Patio Chairs and White Whales: Brian Jungen’s Shapeshifter and Vienna
Brian Jungen, Vienna (left), 2003, white polypropylene plastic chairs, 125 x 850 x 130 cm. NGC. Purchased 2004 with the Joy Thomson Fund for the Acquisition of Art by Young Canadian Artists, National Gallery of Canada Foundation / Brian Jungen, Shapeshifter (right), 2000, white polypropylene plastic chairs, 145 x 660 x 132 cm. NGC
This winter, aficionados of Canadian contemporary and Indigenous art won’t want to miss a special display in Upper Contemporary Gallery B205 at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).
Brian Jungen’s Shapeshifter (2000) and Vienna (2003) are currently on view together at the NGC. Although both works are part of the national collection, such is their size — at 6.6 metres (21 feet) and 8.5 metres (28 feet) respectively — that they are not often displayed side by side.
Created as the first and third in a trilogy of works meant to resemble whale skeletons, Shapeshifter and Vienna — along with the second, Cetology (2002), in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery — are constructed of inexpensive plastic patio chairs. Representing an animal considered by many Indigenous peoples to be a creature of great spiritual power, Jungen’s whale sculptures also suggest displays in natural history museums, and bring to mind captive whales in marine shows and aquariums.
Brian Jungen, Shapeshifter, 2000, white polypropylene plastic chairs, 145 x 660 x 132 cm. NGC
Jungen was born in 1970 in a remote part of northern British Columbia. His father was Swiss-born, and his mother was Dane-Zaa. Jungen began his studies at Concordia University in Montreal, later graduating from the Emily Carr Institute of Design in Vancouver, B.C. He was the winner of the first-ever Sobey Art Award in 2002, and has been featured in solo and group exhibitions around the world, including Sakahàn and dOCUMENTA (13). The Vancouver-based artist’s work can also be found in numerous public and private collections.
One of the hallmarks of Jungen’s artistic practice is his experimentation with commercial materials to create unexpected constructions. Key works include Indigenous masks composed of cut-up running shoes, totem poles made of golf bags, and teepees made of leather sofas. In addition to sculpture, he is also known for monumental fibre-based works such as People’s Flag (2006) and installations such as Court (2004), both of which are also in the national collection.
Having Shapeshifter and Vienna hanging in one room offers visitors a unique opportunity to compare different approaches and materials. The name of the first work, Shapeshifter, refers to the spiritual transformation prevalent in many cultures between humans, animal and supernatural beings. In this case, the work also reflects the artist’s transformation of an everyday consumer product — cheap, white plastic chairs — into objects of eerie power and majesty.
The name of the companion work — Vienna — indicates the place it was made. Given that the plastic chairs used in its construction were also sourced in Vienna, visitors may find it interesting to compare the materials used in the two sculptures.
Brian Jungen, Vienna, 2003, white polypropylene plastic chairs, 125 x 850 x 130 cm. NGC. Purchased 2004 with the Joy Thomson Fund for the Acquisition of Art by Young Canadian Artists, National Gallery of Canada Foundation
Jungen’s whales also evoke environmental concerns. Spills of petroleum — the primary component in plastic — come to mind, as do drifting masses of refuse in the Pacific Ocean. Thought to collectively cover an area approximately half the size of the North American continent, these “garbage patches” are primarily composed of plastics and often extend to a depth of some 30 metres (100 feet), compromising both the free movement and wellbeing of marine life.
In a number of Indigenous legends and creation stories, whales figure prominently. Whales create the world, and whales save humans. Whales also cause destruction, and whales are hunted. In today’s world, they are chased to extinction by factory ships, and their bones fill seabed graveyards near old whaling ports.
In the Pacific Northwest, from which Jungen has drawn much of his inspiration, whales remain an integral part of Indigenous culture. And in these whale sculptures made of disposable consumer plastics, Jungen has created an enduring tribute to these giants of the deep, and their intricate dance with humanity.
Shapeshifter and Vienna are currently on view in the National Gallery of Canada’s Upper Contemporary Gallery B205.