The Tortoise and the Air: An Interview with Brian Jungen

Brian Jungen is a shape-shifter. He is what he makes. The practice of shape-shifting draws attention to his gift for seeing the transformative possibility of the world and the objects in it. When he looks at something–a pair of sneakers, a plastic lawn chair or garbage bin, a baseball glove, a food tray, a golf bag or a sports jersey–he sees something else. He is a visionary of the everyday. For him, looking is a prelude to invention.

Few contemporary artists are able to produce a body of work that brings them instant success. Jungen’s “Prototypes for New Understanding,” his Air Jordans reassembled into versions of West Coast masks, did exactly that, and with good reason. They went from the Banff Centre, where they were made, to Vancouver’s Charles H Scott Gallery in an exhibition curated by Cate Rimmer in 1999, and then to Turin’s Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in 2003. The “Prototypes” were a brilliant turn, at once obvious and magical. Jungen’s sculptures provide the recognition that the imagination is both simple and layered and, in this regard, his work is inestimably generous.

It is also inescapably political, but that dimension of the work can be overshadowed by the ingenuity of his material transformations. This in not the artist’s fault, but it is a problem for the viewer. A sculpture like The Prince, 2006, is a classic example of this interpretive problem. The Prince is made from baseball gloves, reconfigured in the anachronistic likeness of a cigar store Indian, and our initial reaction is to smile in recognizing the re-make. We might be aware of the critique that resides in the glove-to-figure shift if we think of the repeated appropriation of Aboriginal names by major league sports teams. (This is an issue Jungen has recently focused on in his Blanket series, Aboriginal blankets fashioned from the jerseys of professional football and basketball teams.) But Jungen doesn’t stop at a single resonance; he picks the title for the piece through his reading of Niccolo Machiavelli’s study of Renaissance power politics, The Prince, published in 1532, which makes him think of the reign of President Bush, a man the artist calls “an out-of-control, ruthless leader.” Finally, he constructs the figure to correspond to a Japanese Samurai warrior, a style of armour that he personally finds attractive. All these meanings are embodied in the work and each is inseparable in its making. For Jungen, meaning is not hierarchical, even though one interpretation can supercede (or be overridden by) another. As he says in the following interview, the subject that has most concerned him is his Aboriginal background, and trying to figure out what that means in the context, not just of the art world, but of society as a whole. His quest for the nature of that identity, and what form it should take, has already resulted in some of the most delightful and compelling work made by any Canadian artist of his generation. Since his invention shows no sign of dissipating, there is every reason to believe that the shape-shifting he was born to will continue to pique and prod our attention. What is equally assured is that the objects he makes will embody, in the fullest and most necessary sense of the term, a tension.

Brian Jungen was interviewed by Border Crossings *in March, 2011. To read the full interview, pick up issue 118, on newsstands now - or click here to subscribe.
* *Top image: Brian Jungen, installion view of *Carapace
, 2009, at the Art Gallery of Alberta, plastic recycling containers, dimensions variable. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver.*

Lower image: Brian Jungen, *Blanket No. 9, 2008, professional sports jerseys, 59 x 59”. Courtesy Catriona Jeffries.*