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Aboriginal Art Turned Inside Out

Conceptual artist Brian Jungen on 'Indian crafts', Nike Town, glitz, pine beetles and more. A Tyee interview.

Danielle Egan 26 Jan

Danielle Egan is contributing editor on The Tyee.

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Vancouver artist Brian Jungen has become a household name in the art world, along with a half dozen other young, local conceptual artists. Curators, critics and art lovers from New York to Berlin are wondering what's in the air in this city on the edge of the world. How did a bunch of cheeky upstarts working in Downtown Eastside studios become international art stars?

Jungen is half aboriginal and grew up in the middle of nowhere Fort St. John, so the odds of him making it to art school, let alone becoming a hit in the rarified art world, were slim. That's until he started taking apart pairs of Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes and reassembling them into aboriginal ceremonial masks. Admirers of the work say they are loaded with political messages but they are also beautiful, cool, sad, clever, mysteriously iconic and, most shocking of all, in this cynical, jaded, seemingly unraveling post-modern world, somehow hopeful; the rare kind of art that satisfies on all levels.

Mass-produced consumer goods became Jungen's material of choice, which he's since crafted into works of art that examine cultural stereotypes, new world order economics, consumer fetishes, institutional anthropology, modern art, modern architecture and souvenir shop indigenous culture: baseball bats as First Nations talking sticks, white plastic lawn chairs carved into whale skeleton sculptures, bird aviaries made from Ikea products and various riffs on elitist minimalist abstract art.

What often interests people is that Jungen pokes at so many of culture's sacred cows but does it with a wry sense of humour and a critical eye and without losing what appears to be a sincere underlying romance with myths and symbols. His solo show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York just wrapped up to critical acclaim and has been expanded to over 40 works for a large survey show at the VAG which continues on to the Musée d'art Contemporain de Montréal this summer. Jungen will also be participating in the Sydney Biennale, and has solos shows lined up in New York and at the Tate Modern in London.

On the eve of the VAG launch, the 35-year-old sat down with The Tyee to talk about where he came from, where he's going and why he and his buddies are currently in artworld hyper-rotation. What follows are verbatim comments, excerpted from the conversation.

On his origins

As a kid, I was drawing and painting all the time but hated the idea of being an artist because I couldn't stand the stereotype of the classically misunderstood impoverished bohemian.

I grew up doing a lot of manual labour in a farming community. There was very little time for anything cultural, other than television. My dad's Swiss family bought a bunch of land, site unseen, in Northern BC when he was about three years old. And we had a lot of animals on the farm: cows, horses, goats, dogs, cats, geese; that I loved. I learned how to ride a horse before I learned how to ride a bike, I think because we didn't have money for bikes.

My mom's [Dane-zaa First Nations] family made loads of crafts, beadwork and stuff, but that's not really seen as art, and they're treated like hobbies. Of course there's a market for it because it's Indian crafts.

The Artist as a Jungen

I wanted to get out of there and move to Vancouver. So I went straight from the north to art school. I loved it. It was super liberating, although you get smacked down because it's immediately hyper-competitive.

I graduated in 1992, ages ago. I used to have a studio on Hastings and Geoffrey Farmer [named a top ten "up-and-comer" in January's Artforum] and I opened a studio called the Phil Collins Room in 1995. I know, we hated Phil Collins, too. It was in the Perel building and SFU and the Or [Gallery] were also there. I lived in Strathcona so that was our hood. We spent a lot of years down there and we got hooked up with Reid [Shier, then curator of The Or Gallery] down there. It was really just a small world.

My friends were other artists at Emily Carr like Steve Shearer, Ron [Terada] and Damian Moppett. We're all still friends and I think there's always been a mutual respect there that's very sweet. Geoffrey was making a lot of videos then and I was doing these dumb, fast stream of consciousness cartoony drawings. I'd put them up on the streets or let blow out the window, very disposable. But we hung out there all the time and it was a fantastic deal, a whole floor for $100 right across from Pigeon Park. Other friends had a radio show at co-op across the street and we knew other people with spaces down there so there were all these parties and stuff and it was nice, we'd always see each other and had a pulse on what was going to happen.

Back then, we were making work for each other, not for galleries. We all had day jobs which gave us a lot of freedom. I worked at Canada Post doing manual sort three days a week and also painted houses. My first show was at Or Gallery, called Buddy Palace with Christine Corlett and Lisa Prentice and Jason McLean. That was kind of our introduction to the wider art audience.

On plundering the plunderers

I quit the day jobs in 1998 when I got a grant. I wanted to try making objects. I went to New York that summer and I was visiting a couple of museums and wandered into Nike Town. I was kind of overwhelmed by their self-aggrandizing and historicizing; placing a very specific history around their product and athleticism in the US. It was kind of shocking. The Air Jordans seemed like the pinnacle of excess for athletic gear. Almost $300. It seemed like this ultimate shoe fetish that I wanted to parallel with the idea of the Native Art trade as well, the similarities.

A month later I was at the Banff Centre doing a residency and just started taking the shoes apart. I'm a terrible sewer, but I could use the same machine holes to sew them back together. I did most of the masks by hand, and decided to structure it as an series of 23 because I knew it had to be complete at some point. Twenty-three is Michael Jordan's number, so I thought that would be a hilarious reference.

But, as the project went along, they started to get more fantastic in a way. You'll see them get very abstracted and have less to do with specific motifs or archetypical west coast forms. Numbers 18 to 20 are very abstracted and that got a bit more interesting. I also did two called Variants that hang on the wall but have no reference to masks or adornments.

After that, I started selling my artwork. I didn't hear anything from Nike until about five years ago when they asked for images for their archives. More recently, on the back of Vice magazine, Nike have an ad that references my work very directly. I think it's a bit of a jab because this issue of Vice is the "Native" issue.

Of course, people have such stereotypical images of aboriginals. But it's strange because I have a Swiss surname. I've never been to Switzerland, but when I've gone to Germany and Austria people kind of laugh at my last name because it's very hick, really old-school, literally means "young man." A friend in Germany said, it would be like a Canadian having the name Jim Teenager. But in a funny way, it sounds indigenous.

Colonization and Adaptation

It's interesting to think of invading species, things like the pine beetle outbreak. There was an outbreak in the 70s too, when I was a kid. Different beetle, but it destroyed a lot of trees. Things like this happen in different ecosystems naturally and, of course it happens with human beings, too. Human nature has incredible creativity and beauty but also so much destruction and chaos. It's always going to be those qualities at play I suppose.

On animals and institutional habitats

The belugas [at the Vancouver Aquarium] are now in the killer whale tank so they have more space than they used to. Maybe they're happier. They wouldn't survive in the wilds now so what should be done there? They got rid of the zoo so maybe the aquarium is the last vestige of that type of thinking. Remember how the polar bear was green? Most animals in zoos are on anti-depressants and there's a whole pharmaceutical field for that. A lot of pets now are on Prozac so their owners don't have to take them on walks as much.

Lately, I've been working more on bringing animals into the museum setting. I might do an animal installation for the Tate London. But I never talk about it until I know it's going to work. For the VAG show, we're redoing the piece for Edmonton Art Gallery: basically a bird aviary.

I love animals and I'd love to do things with horses. It's difficult to do gallery installations, but I like the challenge and a lot of artists have been working like that for the last few years. I've done a lot of in situ installations, in Vienna at the Secession [exhibition] and San Francisco, New York and Montreal. For the most part, it's been a really good experience but curators sometimes get things wrong.

I did a show in Montreal [Cats Radiant City 04] where I was interested in the issue of homeless animals and pets in Quebec because they have no animal welfare; tons of strays are being killed. All I wanted to do was build a structure for the cats. But the gallery didn't like that. They wanted it to be about me, not the SPCA.

On media

You can control media and make yourself less available which is sometimes really attractive. I noticed that in the UK, the media is really harsh with artists that gain any success there. So artists use it and reciprocate the harshness. But more people will go see visual art there on a regular basis and have some sort of opinion about it. But here, sometimes the media tries to be so poetic and it's embarrassing. Around Shapeshifter, [one local newspaper reviewer] did this awful piece about me being the whale. My friends were killing themselves laughing. Please, please don't compare me to whales in captivity!

On geography as inspiration

I do a lot of my best thinking out of the studio. I snowboard and do a lot of outdoor activities and one of the big reasons I live in Vancouver is access to the back country. I would love to live on a farm again, but I don't think I'll leave Vancouver any time soon. I still have a lot of family up north. I used to go up quite a bit but it's hard to get away sometimes. I've traveled an awful lot and complain about it to my friends. They're like, 'poor you.' They don't understand that sometimes I'll go for a few days and I won't see anything. I went to London once for three days and I was in meetings almost the whole time. I didn't see many friends I wanted to see. When I was more into clubbing and going out a lot, that was part of it, but I'm less into that now. Now I like to stay here and work. I miss doing the things I grew up doing.

On working at the margins

Vancouver has a vibrant art community and people do attend events here now. I think a part of the international success of younger artists here is that somewhere like Toronto is a big enough city that it has established art industry. You can have a successful career and never have shown outside Toronto. That does not exist here. You're encouraged to leave. We're so far from any other major centres and travel anyway to see the world. But you come back because this is a good place to live.

On shapeshifting

You have to be skilled at working closely with people installing your work and then shift gears and have a drink with some mega-millionaire collector. It's easy to become - what's the right word? -- seduced, especially into the art press and the glamour I guess, if you consider that glamorous. But there are a lot of things in the art world I'm already kind of wary of. There are times I'd really rather be working, but I have to do media or parties which I find a bit exhausting because I love talking to other artists but when you get involved with institutions, all kinds of other baggage is involved in that package. At the New Museum show there were group after group of patrons. Generally they are very fascinated and ask very intelligent questions, but it's a level of class extension I guess that I find tiring. These people are funding these spaces and buying my artwork so it's the classic dilemma, how much do you want to get involved in this? But it's like any person in their field. It's a privilege to not have to have a day job and I've been making art for a long time. So to be working in this field is unusual.

The Brian Jungen Survey exhibition runs at the VAG from Jan. 28th until April 30th. You can also check out his works at his Vancouver dealer's site:

Danielle Egan is a Vancouver-based writer and frequent contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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