Native Sport


CURRENTLY ON VIEW: “Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort,” at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., through Aug. 8. 

With an ingenious recycling of common materials and a striking iconography derived from Native American forms (he is a member of the Dane-zaa First People of British Columbia), Brian Jungen has captured critical and curatorial attention in the past few years. He had a solo show at Tate Modern in 2006 and another organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery that traveled in 2005-07, and he is currently the subject of “Strange Comfort,” the first-ever solo exhibition of a living artist at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. The show includes a sampling of the artist’s recent work bookended by earlier pieces: Shapeshifter (2000), a convincing model of a whale skeleton hanging by transparent wires at the entrance to the museum’s large third-floor contemporary art gallery, and six examples of his best-known “mask” series “Prototypes for a New Understanding” (1998-2005), displayed in glass cases at the end of the show.

      Over 20 feet long, the monumental Shapeshifter is constructed of innumerable white sawed-up generic plastic patio chairs and suspended in front of a black wall. Jungen’s skill is in clear evidence: the sine-like curve of the whale’s spine is seamless in execution, and the skeleton appears lithe, an impression that belies the work’s crude components. One is reminded of Gabriel Orozco’s Mobile Matrix (2006), a reassembled (actual) whale skeleton, its bones embellished with linear drawings in graphite—though Orozco’s work is later, and approaches the binary nature/man-made from a different angle.  Shapeshifter, whose title refers to the concept of transformation found in many Native oral traditions, is both a critique of questionable whaling practices that have resulted in the extinction or near-extinction of the species and a hand-crafted reclamation of anonymously produced materials. As in so much of Jungen’s work, an act of destruction—here, of the plastic chairs—becomes key to the process of creation, recuperating, in a sense, the anonymous labor represented by the cheap, disposable goods consumed by first-world economies. 

      Many of the later pieces likewise involve animal imagery and reflect similar strategies in the selection of materials and their construction. Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky), 2008, is a large mobile (approximately 26 by 20 by 16 feet) depicting five creatures—possum, crocodile, emu, shark and eagle—hung by steel wire from an overturned wooden rowboat, itself suspended in NMAI’s main lobby along with a Totoro Reed Boat made by the Aymara people of Bolivia and another craft constructed by Chippewa artisans. Conceived for the 2008 Sydney biennial, Crux is based on the artist’s travels in Australia, where he was struck by the continent’s exceptionally clear night skies and the steady flow of air traffic through them. The animals depicted in the mobile, created from cut-up suitcases, refers to the faunal imagery in Aboriginal constellations, and the luggage parts evoke the countless travelers and visitors drawn to the continent.

      Like Crux, Carapace mimics aspects of the natural world by means of synthetic elements—in this case, green industrial waste bins. In its first iteration (at Frac des Pays de la Loire in Carquefou, France, in spring 2009) the 22-foot-high curving piece looked like a giant tortoise shell, as well as an igloo—a likeness that recalls Mario Merz’s structures, also created out of cheap or common materials. At NMAI Jungen reconfigured Carapace, removing its top, breaking the work into two inward-curving walls, and overlaying the bins at the base. The result—no longer bearing any resemblance to an animal shell, despite the title—is a bulkier pair of sculptures that resembles a sports stadium broken into two parts.

      In jarring contrast is Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time (2001), which was inspired by an escape attempt by an inmate at the Millhaven Maximum Security Prison near Kingston, Ontario in 1980.  The prisoner hid inside a hollow he fashioned within stacks of lunch trays that were to be transported out of the facility.  Out of multiple stacks of plastic trays in different shades, Jungen constructed a squat, rectangular tower; each tray corresponds to an aboriginal male incarcerated in a Canadian prison, and each shade represents his sentence (life, 10 or more years, six to 10 years, etc.). In reducing the truth of aboriginal incarceration to an abstract formula, Jungen alludes to the prisoners’ deindividualization and dehumanization. Adding a sense of futility is the inaccessibility of the piece’s interior (there is no entrance), and the fact that, within, a television—its glow emanating here and there through the stacks—relentlessly plays a low-volume looping audiotape of weekday broadcast programming from a local D.C. TV station. 

Jungen has built a significant body of work on the thematic juxtaposition of professional sports culture and Native iconography.  He was prompted to create “Prototypes for New Understanding” (1998-2005), 23 sculptures resembling First Nation masks and fashioned from deconstructed Nike Air Jordan sneakers (the 23 refers to Michael Jordan’s jersey number), after seeing shoes in sleek vitrines at the Nike store in New York, a display that seemed to elevate the products to the level of museum-worthy art objects (and a subject that has attracted Andreas Gursky, as well). The colors too—red, white, and black—struck him; they are the signature colors of the art and artifacts of Northwest Coast Indians. Jungen began cutting up and reconfiguring the expensive commodities, coveted and worn by youth all over the globe. Despite the Native American allusion, the “Prototypes” are often mistakenly likened to African masks—a misunderstanding bred of Western cultural stereotyping (i.e., that all “primitive” masks look alike).  It is a misprision that Jungen actually welcomes. The “Prototypes” are also meant to point out the commodification of their own culture by Native people. “Culture is our biggest business, except for gambling, which is a new thing,” curator Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche, notes sarcastically in the exhibition brochure.

      Jungen has also made totem pole-like forms out of stacked, squashed golf bags (titled for years—1980, 1970, and 1960—that are historically significant to Native-Canadians, although the artist has been purposefully obscure about specifics) and tribal-looking blankets woven from cut-up professional sports jerseys on which fragmented names and numbers are still legible (first seen at the artist’s gallery in New York, Casey Kaplan, in 2008)—too legible, in fact, to allow an interesting transformation of the source material. When the sports-material-based sculptures are successful, however, they attest provocatively to the many relationships—some uneasy—that exist between contemporary professional sports and Native cultures. The Prince (2006), for example, a life-size figure made of baseball gloves and a dress form, recalls the wooden Indian chief statues that once routinely stood in front of tobacco shops. Such works reference, as well, the persistent use of Native stereotypes as sports mascots and team names (Redskins, Chiefs, Seminoles, etc.). There are also more benign parallels: the similarities between sports and Native ceremony and ritual, for example—a connection the artist has frequently spoken of--or the sense of belonging to a group or tribe that playing a team sport affords.

      Skull (2006-09), a work resembling a human skull both in size and likeness, was created from cut-up used baseballs and softballs, the dismantled pieces of worn leather folded and stitched to create the requisite curves and voids. The reference to scalping, long associated—rightly or wrongly—with Native people who may or may not have practiced it, is inescapable here, since it is skin, albeit cow’s skin, comprising this facsimile. Skull also recalls shrunken human heads preserved for ritual, trophy or trade purposes, mostly by indigenous people of the Amazon Basin. Like Shapeshifter, Skull brings Orozco to mind—specifically, Black Kites (1997), a human skull on which the Mexican artist drew a checkerboard with graphite; both works draw wry parallels between mortality and game or sport.  

      Given the many associations conjured by Skull, one is reminded again of the Western tendency to treat the artifacts of Native cultures as anthropological specimens. Jungen’s “displays” in vitrines are reminiscent of works by the Native American artist James Luna—for example The Artifact Piece (1985-7), a live installation in which Luna, wearing only a loincloth, lay on a bed of sand in a glass museum display case, in order to indict the treatment of Native individuals as objects of curiosity, and their cultures as dead forms.  Jungen’s irony in Skull is less sensationalistic, as is his oeuvre in general, but it is effective all the same.  Jungen leavens the seriousness of his message through startling esthetic collisions, often drawing from wildly disparate frames of reference.  In doing so, he moves us to both self-criticism and delight. 

Art in America, May 2010

1 “Brian Jungen” opened at the New Museum in New York (2005), then traveled to the Vancouver Art Gallery (2006), the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (2006), the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich (2007) and the Witte de With in Rotterdam (2007). 2 There are two other pieces in the artist’s whale series, Cetology (2002) and Vienna (2003), which are not included in this exhibition.3 Mobile Matrix hangs in Mexico’s National Library and was recently loaned for Orozco’s retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where it was installed in the main atrium; see Nancy Princenthal, “Game Changer,” Art in America, March 2010, pp. 126-35.4 Jungen changes the soundtrack with each installation of the piece.5 The 15-page brochure, with essays by Paul Chaat Smith and Candice Hopkins, is posted online at Megan Gambino, “One Man’s Trash is Brian Jungen’s Treasure,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2009, online at