Brian Jungen 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.
He begins with objects that are ordinary, useful, and comforting. When he’s through, they are unique, expensive, and useless. You can’t wear the shoe anymore, and it’s not a mask either. In their previous lives, the white chairs might have seated thousands over the course of many years; now they live in dark rooms until it’s showtime in Brussels or New York or Washington, when people—some with aching feet—stand and look at them. The sculptures—that’s what they are now—are still products you can buy, except not really, because most of them have already been bought, and the ones still available are expensive. Very expensive. Too expensive for me and probably you, but don’t feel bad; there’s strange comfort in knowing that despite his impressive commercial success, not even Brian Jungen can afford Brian Jungen.
In a beautiful scene in Truth or Dare, the vaguely fake 1991 documentary about Madonna on tour, she and her gang are hanging out backstage, engaged in amusing R-rated hijinks, and we’re right there up close, taking it all in. Until, that is, all the racy hanging out turns into a business meeting about money, and the film crew—and the audience—are shown the door. Some things, even for Madonna, really are private. The difference between Brian Jungen and Madonna—well, there are several, but the key difference is this: in a conversation about the political economy of celebrity, the Indian artist from British Columbia would sit at the table with you and discuss, among other things, how mass-produced goods influence the peoples of the world. The most famous woman in the world, not so much.
Back to the Jungen Show. The alabaster whale, the carefully trashed shoes, the towering totems (not!) made from golf bags, these marvels and others are on their first proper U.S. tour, performing daily from ten A.M. to half-past five on America’s front yard, the National Mall. It’s a ten-month gig, with only Christmas Day off. Strange Comfort isn’t technically a touring show, but you can think of it that way, because visitors from across the U.S. and all over the world flock to the National Mall. The venue is the Smithsonian’s newest and most controversial museum. This means that Jungen’s work will be surrounded by a building full of historic Indian material. Previous exhibitions have taken place at contemporary art museums, so this is something new. Let’s be honest and admit that Washington spends little time thinking about either Indians or Canadians, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot to talk about. Nobody knows what will happen.
It’s a bold move, playing the big stone barn on Independence Avenue, but not that surprising for this artist, who’s made a career out of turning up in unexpected places. Brian Jungen operates at the crossroads of two planets that barely acknowledge each other. It’s not much of a crossroads, actually: more like a lonely truck stop, way off the interstate. They’re not really countries, or planets; we usually call them worlds, as in the “international art world” or the “Indian world,” and I think it’s only because we can’t think of anything better. Both are insider terms, and neither means what they say. You might, for instance, think the “international art world” is about artists from across the seven seas, holding hands like in a UNESCO poster. Not true! Actually, this is a very select group of artists (most often from Western countries) who usually have commercial representation, also known as art dealers. Artists who show in places like Chelsea or at the Venice Biennale or Kassel or Basel, who are written about in journals like Artforum. Their work is said to be critically acclaimed and commercially successful, or it will be soon. Although nobody quite knows what the rules are—or even if there are any—the international art world is genuinely about art, and also genuinely about money.
What then is the so-called Indian world? Also about art. Also about money. Culture is our biggest business, except for gambling, which is a new thing. But Indian art is complicated. Indian art is complicated because it is extremely important to Indians, because we believe culture and art are all we have, when you get down to it. Many Indians say things like “We have no word for art.” There were no words for art in Indian languages because, say these many Indians, art was part of everything. Personally, I don’t see how that’s here nor there, and who could possibly know all Indian languages anyway? But what I do know is that lots of Indian artists are interested in having their work seen and discussed and purchased, and therefore would like to be part of the “international art world,” because that’s where the biggest and best stages are. It’s simple. If you love football, and you’re really, really good, where you want to play is the NFL.
These two worlds don’t have that much in common, apart from the fact that they share a certain squeamishness about money. This is, I believe, our special bond. Despite the great strides Art World has made lately in overcoming this condition, it still can be rude to talk about the business side of the business. Even Madonna practices this etiquette. Art World slaps grand names on its shows, like the 53rd International Art Exhibition. Sometimes, like Super Bowls, they are granted roman numerals, as in Documenta XIII. Know what the biggest Indian art show is called? Indian Market. That’s it, no Biennale or Gwangju or nothing. Indian World likes to pretend money is of no special concern when it comes to art, but this is a joke, because money is practically the main concern. There is no subterfuge.
And here’s where Brian Jungen’s work comes in, as a kind of bridge between these two imaginary worlds. He might laugh at this, but it’s true. He’s that rare artist whose work is accessible yet unsettling, funny yet infused with loss, both provincial and global. His work can strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. While many Native artists, for understandable reasons, relentlessly skewer non-Indian ideas about who we are, Jungen brings them into his exhibitions and practically invites them to tea; after he asked people on the street to draw Native art, he turned their sketches into huge, beautiful vinyl works that shared wall space with his own sculpture.
There’s magic at work here, but it’s a pedestrian, democratic kind of magic. Some artists paw through dumpsters for their art, an interesting and honorable strategy which, incidentally, does a nice job in showing how much more sensitive they are than regular folks, who can’t even see art, or potential art, when it’s right there in their trash. Jungen simply buys what he needs, in the same way and at the same stores that you and I frequent. (Even the trash containers in Carapace were purchased.) True, before long they go under the knife, drill, or table saw, and through this creative destruction they increase in value exponentially, but they all begin as ordinary items on a shopping list.
Golf bags and totem poles have nothing—and everything—to do with the Dunne-za people, who are politically and culturally as distant from Vancouver and the Northwest Coast as they are from Los Angeles. Jungen is not a Northwest Coast Indian. His interest in totems and masks from that region is a comment on what critic Charlotte Townsend-Gault called “wallpapering of habitas: the incorporation of Native imagery into the ‘vast heaving mass of ephemeral and disposable forms’ ” of Western culture.
Visitors are surrounded by NMAI’s historic Indian objects as they make their way to Strange Comfort’s third-floor gallery, where they encounter Jungen’s six towering totems, made from high-end golf bags in hues of red, blue, yellow, gray, and black. Each is named for a year (1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010; all created in 2007), and together they recount a half-century of British Columbian and Canadian history These six totems speak both to the “real” totem permanently installed in the NMAI (not far from Crux) and also to a sculpture on view in the most important Canadian embassy in the world, just a few blocks away. This sculpture, Bill Reid’s Spirit of Haida Gwaii, is arguably one of the most celebrated works by any Canadian artist, so famous that it even appears on that country’s twenty-dollar bill. The totems and the Bill Reid sculpture invite discussion about the political dimensions of this “wallpapering” of Native iconography, riffing on the complicated entanglements of Canadian and Native history.
The conversation shifts to the topic of collecting and celebrity with Prototypes for New Understanding. Inspired by a visit to the Niketown store in Manhattan a decade ago, Jungen turned athletic shoes into masks the colors and style of those of the Aboriginal Northwest Coast. 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 they were 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 become a cultural icon, and by the time Brian Jungen saw them at the Nike store in New York, they were displayed in elegant, expensive vitrines, as if in a museum rather than a shoe store.
Only twenty-three Prototypes exist, a reference to the number on Jordan’s uniform. Jungen has refused to create more despite intense demand, which makes them rare collectibles, just like certain Air Jordan models. Or certain Northwest Coast masks and totems. When the artist named the Nike series Prototypes for New Understanding, it was both a description and a kind of hopeful dare, a challenge to see the globalized world differently in order to more clearly understand our collective histories and present circumstances.
To see these works in a museum setting, particularly this museum, ups this challenge still further. What crazy places museums are. Some call them cemeteries for art, which is probably true. They have amazing outré histories, filled with outsized ambitions and criminality and obsession, yet work so hard to be boring. Why is that? The NMAI is built on ground once occupied by an upscale whorehouse, and it exists because one rich guy from New York fell in love with things that Indians made. He bought as much of it as he could, amassing the biggest single collection of Indian stuff in the world. Not the best, but the most. He’s one of the greatest collectors of all time. It was during the 1980s—the decade of excess that saw the rise and rise of Madonna and Michael Jordan—that it was decided this collection needed a new home. There were three suitors: New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, and Texas billionaire Ross Perot. (Imagine if that guy won: I’d probably be working for him right now in Plano, Texas. Maybe even curating Brian Jungen.) If the Smithsonian hadn’t prevailed, there would be no National Museum of the American Indian, certainly not now, and perhaps not ever. The whole thing is kind of a fluke, really. No collection, no NMAI. And no money, no George Gustav Heye, no collection. Like Michael Douglas said in Wall Street: “It’s about money; everything else is conversation.”
In this conversation, Jungen’s art speaks to all that surrounds the National Museum of the American Indian: the Capitol dome, the stuffed elephant, the Bill Reid sculpture, the warehouse full of rockets and airplanes, the visiting schoolkids clothed by Nike, the dream catchers for sale in the NMAI gift shops. It is a meditation on the dangerous beauty and seductive power of objects, on the things Indians make, on the people who seek to possess those things, and on the strange comfort they take from them, when they make them their own.