When introducing Brian Jungen at a recent Hirshhorn “meet the artist” event, curator Paul Chaat Smith was moved to declare “every great once in a while… the great mystery gives you a project that’s a sure thing… where all the parts inside work and none require assembly.” Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort, on display through August 8, 2010 at the National Museum of the American Indian, gives the artist and the curator many reasons to be proud. Jungen is a contemporary Canadian artist who is half Native American (his mother is a member of the Dunne-za First Nation). Originally from the small City of Fort St. John in British Columbia, Jungen has spent the last 20 years living and working in Vancouver. He deconstructs mass-produced objects and reassembles them into masks, totem poles, whale skeletons, skulls and life-sized warriors. Having carved out a niche for himself, Jungen manages to pay tribute to his heritage while simultaneously winning over the contemporary art world.
The show is a milestone for both the artist and the museum. This exhibition marks the first time that Jungen’s work has been exhibited in the NMAI or any museum specializing in the art of Indigenous Americans. Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort is also the first solo show of a living artist’s work at the National Museum of the American Indian. While this ambitious collaboration is intriguing on the surface, the presence of Jungen’s work in an institution filled with ancient artifacts could have created many opportunities for intercultural and intergenerational dialogue. Unfortunately, little is done to foster the conversation.
We are first introduced to Jungen’s art in NMAI’s enormous atrium. Look carefully: Despite its large size, you might overlook Jungen’s mobile, Crux As Seen from Those Who Sleep on the Surface of the Earth Under the Night Sky, 2008. Crux was originally created as a site-specific piece to be displayed on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor for the 2008 Sydney Biennale. While in Australia, Jungen decided to make a work inspired by the art and culture of the indigenous people of that nation. The piece consists up a small row boat hung upside down, from which are suspended, day-glow versions of a crocodile, an emu, a shark, an eagle and a possum, the five animals most commonly featured in indigenous Australian constellations. Jungen intended to build his creatures entirely out of deconstructed lost suitcases that he hoped to purchase from an Australian airline. Not surprisingly, the company did not share his enthusiasm. The artist resorted to dissecting store-bought luggage, in addition to the handful of orphaned bags he managed to acquire. The result is an astonishing piece and should whet the viewer’s appetite while serving as an introduction to the rest of the exhibition. Instead, the mobile is dwarfed by its vast surroundings. Too small to be suspended from NMAI’s enormous dome, it has been hung off to the side, almost like an afterthought.
In Sydney, Crux was hung closer to the ground in a much smaller, nearly empty room and the surrounding space became part of the piece. The mobile’s low positioning allowed viewers to walk around the sculpture and experience the creatures at eye level. The vastness of NMAI’s atrium distorts our sense of scale and the animals begin to look more like children’s toys than constellations in a large open sky. Instead of interacting with the mobile, we can only gaze up at it. At the Hirshhorn talk, Jungen himself seemed to subtly imply his preference for the original arrangement, saying that “in Sydney it was hung much lower, so there was more of an interaction where the people could experience these animals.” He added that for him, it is “important that the people who see the work will have some sort of personal or some sort of visual relationship to it, so it’s nice for them to kind of get up close to it.”
At the NMIA, Crux hangs near a Totora-Reed Boat constructed by the Aymara people of Bolivia. Nearby, in front of the main entrance, sits another boat recently constructed in the museum’s interior by two Chippewa artisans. One wonders if the curators are trying to suggest a connection between the rowboat in Jungen’s piece and the two other vessels. While close enough to invade each other’s space, objects are situated too far apart to create a visual connection. The viewer is not prompted to contemplate any possible relationship between the pieces other than the superficial fact that all were made by Native Americans.
There is a marked improvement in how the pieces are displayed on the third floor, where the exhibit continues. The museum’s large contemporary art gallery is entirely devoted to Brian Jungen’s work. The first piece you see upon entering is Shapeshifter (2000), an enormous, abstracted whale skeleton built entirely out of white plastic chairs. Jungen’s leviathan is hung in front of a simple black wall and the contrast of colors intensifies its extraordinary power. Shapeshifter has the pristine, flawless texture of a mass produced object, yet somehow feels organic. You can easily imagine the enormous tale with its graceful, individually-carved vertebrae swinging to life.
Beyond its beauty, Shapeshifter is a smart piece that holds together conceptually. The artist explains on the museum’s call-in cell phone tour that he developed an interest in deck chairs partly due to people’s tendency to discard them when they break. For Jungen, the chairs are liberated when they can no longer serve their intended function. Around the time he created Shapeshifter, Jungen had been reading about the whaling industry in the Pacific and how petroleum came to replace whale oil. Since petroleum went into the construction of the deck chairs, Jungen’s ghostly whale closes the circle.
“I don’t get it, it’s just a stack of lunch trays” remarked a confused 9-year-old boy as he gazed at Jungen’s 2001 piece, Isolated Depictions of the Passage of Time. At first you might be inclined to agree with the kid, but taking a moment to study the piece and read the explanation will bring it to life. Originally created as an installation for The Correctional Service of Canada Museum, this work is inspired by a 1980 prison escape attempt during which an inmate hid in a hollowed-out stack of cafeteria trays, hoping to be wheeled to freedom. Jungen’s block of trays is large enough to conceal a man and you can almost imagine someone bursting out from its center. In the center of this neat stack, Jungen buries a television playing an endless stream of daytime shows. The banal soundtrack creates a tense energy emanating from the center of the piece. The work gains an added dimension when you learn that each tray represents a Native American man incarcerated in Canada. The trays are color-coded to correspond to the length of each person’s sentence.
In contrast the astonishing prison piece, Carapace (2009), one of Jungen’s better-known works, is a bit of a letdown. The large dome-like structure, whose name alludes to a turtle’s shell, is entirely constructed out of green and blue industrial waste bins. The accompanying wall text states that the piece was inspired by geodesic architecture and small, hand-built Asian temples. Carapace is decidedly less impressive in person than in reproductions. Perhaps this has something to do with the dim gallery lighting, which makes the sculpture seem dingy rather than spiritual or inviting.
One theme that recurs throughout the exhibit is Jungen’s interest in sports imagery. As you travel through the gallery, you encounter such hybrids as golf-bag totems, carved baseball bats, a skull crafted from skinned baseballs, and a Native American warrior constructed out of catcher’s mitts. Some of these pieces are more visually and conceptually interesting than others, but as a whole, the decision to use athletic imagery is intriguing. Jungen reasons that given the frequent appropriation of Native American imagery by sports teams (the Redskins, The Indians), it seems only fair for him to use sports objects in his art. His use of athletic materials allows him to create a multi-layered connection between Native and mainstream cultures. In a recent NPR interview about the exhibit, Jungen discusses his interest in the ritualistic quality of sports. For him, sporting events are community-building traditions reminiscent of certain Dunne-za ceremonies. By constructing Native American-inspired pieces out of sports objects, Jungen emphasizes the importance of ritual in both spheres.
While most of Jungen’s constructions are made from new objects, Skull (2006-09) is made out of old, warn-out baseballs. Its aged, organic texture alludes to human skin. This haunting piece reminded me of shrunken heads and sculptures making use of human parts that one might see in an anthropology museum. Jungen has often criticized the Western tendency to display native artifacts like curios and objects of historical interest rather than artworks, and this piece can be interpreted as a commentary on that phenomenon. Other sports-themed pieces, such as Talking Sticks (2005), made out of carved baseball bats, and Blanket No. 7, a cloth inspired by Native textiles, felt trite and simplistic – more shtick than concept.
By far the most interesting and visually appealing of Jungen’s sports appropriation pieces are several masks from his 23-part series Prototype for a New Understanding. The idea for the series originated in 1998 when Jungen visited the Natural History Museum in New York and was disturbed to see Native American artifacts on display there, rather than in an art museum. Later that afternoon, Jungen happened to walk into a Nike Store and noticed that the store had chosen to display Air Jordans in elegant vitrines. In response, Jungen purchased many pairs of the shoes, mutilated them and reassembled the Jordans into 23 masks inspired by Northwest coast imagery. While it is easy to see that the masks began life as sneakers, they have been fully transformed into birds and frogs and human-like faces. Jungen found interesting uses for the Air Jordan logo itself, a small silhouette of the basketball player about to make a slam-dunk. The mini-Michaels become eyes, ears and nostrils. The result is a powerful commentary about cultural hierarchy, the materialism and commoditization of art and culture, and what happens when art and artifacts are taken out of context.
Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort is an interesting, thought-provoking exhibit, and a great accomplishment for the NMAI. Still, the show’s lack of integration with the rest of the museum is problematic. Strange Comfort is curated very differently from the museum’s other exhibits. The NMAI’s ongoing exhibits are organized in a cyclical, nonlinear way, jumping across time and cultures and rarely focusing intensely on one tribe, time period or event. The Brian Jungen exhibit, by contrast, would fit into any contemporary art museum. Unlike many of the permanent exhibitions, it is focused and self-contained. The curating style for Strange Comfort fits its subject quite nicely, but it accentuates rather than bridges the divide between Jungen’s work and the older museum artifacts. This tension is unfortunate considering that connecting contemporary and indigenous art is one of the principle themes in Jungen’s work.