by Bobby Coleman
It is hard to put into words the vast amount of emotions and interpretations that can be implicated from Brian Jungen’s work currently on view at the National Museum of the American Indian. Jungen, who is originally from Canada, and is of Native American decent, displays works that transform mundane, comforting objects into objects with an almost unsettling appeal. His style of work is similar to that of Tara Donovan in the fact that he is creating something monumental out of something ordinary. He also creates these monumental structures, but they rarely have anything to do with his heritage. However, viewer interpretation of the work may be completely different than Jungen’s intention for his work. The artwork is constantly perceived as having a relationship to Native American culture, which may not always be the case. The artwork is contemporary artwork by a Native American artist, but should not be so quickly assumed as Native American Contemporary Art.
At the entrance of the exhibit you are greeted with large, white killer whale skeleton. The skeleton is roughly thirty feet long and is created from multiple white, plastic lawn chairs. These chairs have been transformed from there normal, fully functional state into something that is no longer functional. The only function it has now is to be gawked at by onlookers in whatever museum it is suspended. When looking at this piece, and any other piece in this exhibition, it is common to start to think about the Native American meanings derived from said piece. The viewer begins to think about how this piece references the relationship between Indians and whales. In Native American culture the killer whale is regarded as the guardian and ruler of the sea.. However, Jungen never intended for this piece to be about the relationship between Indian and whale. Jungen created this piece to symbolize the interaction between human and whale. He was inspired by the many visits to the downtown Vancouver aquarium to see a killer whale known as Bjossa. The whale was eventually moved from Vancouver to Sea World in San Diego where it died shortly thereafter. Viewers of this piece may never be aware of this original intent and often misconstrue the true meaning of the piece due only to the fact that Jungen is Native American.
Another piece that is nearly impossible to miss is “People’s Flag.” This very large banner is made from sewn together red clothing, red umbrella skins, and other mass-produced red textiles. The thought that first comes to mind is that this must be the flag for the Red Nation of Indian people. Here in the United States there is Rednation.net, which is a website for Indian issues, and we also have the Red Nation Film Festival in Los Angeles. Since the sewn together banner is being labeled as a flag and is conglomeration of red textiles this seems to be a relatively clear interpretation of the work. However, Red Nation is a concept that does not really exist in Canada and this piece was in no way created as a way to unify this group of people. The “People’s Flag” was created for the Tate Modern in London. This becomes very important when interpreting this work because Jungen thought it would be rather awkward to create a piece dealing with the native condition in London. This piece was not about the Native American culture, but was an homage to the history of popular protest and to England’s left sided culture. The obvious interpretation of this work was never even acknowledged by the artist until it began to be interpreted as that. How can an artist like Jungen, who has obvious roots in Native American culture, be so unfamiliar with such a widely known term? Jungen did not become aware of this deeper meaning until viewers began to interpret the work in that way. The piece was then accepted as having this Native American connection based solely on viewer interpretations. In turn, this gave the piece more credibility because it had now become about something that relates to the artist. The piece was never about Native American culture, and has been widely misinterpreted based solely on the fact that Jungen is Native American. If this piece was viewed and interpreted as Jungen had originally intended then it would serve no purpose hanging in the National Museum of the American Indian.
Some pieces in this show that I found much more successful than the aforementioned are the “Prototypes for New Understanding.” These pieces are cut and torn Nike Air Jordans that have been reassembled to represent Native American masks. These pieces do something that the previous ones do not. They began to relate to the majority and they also bridge the gap between Native American culture and popular culture. Jungen is once again utilizing the tool of transformation to turn the everyday, mundane object into something of more importance. However, what he has originally started with is not exactly a mundane object. The Nike Air Jordan is very symbolic to the culture that we live in. It can be seen as a status symbol to our culture just as the Native American ritual masks could be viewed as a status symbol to their culture. Jungen could have just as easily gone to Wal-Mart and bought shoes with no iconic label. He could have just as easily torn them apart, put them back together, and probably saved a lot of money going this route. However, this route would have greatly misconstrued the meaning of the pieces. Nike Air Jordans can relate to everyone in our culture, young and old. When they are transformed into the masks they all of sudden transcend that gap between native American culture and other culture. We begin to feel as if we are on the same plane and it is because of the iconic symbol on the shoe, and the relationship we have to that particular shoe.
When looking at the artwork by Brian Jungen it is easy to fall into the trap of believing the pieces relate to the Native American culture. Many of the pieces have such obvious connections that it seems almost wrong to think that they could be about anything else. Brian Jungen may have roots in Native American culture but this does not mean that his artwork is as strongly rooted.