Playing on Court

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Vancouver-based artist Brian Jungen is one of the most captivating contemporary artists in Canada. His reputation has grown for his unique ability to transform everyday items such as Nike shoes, golf bags or plastic lawn chairs into magnificent works of art. Jungen’s Court (2004) is one such stunning example. Comprised of industrial sewing machine tables, it was first shown at the Triple Candie gallery, a former industrial space in Harlem, New York. Court then travelled to the Gwanju Biennial in South Korea before it was acquired by Bob Rennie, an astute businessman and dedicated art collector, who has recently donated it to the Gallery.

Brian Jungen, Court (2004), sewing tables, painted steel, paint, basketball hoops and backboards, 3.7 x 8.6 x 21.5 m installed. NGC. Gift of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver, 2012

Court is a massive installation, commanding an entire gallery to accommodate the 200-plus sewing tables — with the machines removed — that create an expansive “playing” surface. It is, at first take, an elevated basketball court complete with backboards and nets. Yet it becomes immediately obvious that serious injury would incur should anyone attempt a game on this court.

The only form of play that occurs here is wordplay. This is after all, a work of art, and Jungen’s use of the single word “court” as the title, encourages interpretation. The title infers not only a place for a ball game, but also the notion of a court of law. The original Harlem installation drew on the industrial nature of the space to evoke the sweatshop labour involved in the production of the equipment — especially the shoes — that professional basketball players use. The raised platforms supporting the nets also function to provide overviews of the court to impart a sense of dominance, pointedly, over the labour required to feed the consumer-driven desire for heavily marketed products such as basketball shoes. Also at play is the heightened meaning that emerges when one considers the difference between the workers’ sweatshop wages and the professional players’ multimillion-dollar contracts.

Jungen’s work courts analysis — and perhaps judgement — of the social implications of labour exploitation and market-driven desire. These issues are an extension of references to consumerism and hero worship that are at play in much of the artist’s work — and specifically to the well-known series of 23 “masks” he created under the title Prototype for New Understanding (1998—2005) constructed from reconfigured Nike Air Jordan shoes.

And, ironically, as with numerous other Jungen sculptures, the creation of Court is the occasion of massive consumption; in this instance, the hundreds of sewing tables. Through these tables, Jungen both evokes and criticizes rampant consumerism. His point is not a contradiction; rather it is an implication that as consumers we participate in, and are therefore complicit with, the cycle of consumption that Jungen so powerfully lays bare.

Court is currently on view at the NGC in gallery B204.


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