Brian Jungen’s Vienna on View in Winnipeg


Brian Jungen, Vienna (2003), white polypropylene plastic chairs, 125 x 850 x 130 cm. Purchased 2004 with the Joy Thomson Fund for the Acquisition of Art by Young Canadian Artists, National Gallery of Canada Foundation. NGC

Some works of art cannot help but seduce the viewer — if not for their beauty or execution, then perhaps simply for the ideas they propose. Brian Jungen’s sculpture Vienna, on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) until January 4, is a work that does all three.

The 8.5-metre-long sculpture looks amazingly like the skeleton of a whale at first glance. However, it also plays a neat trick by presenting the idea and appearance of a whale, then flipping that notion around when, upon closer inspection, the “skeleton” turns out to be made of chopped-up white plastic patio chairs.

“I think people connect to Vienna, and to Brian’s whale sculptures in general, because they first recognize them as whales, and we as people have a long history of being captivated by whales and going to see them — of being fascinated by their skeletons hanging in natural history museums,” explains Greg Hill, the National Gallery of Canada’s Audain Curator of Indigenous Art. “What captivates the viewer is that they think the sculpture is one thing, then they look at it closer and it becomes something else — actually adding to the idea of the original object in the first place. Jungen’s work is always a combination of those effects.”

The appeal of the work, Hill says, is also tied to how easily viewers can see Jungen’s hand in its creation, allowing them to understand how it is constructed, the materials of which it’s made, and just how creatively Jungen has used those materials to create art. “How many of us, after all, could look at a cheap, disposable plastic lawn chair and imagine it being turned into a sculpture that resembles the skeleton of a whale?” Hill asks. 

By prompting viewers to contemplate the disposable plastic patio chair within the same context as a whale, Jungen is creating a push-and-pull effect that draws the viewer into contemplating the whale’s plight. He encourages us to make connections between the plundering of whale populations as a natural resource and, for example, the extraction of fossil fuels — the very material that goes into the plastic chairs that have been transformed into this remarkable sculpture.

Jungen is a Vancouver-based artist. His father was Swiss-born and immigrated to British Columbia with his family when he was three years old. Jungen's mother was a member of the Dane-zaa First Nation. Jungen was seven when both parents perished in a fire, after which he was raised by his father’s sister and her husband.

He studied at Concordia University, and graduated from the Emily Carr Institute of Design in 1992 with a Diploma in Visual Art. He has since exhibited around the world, and was the winner of the inaugural Sobey Art Award in 2002. Jungen has a history of challenging contemporary consumer culture with work that begins by seducing the viewer with one idea, then turning that idea on its head to make his point.

Vienna, on loan to the WAG from the NGC as a part of the [email protected] program, is the third in a series of sculptures of whales made by Jungen from plastic chairs. The first, Shapeshifter (2000), is also in the National Gallery of Canada’s collection; the second, Cetology (2002), is in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery; and the third and final whale sculpture, Vienna (2003), is named for the place in which it was made.

Dr. Stephen Borys, Director & CEO of the WAG, says that the work of this award-winning contemporary artist perfectly integrates with the mission of the WAG as a creative, innovative, and accessible place for learning, discovery, and inspiration.

“Jungen artistically takes an object and transforms it into a completely new form,” says Borys. “In doing so, he opens the door to conversation about consumption. We are all consumers, and Vienna encourages us to stop and consider why and what we purchase. His work will engage Winnipeggers in meaningful conversation on both consumer habits and on an artistic level.”

Vienna by Brian Jungen is on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until January 4, 2015. For more information, please click here

Share this article: 

About the Author