The only prairie land in the province, the area was once host to the oldest Paleo-Indian civilizations in Canada— records date their occupation back more than 10,500 years—and it remains home to the Athapaskan-speaking Dunne-za people today. It’s a rough town. The bars overflow when oilrig workers are on break from their northern camps, and the subtle tension that exists between the Native and non-Native populations has reached a boiling point on more than a few occasions.
The landscape, however, is breathtaking. Most of the locals call it God’s Country, and it’s easy to see why. This region, specifically the area near the Doig River Indian Reserve about an hour north of the town, has influenced Jungen’s work in a number of ways. Working near the reserve one summer creating “cutlines,” the long narrow swaths in the bush used for seismic lines and hydro poles, Jungen was struck by the impact this act had on the land. It would have resembled a clear-cut, albeit on a minor scale, with tree stumps, branches, roots left in its wake.
It is often the extreme re-working of an object or situation that enables us to see things differently, and Jungen’s sculptures frequently re-work disparate objects and references, exposing their contradictions and radically altering the way each is understood. In some instances these re-workings are speculative and left deliberately open-ended. Some of his recent works continue to draw on the influence of Dunne-za culture and the aesthetics and economies of the North.
In 2008, he took orange plastic gasoline jugs (they are common there, kept on hand to fill up snowmobiles and chainsaws) and made drawings of local poisonous plants and endangered insects on their surface by drilling hundreds of tiny holes. In the end, the drawings took on the characteristics of Dene beadwork.
This idea of cutting an object apart to radically change its characteristics emerges in many of Jungen’s sculptures, such as Arts and Crafts Book Depository/Capp Street Project (2004), a small-scale house, after Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene’s 1908 Arts and Crafts–style Gamble house, which Jungen cut into fourths so that its parts could be reconfigured at will.1 Prior to Capp Street Project, in one of his best-known works, Jungen took apart expensive Nike Air Jordan sneakers and reassembled them into a series of twenty-three sculptures akin to Northwest Coast Native masks; messy re-stitching, tangles of thread, and scraps of leather are clearly visible on the underside of the works. Shortly thereafter, Jungen cut into ubiquitous white plastic garden chairs and refashioned them into the skeletal remains of gigantic whales, as seen in Shapeshifter (2000), Cetology (2002), and Vienna (2003). In regard to the ersatz masks, Jungen stated that “it was interesting to see how by simply manipulating the Air Jordan shoes you could evoke specific cultural traditions whilst simultaneously amplifying the process of cultural corruption and assimilation.”2 As these masks, whale skeletons, and architectural models make clear, the objects Jungen creates do not aim for authenticity, but instead bring forward issues of commodification, pointing to how “banal and market-driven cultural traditions have become” in contemporary society.3 Native cultural traditions, it should be noted, are not immune to this.
Curator Reid Shier has equated Jungen’s material re-workings to the history of the potlatch, particularly how in the late 1800s European goods such as mirrors, pool tables, and motor boats were attributed different use values in this context. In a potlatch, goods are accumulated for the purpose of being given away or, in some instances, destroyed. If contemporary society has elevated certain products—including Nike Air Jordan trainers—into fetish items, thereby highlighting the relationship between pleasure and consumption, the protocols that are a part of potlatch disrupt this exchange. In a potlatch, pleasure is arguably located in the transference of goods and their gifting, a process less about the goods themselves than the elaborate performance of heredity-clan relationships and hierarchies, cultural history, and protocols. As Shier points out, this radical reversal of non-Native conceptions of accumulation and wealth challenged European value systems: by withdrawing wealth from its relationship to productive consumption, the potlatch questioned the very concept of wealth as something attained through labor.4 While it is interesting to consider alternative economies and “competitive waste” relative to Jungen’s sculptural practice, this was not a pre-determined link. Pointing out the specific histories and functions of the potlatch, particularly in relation to social status and public humiliation, he relays that he is more interested in “the diffusion of meaning of coastal First Nations motifs into the public domain.”5 Jungen’s reassembled objects then function as “games that mobilize aesthetic and cultural misunderstandings to explore ways to politicize cultural stereotypes in the age of global capitalism.”6
It was by combining a signifier of Northwest Coast culture (the mask) with a global commodity and fetish (Nike Air Jordan sneakers) that Jungen made one of the most resonant and revealing statements about Native art in the last decade. In what was likely an unintended but telling gesture, the first mask in Prototypes for New Understanding looks more like an alien than an object with aesthetic origins in the Northwest Coast. When it was first exhibited, the series was paired with painted murals of line drawings collected by the artist in a pseudo “fieldwork” study of non-Native people on the streets of Vancouver. Participants were asked to draw their idea of Native art, and what resulted were the usual depictions of lone braves, drunken Indians, and totem poles, along with a few earnest renderings. These drawings, writer Jeff Derksen has argued, point to the failure of ethnography to generate cross-cultural understanding.7 Neither the drawings nor the alien-like first mask attempt to reverse Native stereotypes, nor are they corrective. Instead, Jungen has simply held up a mirror to Western society and returned its Frankensteinian image. In Cuauhtémoc Medina’s words, “If they want masks, why not sell them their own reflection?”8
Jungen has said that he is interested in the ubiquity of Native objects and artifacts, specifically the way that they have been “corrupted and applied and assimilated commercially” by the tourist industry,9 and no other place in Canada has attached itself so strongly to its Native past as British Columbia. Many of the complex ways Native culture is represented and understood there can be found in the Vancouver airport, where objects representative of Northwest Coast Indians are seen on a grand scale. In 1994, the airport commissioned a monumental bronze sculpture by Haida carver Bill Reid called The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. The piece, one of his best-known works, consists of a six-and-a-half-meter canoe filled with mythic Haida figures and is cast in bronze with a jade-like patina. (The second version, also in bronze but without a patina, is in Washington, D.C.). Visitors entering Immigration are also greeted by a massive spindle whorl and seventeen-foot-high welcome figures by Coast Salish artist Susan Point, and near the airport exit are totem poles by Earl Muldoe and Walter Harris that date from the 1960s. The airport shops carry the typical tourist items: miniature totems made in factories in China and Taiwan, mass-produced “West Coast style” boxes filled with smoked salmon, and jewelry featuring stylized bears, ravens, killer whales, and the like. A messy hybrid of local aesthetics and global production, the plastic totems that populate the shelves of tourist stores are often modeled from “real” poles to lend them a degree of legitimacy as stand-ins for the real thing. “The local in this instance,” Derksen observes, “emerges from within the new relations of commodity production—in which commodities and culture are produced anew.”10 The plastic poles and wooden boxes are part of the “the vast heaving mass of ephemeral and disposable forms” of Western culture.11 This is the rich stuff of Jungen’s re-workings.
In 2007, in a project that complicates the use and misuse of totem poles, Jungen took a number of high-end golf bags and re-formed them into six objects resembling totem poles. (Titled after decades, the sculptures begin with 1960 and end with 2010.) In the past, the totem poles in British Columbia had been marketed as both a reason to visit the province and objects urgently in need of saving. In the 1920s and earlier, remote Native villages and totem poles were touted as highlights of a boat journey through the Inside Passage. In 1924, thirty Tsimshian poles were restored in-situ through an initiative of the Canadian government and the Canadian National Railroad, as a way of boosting tourism. The initiative was met with resistance by the Gitxsan, who didn’t take kindly to having their territories open to unwelcome visitors, and the Tsimshian, who saw the immediate irony in non-Native people benefiting from a tradition they had previously outlawed in the Indian Act as part of the potlatch bans.12 In the 1950s, the province branded itself the “Land of Totems,” complete with friendly cartoon-like drawings of the poles on brochures and posters. Major players in the lumber industry sponsored an initiative to preserve a number of poles; the thirty-seven massive carvings they acquired are now held in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.13 It is only in the last two decades that some of these objects have made their way back to their points of origin in community-based museums and cultural centers. Today, in a particularly complicated twist, the province is now officially branded as “Supernatural British Columbia.” Television and print ads present Native dancers in elaborate regalia with giant raven masks, button blankets, and cedar shawls. It seems that Native people have transcended their usual identification with the past and are now beyond the real, existing in the Western imaginary as myth.
In Jungen’s golf-bag sculptures, the material origin is never fully concealed, and this refusal creates a generative oscillation between the object’s material origins and its new form. To call them “totem poles” would be a mistake.14 Like the “masks” of Prototypes for New Understanding, the pole sculptures borrow from Native forms to enable their reconsideration. These versions loosely replicate the anthropomorphic and animalistic figures on totems, with defined beaks, stylistic ovoids, and the suggested outline of animal and human bodies.
From an anthropological perspective, totem poles are understood as the physical markers of liminal space—they are part of a complex classification system which functions as a means of making sense of the world. From this point of view, the poles are mediators between the physical environment and society. It is through the combination of these materials and references, each weighted with their specific histories and references to local and global economies and cultures, that the possibility for new understanding is found. Akin to the tactical inversions and inverted hierarchies found in Jungen’s sculptures: in totem poles, the most important figure is often on the bottom, serving as the very foundation on which everything else is built, highlighting a worldview based more on interconnectedness rather than on individualism.
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Jungen’s material re-workings of the local extend beyond representations of Northwest Coast Native culture to an examination of the vernacular, particularly as it relates to the built environment and to architecture. In one of his early sculptures—inspired in part by his mother’s family’s seasonal camping practices in the North, geodesic domes, and back-to-the-land hippie movements of the 1960s and 1970s—Jungen created his own “escape pod” from plastic lawn chairs and heat-shrunk polyurethane. Entitled Bush Capsule (2000), the sculpture adopted a productivist impulse from utopian architecture, and being light and easily transportable, was intended for use as a temporary dwelling, borrowing from the intentions of Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic domes attempted to democratize architecture and could be replicated on both individual and mass scales. In 2003 and 2004, Jungen made two more domes, Little Habitat I and Little Habitat II. This time they were small—each only thirty centimeters tall—and they rested on the floor. As diminutive models of architectural space, they had no use-value other than as art. They were created from scored and folded boxes; viewers had to look closely to recognize that the boxes originally held Nike Air Jordan trainers. Refigured in this way, the domes obscured the identity of one of the most branded athletes of our time. During an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, children frequently mistook the works as toys, unassumingly harkening back to the influence of play on the modernist avant-garde.15
In a return to some of the ideas brought forward when the artist reconfigured the parts of lawn chairs into the skeletons of whales, two of Jungen’s most recent works replicate animals on a monumental scale: Carapace (2009) is a remarkably realistic giant turtle shell made from ordinary plastic garbage bins, and Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky), first shown at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, is a mobile which suspends five animals. These animals—a shark, crocodile, emu, sea eagle, and possum, all native to Australia—are formed out of the parts of suitcases. Both works draw immediate relationships to extinction; some species of turtles, an animal that has survived more than 250 million years, may not live past our lifetimes, and many varieties of the creatures on Jungen’s mobile are threatened.
Jungen found inspiration for Carapace in the writings of French author Jules Verne, famous for his fantastical science fiction novels, which include 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. Verne’s imaginings of air, space, and underwater travel—predating submarines and spaceships—were celebrated, but his strong political ideals and dystopian viewpoints were actively edited out of his works. His novel Paris in the 20th Century was particularly controversial and remained unpublished until 1994, almost a hundred years after the author’s death. In it, Verne describes a world remarkably similar to that of the Information Age. The main character is a young man, living amidst “glass skyscrapers, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, and a worldwide communications network,” who cannot find happiness. The novel was written in 1863.16
In addition to enumerating the trappings of modern life, Verne describes, in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, giant sea monsters the likes of which could have filled Jungen’s turtle shell. This is not just the stuff of sci-fi. Some 15,000 years ago in the North America of the Pleistocene era lived “a bestiary of giants that strains the imagination.”17 These included the better-known mammoths and mastodons, but also creatures called pampatheres, which looked like armadillos but grew to the size of small buildings. Even the elk, moose, beavers, and bears were enormous. These were all in addition to the giant Bolson turtle, which still exists in Mexico. J. B. MacKinnon points out: “Many of these species still survived as recently as 10,000 years ago, in climes similar to ours. Put another way, lions and sabre tooths lived within the myth time of North America’s First Nations. They lived at a time only as distant from the founding of farming in Europe as that founding is from us today.”18 With this, the idea of the continent of North America being formed on the back of a turtle suddenly doesn’t sound so far-fetched.
For this exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Jungen has altered his sculpture Crux to include an upside-down boat, through which the mobile hangs. This boat was central to the making of the piece, used by the artist to haul supplies back and forth to an island in Sydney Harbour where he was working. Cockatoo Island, home of the abandoned factory building where Crux was made and first shown, was once home to a penitentiary and a part of the city’s shipbuilding industry; it is also directly under the flight path of the Sydney airport. Jungen’s original idea was to create a work using luggage lost by commercial airlines, although the idea was quickly shelved when a company he contacted, likely realizing that this might not be the best marketing angle, was resistant.
Travel remained a part of the final version of Crux, but in a different way than it was initially conceived, which would have borne more associations with the jet-set lifestyle associated with art biennales. Instead, Jungen spent time researching the history of the region and drew from the cosmologies of Indigenous Australians, people who developed a highly sophisticated navigation system based on an acute understanding of the movements of stars across the sky. Their constellations, centered on animals instead of objects or gods, weren’t formed by connecting the dots between individual stars, but from the “dust clouds” of galaxies. Each animal in Crux is a central figure in these constellations. The mobile then is the skyworld, flipped upside down.
Here again, Jungen’s sculptures serve as mediators, connecting different ideas and different worldviews. It is not the tension created between bringing dissimilar objects together that is important, however, but rather the very potential to transform the relationships between them, and what they stand for, if only temporarily.
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