Opening today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is a new exhibition that will run through August 8, 2010. Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort is a major exhibit showcasing the critically acclaimed works of the Canadian-based artist and is his first exhibition organized by a Native American museum. Jungen’s work has been on display around the world, including the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in Quebec, and the Witte de With in the Netherlands.
The NMAI’s first solo exhibition since its opening in 2004, Strange Comfort is exactly that. The stunning “Crux” is your first view of Jungen’s work – recognizable from the crocodile piece show in the recent ads around town – and only continues to intrigue and inspire when you visit the main gallery on the third floor.
Jungen, of Dunne-za First Nations and Swiss-Canadian ancestry, explores several themes through his art. The use of every-day objects to create Indian cultural icons is something very different, born from Native ingenuity of crafting one object out of another, a common practice with many First Nation people. Jungen commented in the NMAI’s press release that he grew up watching his Dunne-za relatives recycle everything from car parts to shoe boxes. “It was a kind of salvaging born out of practical and economic necessity, and it greatly influenced how I see the world as an artist.”
It shows. The first piece to greet visitors in the main gallery is a suspended whale skeleton entitled “Shapeshifter” – made entirely out of white plastic lawn chairs. (This was easily my favorite piece of the collection.) It’s utterly reflective of something one would see at a natural history museum – indeed, a visitor need only roam over to Sant Ocean Hall to see something similar. But the realization that it was made from simple white lawn furniture, the kind that nearly everyone has on their deck or back yard, makes the piece comforting, not intimidating.
Consider “Prince,” made entirely of baseball gloves and a dress form. Jungen captures the iconic image of an Indian chieftain with its form and shape, but draws you closer to the piece with the knowledge of its material. The simpleness of the items used redefines in a sense how you begin to see the world around you.
Probably the best example of this is the series of totem poles made out of golf bags and cardboard tubes. As you look on in rapt attention, you begin to see the images of faces within the stacked columns through the use of symmetrics and cleverly-positioned handles and straps. Something so iconic of corporate deal-making and upper-class sport is transformed and brought into the foundations of Indian culture.
“Carapace,” argueably the one piece custom-made for NMAI (it had to be shipped over in pieces, which Jungen then assembled to his satisfaction within the gallery, making it a bit different than previous displays), allows people to walk through it. The dome-shaped structure made out of green trash cans and recycling containers suggests a turtle’s shell, linking it to many First Nations creation stories. But in truth, the piece reflects Jungen’s interest in geodesic architecture and the environment. Again, a combinational melding of modern materials and thought with established cultural identities and nature.
Overall, 24 pieces grace the entire collection, curated by Paul Chaat Smith. Other pieces of note are the Northwest regional iconographic masks made from Nike Air Jordans (“Prototype for New Understanding”), an interweaving of professional sports jerseys to make a Native-patterned blanket (“Blanket No. 7”), and delicately carved five-gallon gasoline jugs (“Monarch,” “Dragonfly,” “White Death Camas”).
The most intriguing sculpture was an always-on television encased in multi-colored serving trays (“Isolated Depictions of the Passage of Time”), representing the number of Aboriginal men doing time in Canadian prisons, color-coded to the length of each sentence. It was a piece with more sound than sight – the television is all but hidden from view though you could hear it – and once you understood his message, you couldn’t help but think. Its ordinariness took on a whole new meaning, forcing the viewer to change perspective.
And that, at the root of it all, was what I think Jungen is trying to tell us. Out of the ordinary everyday icons of our modern world one can find a deeper meaning, infused with the uniqueness of our own beliefs, understanding and preconceptions. And often enough, you end up finding the past in the modern, bringing a sense of comfort within its strangeness.