Jungen @ VAG

Brian Jungen Cetology 2002 at Vancouver Art Gallery June 2020 - 1

Optimal stock,” manifest here as plastic white monobloc chairs repurposed for this herculean ocean-going vessel, is the epitome of disposable.i It’s as cheap as possible and sometimes even cheaper.

It’s also the bones we’re leaving behind.

But whereas the bones of every other species return to the dust from whence they came, human bones live beyond us. This is our blessing when it comes to art, architecture, literature, and religion, that our structures outlive our tragically short lives,ii but it’s our curse when our earthly refuse piles high towards the skies and sinks deep into our waters, never to degrade.

Half-Swiss, half-First-Nations (Dane-zaa), Brian Jungen has made a successful career out of “remixing” this contemporary consumerist “optimal stock” culture with ancient West Coast Native art forms.iii Describing his practice as “a return to the use of whatever a Native American artist has at his disposal,”  he makes totem poles out of golf bags, masks out of Air Jordans, and whale skeletons out of plastic chairs.

Thus we have Cetology (2002). Not an easy piece to find a home for, it takes up several thousand square feet of white-walled interior space at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG).iv Part of a series of three 21′ x 40′ sculptures crafted by Brian Jungen between 2000-2003, Cetology is a striking silhouette of death, destruction, despair… and child-like creativity.v More powerful than a hundred billboards, more moving than a thousand television ads, the bowhead whale depicted by Jungen bursts forth from the screen,vi begging to be touched… lightly… as lightly as we ought to touch the living creatures themselves.

While large-scale sculptures are in some ways a “cheat code” towards wowing viewers, their size also makes their imperfections that much more exposed; the level of craft and attention to detail that much more vulnerable to critique.vii Koons, Jungen ain’t, so a more microscopic focus reveals prototyping (à la Virgil) rather than perfection, but the ability to walk under and into the skeleton invites Serra-like engagement, yet with a stronger call to action than any of the other artists heretofore mentioned.viii

Cetology is, then, a 40-foot reminder that to the active goes the agency. And there’s absolutely nothing disposable about that.

Brian Jungen Cetology 2002 at Vancouver Art Gallery June 2020 - 2
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  1. I can’t say that I run across these white monobloc chairs too much anymore, but I still see them and use them at SCR along the shady side of the paddock. Jay clearly isn’t burdened by my more sophisticated (read: expensive) tastes in furniture.
  2. A lifetime just isn’t that long! I can’t emphasise this enough. A lifetime just. is. not. that. long.
  3. In 2009, Jungen became the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington DC.
  4. Yes, I was back in the open skies this weekend, and yes, it felt incredible!

    Long-time readers will recall that VAG is also where I took in the restless Giacometti.

  5. The series includes Shapeshifter (2000), Cetology (2002) and Vienna (2003).
  6. Is our mind not a screen?
  7. Similarly, a 47mm Greubel Forsey is a lot harder to execute than a 34mm Philippe Dufour.
  8. All Koons can muster in his viewers is a passive and internal, if still important, self-acceptance.

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