Shopping with Brian Jungen by pengtt


									Shopping with Brian Jungen

Wednesday, March 17, 2010
6 pm, Rasmuson Theater, NMAI

Paul Chaat Smith

Thank you, Laura. I am so pleased to welcome you to the National Museum of the
American Indian, or, as I call it, Washington’s most controversial museum. It’s
really an honor that Friends of the Smithsonian would choose our museum and
this exhibition for your event. When Laura’s office first contacted me months ago
about a March event, I said of course, absolutely yes, even if it conflicts with
March madness. Thankfully, it doesn’t.
Last September NMAI celebrated our fifth birthday, and we like to think we’re
not so different than other five year olds: lots of fun and lots of trouble. Like other
five-year olds, we can now walk, and are beginning to talk, sometimes even in
complete sentences. We stumble often but always get up, and each day brings
new appreciation about how much there is to learn. Lucky for us, the
Smithsonian is not just the most prestigious and famous museum brand in the
world, it’s also a pretty fabulous school.

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I have to wonder what James Smithson would think of this place. Not just our big
stone barn, but the Smithsonian Institution itself. His fortune famously created
something that didn’t exist in a country he had never visited, and to this day no
can be sure of his motives. As it happens, a rich and mysterious white guy is also
the reason NMAI exists.

I’m speaking here of George Gustav Heye, who amassed perhaps the greatest
intact collection of Indian stuff in the world, and built the Museum of the
American Indian in New York. Nobody really knows the source of his passion for
Indian material. Without James Smithson, no Smithsonian, and without George
Heye, no American Indian museum. And what a lousy world would that be, on so

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many levels and for so many reasons, not least of which is that before I got this
job, I was a temporary office worker making $8 an hour.
So, thank you, rich mysterious white guys! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Now, I actually have a theory on what James Smithson would think of Brian
Jungen: Strange Comfort. My theory is that he would love it, and this delightful
image is my evidence.

In 1826, as Smithson was brooding about his legacy, he toured a much-talked
about exhibit in London, and it must have made an impression since the
brochure was included in his personal papers. It reads “A descriptive catalogue of
the exhibition, entitled Ancient and Modern Mexico : containing a panoramic
view of the present city, specimens of the natural history of New Spain: models of
its vegetable produce, habitations, costume, etc. etc. : and of the colossal and
enormous idols, the great calendar and sacrificial stones, temples, pyramids, and
other existing antique remains : the whole forming the rationally instructive and
interesting exhibition, which is now open for public inspection, at the Egyptian
Hall, Piccadilly / / by William Bullock.”
Note the imaginative, proto-Tim Burton monsters: full of teeth and curiosity,
scary yet amusing, and pay special attention to the top-hatted visitor speaking to
a blanketed Mexican in the right center of the image. Turns out the Mexican
actually lived in a hut in the Egyptian Hall. So here we have an exhibition about
ancient and modern Mexico, with dazzling monumental works, costumes, and
real Mexicans who speak to visitors as content experts. Now, although our
cultural interpreters work long hours, they are not required to actually live here,
however I would suggest this exhibit that so influenced Smithson could be
considered an early 19th century version of the NMAI. Therefore, we’re exactly
what he envisioned.
Or perhaps not.

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Those are nice lines from 1826: “a rationally instructive and interesting
exhibition.” I think every show should be both. And you could do worse than
describe this building as one big exhibition about Ancient and Modern America.
Most of our visitors expect to see the ancient, and we have plenty of it on display.
However, lots of folks are surprised to see modern and contemporary art at
NMAI. In fact, a significant portion of our visitors would rather we not do this at
all. Some just plain don’t like contemporary art, period, and by some, I mean the
vast majority of my fellow citizens, and some believe such art is well and good,
but doesn’t really belong here.

So, what are we up to? Why have shows like Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort at
the National Museum of the American Indian?
The easy answer is that both the founding legislation and NMAI’s mission
statement clearly state we are about the present as much as the past. But it
doesn’t require us to devote one of four main galleries to show the strange and
weird sculptures made from consumer items by a thirty-something red artist with
a German sounding name (come to think of it, that’s two in a row: Fritz Scholder
and now Brian Jungen, what’s up with that?) that some would argue is not Indian
art at all.
So why art shows, and why this art show? We had several objectives. Our
founding director, Rick West, was a passionate supporter of cutting edge Native
art. His father was one of the leading avant-garde painters of the mid 20th
century, and experienced first-hand what happens when an Indian artist chooses
to venture beyond the defined territory of what is authentic, in style and subject
matter. So when Richard West Senior, like other artists of his generation and
training, investigated cubism and abstraction, they found their work no longer
welcome at the few venues that would show Native art at all.
We believe the very idea of what is, and isn’t Indian art a profoundly important
question that strikes at the heart of the NMAI project. Are we allowed to be fully

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human? Are we allowed to live in the 21st century? Or will be continue to defined
by the imaginary Indian, a fiction created by others, who lives in the past even if
she exists in the present. There are a lot of rules about being Indian, and one
reason we show artists like Brian Jungen is they have no respect for these
stinking rules.

What you will see upstairs is 8000 square feet of rule-breaking. Indian artists
work with beads and feathers. Nothing wrong with that; we have brilliant artists
who do amazing things with beads and feathers. You will see their work
throughout the Museum. Our contention is that Brian Jungen’s sculptures are no
more or less Indian than anything else you’ll see at NMAI. Contention is probably
not the right word. Think of it as an opening argument. And it’s fine if you if you
disagree, or choose to reserve judgment.
Brian Jungen’s work is that rarest of things in international contemporary art:
accessible, deep, popular, and smart. How popular? His shows have set
attendance records at museums all over the world. How deep? Ask renowned
scholars and artists like Cuauhtémoc Medina, Homi Bhabha, and Kanye West
have written about Jungen. As a curator, having all that on your side is at first,
well, euphoric, but very soon becomes a bit terrifying. You’ve been dealt a royal
flush, a sure thing, but in life there are no sure things, not really, so you
immediately consider the possibility you’ll screw things up, and become the first
curator to deliver a failed Brian Jungen exhibition. That fear kept things from
getting boring, and so far at least, it appears that I dodged this particular bullet.

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                                   Cetology (2002)

So. Brian Jungen at NMAI. The leading Native artist of his generation, featured at
Tate Modern and the New Museum and the Sydney Biennial, yet who has never
been part of a group show of Native artists, or shown his work at a Native
institution. How would his work read when surrounded by historic material
instead of a white box? We honestly didn’t know but felt it sure would be
interesting to find out.
I believe curating shows on the National Mall is not like curating anywhere else.
Our audiences are vast and diverse. Programming art exhibitions at NMAI, in
particular, is an opportunity to reach visitors who rarely, if ever, set foot in
contemporary art museums. But who are these visitors? A significant portion are
children, and some will not be able to read, write, or speak. Another significant
portion are people who know more about your subject than you, and all of these
are capable at speaking, and especially at writing your bosses to correct your
mistakes. Combine massive numbers of visitors, the expectations of scholarship
and excellence that the Smithsonian brand carries, and the guarantee that if there
are only a dozen experts in the world on a certain kind of rare 18th century rifle in
your show, at least half of them will see it; all these elements make curating at the
Smithsonian an interesting challenge.
My goal, each time out, is to speak to all of these visitors at the same time. My
curatorial strategy is modeled on The Simpsons. For twenty years this cartoon
has been the smartest show on television. Slapstick physical humor coexists with
references to Adlai Stevenson, Frank Gehry, and Eubie Blake; neither are
privileged, both are essential.
Enter Brian Jungen. The most remarkable thing about him is this: I cannot think
of another international contemporary artist whose work is so accessible to so
many audiences at the same time. Talent is always mysterious, who really knows
where that comes from, but the respect Jungen shows for the viewer is not
mysterious at all. It is grounded in his own values and personal history. His work

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is a platform for discussion, not a set of conclusions. Asking questions can be an
empty rhetorical device; in Jungen’s case he asks questions and really wants to
know how visitors answer them.

I want to talk about the two most common Brian Jungen misperceptions. The
first one is that he and his people are from the Northwest Coast. In fact, though
he’s lived in Vancouver since his art school days, he’s from a place that is a long
and expensive airplane ride north and east from there. The Dunne-za have
roughly the same connection to whales, totem poles, and red, black and white
masks as the Comanche, which I can tell you isn’t very much at all. It is
understandable that visitors, knowing Jungen is Indian, would presume he’s the
kind of Indian who makes totem poles, otherwise, why would he make them? Yet
his appropriation of these iconic images to his own ends adds another level of
interesting complexity, and leads to the second misperception. Found art. Brian
Jungen never found anything, or almost never found anything. True, his dog Ed
found baseballs and softballs, repurposed for

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                                                          Skull (2009)

this work, but in nearly every case, Brian Jungen finds his materials in stores. He
buys them, just like you or I would. They are not used or found, they are brand
new. His taste is decidedly upscale: only the finest in athletic shoes or golf bags
will do.
This is no small matter. Found art often embeds a critique about the sorry state of
the human condition, that we trash things that are perfectly good or perfectly
beautiful, until the special eye of the gifted artist redeems the discarded into art.
Of course I am not demeaning the entire category of found art. I would suggest
that maybe red artists are more likely to be presumed as environmentally minded
than others. Because you know, the fact is that far from recycling garbage into
art, Jungen actually creates garbage. Lots of it. Think about all the plastic
sawdust created when those brand new monoblock chairs go under Jungen’s
power saws, or all that elaborate packaging for his expensive Air Jordans. Now,
let me be clear, it’s not like he doesn’t care about the environment. He does the
best he can with all the garbage he creates; he lives in Vancouver, after all.
Buying these consumer items new, at the same stores as anyone else, embeds a
different message into his work: that all of us are part of the same globalized
economic system. He is, in fact, another consumer, not a morally superior
sensitive artist or an ecological Indian. He’s not recycling, he’s shopping.
Golf bags and totem poles have nothing and everything to do with his tribe, who
are politically and culturally as distant from Vancouver and the Northwest Coast
as they are from Los Angeles. Jungen is not a Northwest Coast Indian. His
interest in totems and masks from that region is a comment on what critic Jeff
Kerksen called “wallpapering of habitas: the incorporation of Native imagery into
the ‘vast heaving mass of ephemeral and disposable forms’” of Western culture.

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The golf tubes masquerading as totems you’ll see upstairs speak both to the “real”
totem installed in the NMAI rotunda and also to a sculpture on view in the most
important Canadian embassy in the world, conveniently a few blocks away. The
sculpture is Bill Reid’s Spirit of Haida Gwaii, and is arguably the most celebrated
work by a Canadian artist, so famous that it even appears on that country’s $20
bill. The totems and the Bill Reid sculpture invite discussion about the political
dimensions of this “wallpapering” of Native iconography, and provide compelling
evidence of the complicated entanglements of Canadian and Native history.
                                 Another important example is the just-
                                concluded Winter Olympics. Here you see the
                                logo branded both the city and the Winter games
                                with indigenous iconography.

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                        Prototype for New Understanding # 23 (2005)

With Prototypes for New Understandings, the conversation expands into the
realm of collecting and celebrity. Inspired by a visit to the Niketown store in
Manhattan a decade ago, Jungen turned athletic shoes into masks the color and
style of the aboriginal Northwest Coast. They were not just any Nike shoes,
however; they were Air Jordans, designed and marketed by NBA superstar
Michael Jordan, who ended his basketball career six years ago here in
Washington. The shoes caused a sensation when they were introduced in 1985.
Owners were robbed at gunpoint, and Michael Jordan himself paid a $5,000 fine
each night he wore them on the court, because their unorthodox colors made the
NBA declare them illegal. They soon become a cultural icon, and by the time
Brian Jungen saw them at the Nike store in New York, they were displayed in
elegant, expensive vitrines, as if in a museum rather than a shoe store.

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        Michael Jordan                                  Air Jordan XX3 (2008)

Here you see number 23 with the Air Jordan XX3, and you’ll notice his
fingerprints are literally all over the place, for example in the sole of the shoe
Here are two more Prototypes.

 Prototype for New Understanding #7 (1999)

                                             Prototype for New Understanding #10 (2001)

We have installed two Jungen works outside the gallery.

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This one, Blanket #7, is on the hallway outside NMAI’s most popular exhibit, our
Zagat-rated cafeteria, and it’s made from Allan Iverson and Kobe Bryant NBA
Visitors to Strange Comfort often ask: What does Nike think about all this? Is it
legal to make fake Northwest Coast Indian masks out of Air Jordans? Sometimes
I think visitors imagine a raid by the Nike Copyright Police might take place at
any moment. This concern for Nike fascinates me, and I have several reactions.
First, let me answer these questions. Nike thinks the Prototypes are pretty great,
actually, and asked Jungen’s dealer for photographs for their archives. Why
wouldn’t they, since they’ve been written about in ESPN the Magazine and
Sports Illustrated. Oh, and Number Twenty-Three himself owns a Jungen. As the
artist points out, Nike understand first and foremost that he is a customer, and
second that he’s added value to their product. Nike’s just fine. And they should
be, since they’ve apparently convinced large segments of the population to be
sensitive to possible copyright infringement on their shoes. I do not think if
Jungen had bought shoes at Target anyone would care, which proves, I think,
that Air Jordans are not shoes, but art, which after all was Nike’s goal in the first

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I noted earlier that Jordan ended his playing career here with the Wizards, which
is only one of several ways this show connects to Washington. There’s also that
Bill Reid sculpture across the Mall at the Canadian embassy, and the fabulous
mobile in our rotunda that turns airplane luggage into animals.

                                                Crux (as seen from those who
                                                sleep on the surface of the earth
                                                under the night sky) (2009)

That mobile is in dialogue with the Alex Calder in the East Wing of the National

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                                                          Alexander Calder
                                                          Untitled (1976)

and the one in the Phillip Hart Senate Office Building.

                 Alexander Calder
      Mountains and Clouds (1987)

All three are in government buildings on or near the National Mall.
And speaking of government buildings, they don’t get any more government than
the United States Capitol. The statue Freedom continues to be perceived as an
Indian figure, even though it really is Greek. I am sure Freedom and Prince,
named for Machiavelli’s treatise on treachery, have lots to talk about.

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                Statue of Freedom (1863)      The Prince (2006)

The work I most wanted to include is called Court.

                                     Court (2004)

It’s only been shown twice, at Triple Candie in New York and Kwangju, Korea.
The reason it’s only been shown twice is because it’s massive, created from 224
mid-twentieth century sewing tables arranged to create a nearly full size
basketball court, complete with basket and net. I couldn’t include it because it
would have eaten the entire gallery.
 Court devastatingly links the supermodel shoe with the means of its production,
something never far from Jungen’s mind. He told me once that every once in a
while, when taking the knife to the Air Jordans, he would find bits of paper
accidentally left inside the shoe. Instructions, notes, a ripped piece of a pattern.
Because the thing is, shoes, even these shoes, even in the second decade of the

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21st century, mostly made by hand. In a tune called We Live, As We Dream,
Alone, the Gang of Four sang of “the space between our work and its product.”

Brian Jungen, consumer, artist, Indian, collapses that space and lets us, if we
want, see it clearly, without guilt, judgment, or easy answers.
Thanks for listening. See you upstairs.

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