Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Stuff Seen - Brian Jungen



Two weeks or so ago, I went to the Musée d'art contemporain to see the Brian Jungen show. Back in something like 2004 a friend (who isn't even in the art business) gave me a head's up about Mr. Jungen's work. Then when he got mentioned in the New York Times, I figured that I should enlarge that area of my brain that keeps track of what Contemporary Canadian Visual Artists are doing. It soon became obvious I wasn't going to need all that space in my head, as the man and his work were coming to town.

Basically by the time the show had arrived I had worked myself up into a serious tizzy, complete with drool dripping down and off my chin, a slight tremor in my hands (I even spilled a beer at the vernissage), and the sort of accelerated heartbeat one only associates with hummingbirds and 16 year old girls waiting for Ryan Cabrera to come out of his hotel room. While going through the show, there were little bits here and there, that didn't quite live up to my expectations (what could? After all I have seen Rachel Sweet live and in person). Hence the B+, had I just gone on my anticipation I would have given Mr. Jungen an A+++++++, but I've learned the hard way, it is always a good idea to look at the art before making comments.

A couple of small things, the museum needs to get a hipper translator, 'Nike Runners' is a term that only exists in the mind of a 45 year-old male Anglophone Canadian who last did anything physical in about 1982 or so. The technical term would be 'shoe' if someone wanted to appear with it and hip they might use 'Kicks,' if they were not so keen on contemporary culture 'sneakers' still works, and it appears that Mr. Jungen prefers 'trainers.' If you wanted to be in the know, Mr. Jungen trashed some perfectly good deadstock. It'll be interesting to see in 10 years, which appreciates more, the original shoes Mr. Jungen used, or the work he made from them.

Secondly, the museum needs some better acoustic insulation, while I was reading the chat tag (and almost lost my cookies coming across the term 'runners') I could still hear all sorts of stuff from Pascal Grandmaison's videos, and while there ain't anything specifically wrong with that, as I walked the 15 feet towards 'Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time' it did become a problem, because I was supposed to be able to hear the soundtrack from the film 'The Great Escape," which I couldn't, and as it was rather brightly lit, the chat tag referring to 'the glow' of the TV inside the sculpture was made to look stupid, because there wasn't any glow.

As I'm talking about 'Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time' I might as well continue.

Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time by Brian Jungen, uploaded by http://www.flickr.com/people/idlir/
Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time by Brian Jungen

I can't find any easy documentation about the who was involved in the prison escape at Millhaven in 1980, nor if the escape attempt was successful or not. But the information that goes along with the piece sure as shootin' sounds purty. According to the press release from the Vancouver Art Gallery about the exhibit the "number and colour of trays in the work correspond to the number of Aboriginal males incarcerated in Canada's penal institutions, highlighting the disproportionate number of Aboriginal men serving time in the country’s corrections facilities." This got changed for the Walrus Magazine article (printed a couple of months later) to "each of the approximately 1,200 trays represents an aboriginal male incarcerated in a Canadian prison, the different colours correspond to the length of sentences meted out, and the sounds one hears represent the televisions provided in the windowless cells." Which is good, because as far as I can figure something like 18% of the approximately 20,000 people in Canada in prison are aboriginal; or about 3,600. And if the trays were to correspond then there could only be a maximum of 1,638 aboriginals in prison in Canada (117 trays per stack, 14 stacks) and that is if the TV itself were one of those flat screen TVs that didn't take up any space.

Mr. Jungen chose the film 'The Great Escape' as the film to be played in the piece. Now I have no idea if it was because the rights were cheap for 'The Great Escape', or if there was any other reason that that particular movie was chosen, because to me, Papillon probably would have been the better choice, or if Mr. Jungen could live with the idea of some other leading man that of Steve McQueen, Cool Hand Luke. Both of which have as a premise a man who must at all costs attempt to escape from jail no matter how many times he gets caught. 'Papillon' is a frame up, and 'Cool Hand Luke' is because of public drunkenness, both way more appropriate to reasons why indigenous people anywhere get tossed into prison than being a prisoner of war.

There are also some drawings in the room, I wasn't too impressed, but you figure that since it is a 'retrospective' early work, by definition needs to be there. Suffice it to say that I'm glad Mr. Jungen decided to drop the drawing part of his visual arts career. The 'Little Habitats'

Little Habitats by Brian Jungen, borrowed from the Catriona Jeffries Gallery
Little Habitats by Brian Jungen

are silly kid stuff, I've seen better paper folding at the Redpath Museum, and then I found out that instead of being folded, they are actually held together with bulldog clips! If you didn't know, we have a much better and much larger buckyball here in town already. The airbrushed aluminum Air Jordan boxes called 'Michael' and all of the other incidental Air Jordan works feel to me like secondary things added on as an afterthought because they are easy to make (either folding some cardboard and clipping it, or contracting out the fabrication of aluminum boxes, or sticking some rocks inside some vaguely sports like fabric material) so as to make whomever is bankrolling him an easy way to make some money back.

But thankfully, that wasn't all there was. There are these balls called 'Trade' if I remember correctly, a series of three animal hides stretched over what appears to be balls used for sports. They are very discreet, as the lines to mark the differences between a basketball and a soccer ball are not all that easy to make out. Initially I thought that they were some sort of flapper hat that he had made. But then I saw the lines, one of the other things that made it difficult to realize what they were was that in real life a basketball and a soccer ball are entirely different sizes. But these pieces are all the same size.

Ok, enough bashing, after all this is supposed to be a good and positive review, reading what I've written so far you wouldn't guess that would you? But remember I do give it a B+. It does get better, I promise, The 'Study for Red'

Something that looks an awful lot like Study for Red by Brian Jungen, uploaded by Barry Hoggard to flickr
Something that looks an awful lot like Study for Red by Brian Jungen, uploaded by Barry Hoggard

reminded me of the foundation for a costume for The Thing (you know, from the Fantastic Four) and then after seeing it, I discovered that one of the real versions had in fact been stolen. Once again, no one pays attention to Canadian art (thanks to Lisa for the head's up). If anybody knows how much they were going for, or what the wires in the real version are for, I'd be much obliged.

But the softball really gets to the meat of the matter in what Mr. Jungen does well. Transform things. Pure and simple, pretty much in your face, and if I had a Ph. D. thesis to write I could probably riff for at least 60 pages on the whys and the how comes of Mr. Jungen's need to transform things. But I don't so I'm going to try and keep this slightly shorter.

One thing that I'm not entirely comfortable is the transformations that happen in the same piece between shows. 'Beer Cooler'

Beer Cooler by Brian Jungen, borrowed from the Catriona Jeffries Gallery
Beer Cooler by Brian Jungen

has been photographed (as you can see) with Budweiser cans, as I assume it was presented at New Gallery in New York where Budweiser is King. Here they use cans of Molson Export which is not by any stretch of the imagination the most popular beer, nor are they the same size as the one's from New York (and I also would suggest that they switch to bottles when in Quebec as beer can culture hasn't truly made it over the border) so the lid is almost shut instead of being held high. If you're going to try and make a comment about beer and the choices that folk from the first nations are faced with when they venture into the second and third nation's cultures (you can't really see it in the picture, but there are some wicked cool drawings etched into the cooler) you definitely need to get you icons right.

And since we've discussed heavy metal art here, I'd venture a suggestion that Beer Cooler could be considered a piece of heavy metal art (as well as a piece of NFL art - although it could have been even better if the drawings on the beer cooler somehow related to Hawaiian first nation culture).

Speaking of sports (I couldn't resist, sorry) Mr. Jungen's 'Talking Sticks' are crazy good,

Talking Sticks by Brian Jungen, borrowed from the Catriona Jeffries Gallery
Talking Sticks by Brian Jungen

but as I'm being nitpicky beyond belief (I guess I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, sorry) there is no such thing as a 'generic baseball bat.' I tried to look at the markings but they had been carved out and I did not want to touch them as the guards had been extremely helpful and friendly and I did not want to get on their bad side. But, all baseball bats are individual models based on the preferences of professional baseball players. As there is not much baseball culture in Vancouver, I can easily see how a curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery could have gotten confused between a baseball bat and a softball bat. I hope that they wouldn't be confusing giclées with a lithographs, so I don't think they should be confusing softball with baseball (if in fact that's the case).

Then continuing along with the small stuff, I promise I will get to the big stuff soon, I was particularly taken by 'Mise en Scene.'

Mise en Scene by Brian Jungen, uploaded by sepiatone boy to flickr
Mise en Scene by Brian Jungen

A collection of stacked plastic chairs with a couple of fluorescent lights stuck in the middle. It gave off a eerie sort of glow (almost like one of those mosquito zappers) and there are endless ways in which you can let you brain wander as you look at it - How does it relate to the whales? How does it relate to native culture? What's up with the Dan Flavin stuff? Where are the certificates of authenticity? You get the idea.

I'm going to ignore the aboriginal wall carvings he did - because I'm already at something like 1,800 words.

But now to the BIG stuff.

[update: After re-reading this section, and sleeping on it overnight, I'm not altogether happy with it. Apologies, and I hope at some point I have the time to come back to it and do a re-write.]

First off 'Prototypes for New Understanding' are kick-ass, wonderful great, amazing, bring a smile to my face, and lots and lots of fun. Second of all, unless Michael Jordan recently moved to New York City he does not own any of the 23 that are on display and that are called 'the complete collection.' Richard Lacayo, some guy in Vancouver who lucked out and got the gig to write about Mr. Jungen for Time magazine, wrote 'The Vancouver-based Gen X writer Douglas Coupland has one. So does the great Air Jordan himself. His representatives contacted Jungen to acquire one last year after reading an article in Sports Illustrated about the New York City show. Once the Prototypes started selling briskly, Jungen may have been tempted to start churning them out like, well, like tribal art for the tourist trade. Instead, and wisely, he brought the product line to a different conclusion. He made just 23. That's the number Jordan made famous.' I went through all 23 of them that were displayed, and the closest I got was #21 which is part of a 'private collection, New York' all the others are clearly marked as to who owns them and where, and none say 'Chicago' or 'Michael Jordan.'

Brian Jungen, Prototype for New Understanding #21, 2005, Nike athletic footwear, Private Collection, New York, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

It is this type of sloppy reporting that is prevalent everywhere, when talking about art, that just drives me up the freakin' wall. Mr. Jungen is Swiss- Dunne-za, the 'Prototypes for New Understanding' are loosely based on Haida masks. One of the reasons that this is so late is because I've been meaning to truck down to the McCord Museum where they have an exhibit of Robert Davidson's work, but I haven't had a chance. Making some sort of connection between the masks and Mr. Jungen's genealogical roots is about as stupid as calling me a Floridian, because I was born in New York City. (Peace River, where a bunch of the Dunne-za tribes are located is about 1,000 miles from the Queen Charlotte Islands, home of the Haida - New York City is about 1,000 miles from Florida). Their cultures are about as different as that of the Swiss and the Ukrainians.

Now that I have that off my chest, beyond the obvious creativity shown by the prototypes, I can't comment authoritatively, because I haven't been able to get around to see the Robert Davidson show. I quite like #7, #8, the private collection, New York's #21 and the other ones that actually do look like masks, complete with eyeholes.

Prototype for New Understanding #7, 1999, Nike athletic footwear, Collection of Joe Friday, Ottawa, Photo: David Barbour, Courtesy of Carleton University Art Gallery

Prototype for New Understanding #8, 1999, Nike athletic footwear, Collection of Colin Griffiths, Vancouver, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

I'd love to know a little bit more about the actual fabrication of them. Did Mr. Jungen hand stitch them himself, outsource the work? Was he able to get the original sneakers at wholesale prices? Or did he pay full retail? And if he paid full retail is that why he reused the boxes?

One key thing about transforming things (as Mr. Jungen does) is that both ends need to be recognizable. Or in other words you need to be able to recognize both what the original material was and what the final product is for it to be recognized as a transformation. You do remember the Transformers, don't you?

At which point I think I'm losing it. I wanted to break 3,000 words on this one, but it ain't gonna happen. So for the last part, the sorta whale like sculptures (they are not whales by any stretch of the imagination) are really cool. If I don't get this up now, I'm never going to be able to get my Pascal Grandmaison review up before his show ends.

If you'd like to see some of the cool stuff I found on line about and on Mr. Jungen, check these out.

The TV advertisement the museum had made.

  1. Brian Jungen at Catriona Jeffries Gallery
  2. Brian Jungen Wikipedia entry
  3. Galleries West article
  4. The Brooklyn Rail article
  5. The Tyee article
  6. The Tyee photos
  7. Some academic paper by Christina Froschauer
  8. The Sports Illustrated article
  9. A story about some other artists making sneaker art, and for a better cause, too!
  10. Pictures
  11. A picture of the Brian Jungen Opening at the VAG
  12. Some database type thing
  13. Flickr Tags of Brian Jungen, a photoset of the VAG show, and a straight full text search

For the technical stuff: The show is up at the Musée d'art contemporain, 185 Sainte Catherine West until September 4th. The catalogue costs $12, the museum $8 and it all is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day and until 9pm on Wednesdays.

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