- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 25, 2009

A whale skeleton introduces visitors to the newest exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian, but the impressive specimen isn’t a relic from nature. The bones turn out to be parts of cheap plastic patio chairs, just some of the everyday designs recycled into inventive art by Canadian Brian Jungen.

This Vancouver-based artist of half native descent pulls apart mundane products — trash cans, shoes, suitcases — and reconfigures them into wondrous sculptures and environments. Part artist, part craftsman, he specializes in turning sports gear into sculptures suggestive of the artifacts produced by Pacific Northwest Indian tribes.

“Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort,” the first show of a living artist at the museum, surveys the 39-year-old’s exuberant work through two dozen pieces. The exhibit shows how Mr. Jungen resourcefully bridges mass and indigenous cultures, while addressing timely issues of consumerism and globalization.

The implications of his pieces are serious, but the artist’s colorful pieces can be as playful as children’s toys. “Crux,” a large mobile installed in the museum’s rotunda, turns scraps of hard luggage into fanciful animals. Dancing in space are an emu and an opossum on wheels, a striped crocodile and a shark plus a red sea eagle, all suspended around an upside-down rowboat.

The menagerie depicts species native to Australia, where Mr. Jungen made the piece for the 2008 Sydney Biennale. It represents the animals seen by Aborigines in the constellation called the Southern Cross, or Crux, that is visible from the southern hemisphere. Made of “lost” luggage, the mobile’s creatures suggest themes of displacement along with their obvious visual delight.

Mr. Jungen’s best-known works refashion the high-end style of Nike sneakers worn by basketball star Michael Jordan into sculptures imitative of the ceremonial masks made by Pacific Northwest Indians. He cleverly forms each part of the face from different parts of the shoes, including toes for headdresses, open heels for mouths and Nike “swooshes” for eyes.

More dramatic are his 12- to 13-foot-tall totem poles made from golf bags, tees and balls. Some of their parts are arranged to suggest heads with birdlike beaks.

Although he is from northeastern British Columbia, not the Northwest coast, Mr. Jungen is sensitive to the cliches surrounding all indigenous cultures, including the notion that natives from different regions are the same. His use of consumer goods to re-create handcrafted designs might be seen as commentary on the commercialization of Indian artifacts, particularly in the Northwest where plastic totem poles and mass-produced trinkets are common to the tourist trade.

The sculptures also affirm the role of pricey consumer goods like Air Jordans as fetishes for contemporary society in much the same way masks and totem poles served native tribes.

Another of Mr. Jungen’s Indian-themed sculptures is a standing figure of a brave assembled from pieces of baseball mitts. Named “The Prince” after Niccolo Machiavelli’s treatise of the same title, the leather-padded mannequin could be a metaphor for the Machiavellian practices of gaining power over indigenous peoples through political expediency and deceit. It also calls attention to the native names and imagery used by baseball teams, such as the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves.

As noted in the exhibit, the artist gravitates to athletic equipment because he is interested in how sports, with its rules, uniforms and team colors, fills a need for ceremony in modern culture.

That Mr. Jungen creates a hybrid art of mass-produced objects and indigenous imagery is understandable considering his background. Born to a Swiss-Canadian father and a native Dunne-za mother, he grew up in the small city of Fort St. John watching his Indian relatives salvage and reuse household objects out of economic necessity.

One of Mr. Jungen’s clear talents is to assemble the most banal objects into compelling architecture. An enclosure called “Carapace” is assembled from plastic waste bins, inviting visitors to crawl inside its green dome. Reminiscent of a turtle shell, the pavilion could serve a practical purpose as a chapel or a meeting place given the seats arranged on both sides of its interior.

A more pretentious construction, “Isolated Depictions of the Passage of Time,” resembles a TV console, but its stacks of bright plastic trays are meant to represent Aboriginal men incarcerated in Canadian prisons.

In creating the piece, Mr. Jungen was inspired by a hollowed-out structure of cafeteria trays built by a prisoner as a hiding place to briefly elude authorities. In his installation, the artist set a television inside the cavity to play the type of daytime shows watched by inmates as they serve their time.

In addition to showing off his architectural skills, the exhibit reveals Mr. Jungen’s ability to transform utilitarian containers with decorative adornments. Three of his pieces are made from five-gallon plastic gasoline cans pierced with tiny holes tracing delicate patterns of dragonflies, butterflies and flowers.

The images of endangered insects and poisonous blossoms (depicting the white death camas native to Canada) might well symbolize petroleum’s questionable future and its destructive impact on the environment.

Through his recycling of familiar products, Mr. Jungen succeeds in enticing the viewer to consider his critiques of cultural stereotypes and contemporary society. But even when the messages aren’t entirely clear, his playful pieces are so brilliantly constructed that their visual power can be enjoyed alone.

WHAT: “Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort”
WHERE: National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; through Aug. 8
PHONE: 202/633-1000
WEB SITE: www.nmai.si.edu



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