Brian Jungen has been one of my favorit sculptors since I learned about his exhibition StrangComfort at the National Museum of American Indians in 2009. His work is about the Indian experience in the 21st century. One thing I like about him is that some of his work pertains to his heritage and some of his work pertains to his experiences and interests that have nothing to do with being Indian.
Jungen is from the Dunne-za First Nation people in British Columbia. He grew up learning his culture on a farm near the far northern town of Fort St. John, on the border of British Columbia and Alberta. He now lives in Vancouver where he graduated from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1992.
Some of his most recognizable pieces are the Nike Air Jordans that he deconstructs and transforms to Northwest Coast masks. He turns objects inside out. By deconstructing them, he changes not only the things themselves, but the ways we think about what they used to be, and what they've become. Jungen says he was inspired by visit to the Niketown store in Manhattan."These were not just any Nike shoes, however; they were Air Jordans, designed and marketed by NBA superstar Michael Jordan.
The shoes created a sensation when theywere introduced in 1985. Owners were robbed at gunpoint and Jordan himself paid a $5,000 fine each night he wore them on the court after the NBA declared them illegal. They soon became a cultural icon, and by the time Jungen saw them, they were displayed in elegant, expensive vitrines as if in a museum rather than a shoe store." He ishappy that NMAI displayed his masks in deluxe plexiglass cases, with the kind of theatrical spotlighting usually reserved for "exotic" ethnographic artifacts. It gives his art, though clearly sourced in mass-market retail culture, the potent aura of ritual objects. "People respond so well because they have a personal relationship to mass-produced materials.
Jungen admits he has dabbled in the same weaving his native aunts are expert at, but instead of weaving natural materials he chose basketball jerseys. His Blanket No. 7 reads as halfway between a home-tanned hide and some kind of pseudo-Indian rug.
Jungen has made plenty of other art that isn't native-themed. A piece called Carapace is assembled entirely from green plastic garbage cans and looks like a cross between a geodesic dome and a mammoth tortoise shell. In 2000 he made a whale skeleton out of white lawn chairs. He was inspired by his visits to see Bjossa, the last of the killer whales held in an aquarium in downtown Vancouver.
Jungen says, "Native cultures are living and shouldn't be in the Museum of Natural History.
. . it's good for people to realize native art isn't just beads and carving".