Monday, March 20, 2006

What I Did On My Spring Vacation

Well, I read a lot. I obviously didn't post anything for a week. I spent a lot of time with my girlfriend, She Who Is Both Wise and Beautiful. I saw the Brian Jungen exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which was fascinating, and suffered through the explanatory tour of the exhibit, which was not.

The exhibit was great. It gathered together all of Jungen's Prototype for a New Understanding pieces. These are the famous masks he made out of Nike Air Jordan sneakers, starting in the late 1990s. Jungen created items that, from a distance, look like authentic North West Coast aboriginal masks. The black, white and red Air Jordan colours and the round and oblong shapes of the sneakers lend themselves to coastal-style artwork.

Along with the masks, there were three whale skeletons made from plastic lawn chairs, a birdhouse made from IKEA magazine holders (with finches in residence) a teepee made entirely from 10 "skinned and dismembered" leather couches, and some cargo pallets handcrafted from cedar planks.

All of Jungen's work seems - to me - to be kind of funny. Making masks out of sneakers? Great joke! Teepee from sofas? Hilarious! I think the best one of all is the cargo pallets, lovingly varnished and joined together without visible nails.

Is any of this humour acknowledged by the VAG? Nope. Not a damn bit of it. I know there's a very serious subtext to everything Jungen is doing here. He's deliberately conflating Native stereotypes with consumer junk, or rebuilding cheap Canadian Tire furniture into works of fine art. But as far as I can tell, it's actually supposed to be funny. (Most of it, anyway.)

Look at the lawn furniture-whales. They are actually the least funny part of the exhibit. First of all, they are amazingly crafted sculptures in their own right. It takes a real craftsman (I prefer craft to art 90 per cent of the time) to take a pile of lawn chairs and envision them carved up and rebuilt into a skeleton. Instead, they are at first elegant. When you realize what they are constructed from, they are both funny and all the more impressive. Jungen has drawn beauty out of a pile of plastic junk. It's really worth seeing.

The museum spiel is all about consumerism and the natural world. And yes, I agree that you certainly can see it that way. But it's also possible to look at the whales as an object of great beauty, and to marvel at the materials used for its construction. Hell, maybe Jungen is trying to make us see what can be created from the detritus around us if we can see with fresh eyes. I'd like to ask him some day.

(At this point, there will be a brief digression for ranting. In a nook near the whale skeletons was a "kids corner" that contained a glaring scientific error. It was a series of ideas for discussion with children about the exhibit, which said that whales die, fossilize, and then their fossils turn into oil, which can then be turned into plastic, for example, lawn chairs. No, NO, NO! First of all, most animals don't fossilize at all. Second, the process of fossilization is one of mineralization. The matter composing bones [or skin, feathers, leaves, bark, fur, etc] is removed and replaced by minerals. Fossils of this type are made of stone. They do not, at any point, magically turn into oil! Most oil comes from microscopic animals and plants that decay and are compressed under seafloor sediment. Coal is composed mostly of trees. To the VAG: learn some fucking science, you goddamn arrogant liberal arts majors!)

The essence of many jokes is the sudden and unexpected juxtaposition of two unrelated, concepts. If one of them is scary or "unclean," even better. That fits what Jungen is doing perfectly. My first reaction when I see his stuff is to laugh. And then to think. But it's the laugh that draws me in. Without the humour, it's just another pretentious museum exhibit.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

This letter of complaint is in regards to your latest post. I am a regular reader of your blog for its fascinating examination of the effects of fossilized matter on the developement of human society, with a particular emphasis on Polynesian society. These are the posts that I find terribly interesting. So when I read your latest post in which you pooh-poohed the furtherance of the influence of fossilized matter on our young children, I can only say that i was shocked and appalled. Your cavalier attitude towards fossil-based learning is wrong-headed in the extreme and I am afraid that I must discontinue my perusing of your blog.


Admiral Horace Wubble-Button III (deceased)

Matthew said...

From the Desk of the Iguanodon,

Dear Sir Wubble-Button,

Your wilfull misrepresentation of my writings can only be taken as an attempt to actively slander my writings, my person, my family honour and my collection of commemorative walnuts. I have in no way pooh-poohed the influence of fossilized matter on young children - nay, the reverse! I have launched a salvo against the egregious misuse of fossilized matter, and hope to see the Vancover Art Gallery make amends for dishonouring those noble bits of mineralized bone.

Yours, thumb-spikily,

The Iguanodon.