A Level Playing Field: Brian Jungen's Friendship Centre
Brian Jungen graduated from Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1992 and had his first solo exhibition in Vancouver in 1997. During that time, the National Basketball Association (NBA) expanded the league into Canada and established both the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors franchises in 1995. While the Grizzlies relocated to Memphis in 2001, the Raptors experienced varying degrees of success until finally, this summer, the team dramatically won its first NBA championship and inspired a new wave of basketball fever across the entire country. On June 17, the team was celebrated with an epic, record-setting parade that saw nearly one million fans crowd the 4 km route through downtown Toronto. As the vehicles carrying the team prepared for their departure, the media preview for Jungen’s twenty-year retrospective exhibition, titled Friendship Centre, was underway at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).
While entirely coincidental, these two events were altogether synergic: Jungen is renowned for his sculptural practice in which he deconstructs Nike Air Jordan basketball sneakers and remakes them into objects resembling Northwest Coast masks and, more recently, ritualistic headdresses. In preparation for the exhibition for the past year, he had already been planning to transform one massive room at the AGO into his version of a gymnasium. During the three-week run of the NBA final series between the Raptors and the Golden State Warriors, he did just that: laying down a black rubberized floor throughout the AGO's Sam and Ayala Zacks Pavilion and marking out the baselines, sidelines, free throw and midcourt lines, as well as the three-point arcs in brilliant bands of red, orange, magenta, yellow, green and mint. Naming the installation Friendship Centre, Jungen wanted to pay homage to the cultural spaces Indigenous communities gather in that offer social, spiritual and recreational services for members of the urban community. Friendship centres often house gym and sports facilities – these two types of public, multipurpose venues are places where people come together not only to play and exercise, but also to hold important meetings, celebrations and pow wow ceremonies. There is a cultural mixing that happens in them: they are both sites where the variety of activities helps break down the differences between people and brings them together in new or unexpected ways.
This modification of the vernacular into something that takes on extraordinary potential also mirrored the way that ordinary vehicles like buses and trucks were converted into chariots to float Toronto's basketball team through the throngs of people gathering in the streets. An act of spontaneity but ordered in its chaotic, understood behavioural codes, the parade demonstrated the connective, ceremonial potential of sport to coalesce a community of disparate individuals into a new, mass entity. This mirroring also reflects the transformative way Jungen has, for the course of his career, taken consumer goods and remade them into artistic entities that harbour double-edged meanings which both question and celebrate the pomp and circumstance of sports, the art world and ritualized communal activities. The notion of turning the elite "white cube" into a recreational zone only furthers the artist’s interest in repurposing the gallery into a more sociable space.
On view in this particular section of the exhibition are more than three dozen of Jungen’s Air Jordan mask and headdress sculptures: 20 of the 23 Prototypes for A New Understanding (his first series completed between 1999 and 2005), as well as 19 now-wearable pieces created a decade later (2015–18), including the menacing Intimidation Mask recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. Arranged like ‘players’ on his gym floor, these multi-coloured figures – formed out of multiple pairs of sneakers that Jungen has disassembled, retrofitted, sliced apart and sewn back together – come to life as though in the middle of their own round of pick up ball.
Four pieces recalling Haida totem poles – pillars fashioned by stacking TaylorMade golf bags – act like towering referees, while the Blanket works – woven and fringed football jerseys hung on the walls – along with a series of Wall Drawings of prototypical ‘native’ imagery appear like team pennants and insignias, celebrating a championship win in the former case or, in the later, mascots branding this particular arena. There is an ingenuity to all these works, in the way Jungen is able to see the artistic potential in his materials, but also, and more critically, the way that by doing so he juxtaposes the tensions between the fetishization of sporting goods and Indigenous culture. Both have been subject to similar levels of commodification, collector culture and reified display methods.
The exhibition continues through three other galleries, each showing Jungen’s innovative ability to repurpose objects like furniture, freezer boxes, car parts and jerry cans into equally sardonic and surprising versions of whale bones, ceremonial drums and beaded tapestries. Each room also demonstrates the distinct refinement that has developed in Jungen’s practice. One also gains insight into his archival working method through some very early drawings, such as Vernacular (1988–2001), as well as the wall of shoe boxes that contain a small selection of his personal collection of materials and found objects, or the five-hour video compilation that details and tracks behind-the-scenes moments filmed and gathered by the artist over the past 20-plus years. This projected, three-screen album is punctuated every half hour with panoramic footage from a massive pow wow Jungen attended in Alberta a few years ago. As the only sound in the exhibition, the drumming, singing and chanting reverberates rhythmically through the gallery, and on that particular day, it echoed simultaneously with the crowds outside hailing their basketball heroes.
Unaware of the ruckus taking place in the streets until after the press preview, Jungen appeared genuinely excited when he was able to check his phone – lit up by being part of, and in tune with, the zeitgeist of the city. Visitors will continue to feel this vibration in Friendship Centre: intelligent, provocative and of-the-moment, Jungen (with the AGO) has created something truly special here, which in-and-of-itself, deserves to be celebrated.
Brian Jungen: Friendship Centre is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until August 25, 2019. For details of works in the collection of the National Gallery, see the online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.