Fetishism, Curiosity, and the Work of Brian Jungen
It may have been my imagination, but the crowds thronging the halls of the Vancouver Art Gallery on the evening of February 3, 2006, seemed slightly more animated than usual, the atmosphere more charged, conversation more electric. The occasion was the opening of Brian Jungen’s much-anticipated exhibition. The Vancouver-based Emily Carr Institute graduate, noted for his inventive appropriation and reconfiguration of common, industrially produced consumer items, particularly those that have a powerful identity on the global market, has become something of a desirable commodity himself as of late. His work re-crafts prefabricated commodities into sculptural objects, a practice that, according to Jungen, arose in part from witnessing his mother’s habit (out of practicality and economic necessity) of “constantly extend[ing] the life of things”1 by recycling household items for new uses. For Jungen, the transformation of these objects is a strategy of exploration and critique, an interrogation of the messy and often uncomfortable intersection of the global economy, the discourses of art, and his own, part aboriginal ancestry and its cultural stereotypes.
The exhibition debuted at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art in the winter of 2005 and, after its installment in Vancouver, will close at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in September. It is curated by Daina Augaitis and is significant for the fact that it marks the first opportunity to consider the full scope of Jungen’s oeuvre. Many of the works on view here, including the artist’s earliest drawings as well as his more recent projects, are gathered together for the first time, and several pieces, such as the almost six-metre teepee constructed from the “skin” and “bones” of eleven Natuzzi leather sofas, were created especially for the Vancouver exhibition.
As the Natuzzi teepee suggests, the criticality of Jungen’s practice hinges upon the confounding of essentialist cultural assumptions, on rendering things impure and unstable, on the double shock of recognition and misrecognition. His work has a particular resonance in and for Vancouver, a place where First Nations culture (and its cultural politics) is especially visible. From the International Airport to Stanley Park, from the newly opened Aboriginal Media Centre to the official insignia of the 2010 Olympic Games, native objects and images not only function centrally in the city’s social imaginary and touristic spectacle, but also in local aboriginal communities’ own claims to economic and cultural capital. Far from a simple comment on the commercialization of First Nations culture, Jungen’s work reveals the production and circulation, aestheticization, and politicization of native objects as a complex and unstable field of negotiation. Writing in the exhibition’s catalogue, Cuauhtémoc Medina calls the pieces “games that mobilize aesthetic and cultural misunderstandings to explore ways to politicize cultural stereotypes in the age of global capitalism.”2
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About the Author
Kimberly Phillips completed her doctorate in the Department of Art History,V isual Art, and Theory at the University of British Columbia, with research interests that focus on the points of intersection between cultural production, political memory, and city space. She has taught at Emily Carr Institute and UBC.