Taking a short break during an intensive three-week installation at the AGA for three of his past major works, Carapace (2009), Shapeshifter (2000) and Cetology (2002), Jungen sat down for a chat about his old works, new works, the weather, and some insights about contemporary Canadian art.
AMY FUNG: It's a pretty big year for you. First, congrats on the Gershon Iskowitz prize.
BRIAN JUNGEN: Thank you.
AF: I was curious about how you feel about having a retrospective in the same year you have this commission to do new works?
BJ: Well, I don't really like the term retrospective because it seems that's what happens after someone dies. I tend to think of it as a survey of older work, or a showing of older works in a new context.
AF: Will the new works be a continuation of this style?
BJ: No, the show at the AGO will be a whole new direction and a whole new body of work that I recently just started and showed in Vancouver last month at Catriona Jeffries. A lot of the new work is using found or unconventional materials, but very different from this kind of store-bought, mass-produced material. They are materials I think you would be familiar with through the landscape of rural Canada, like car body parts, animal skins, and things like that.
AF: Does your sense of place and home seep into your work?
BJ: It's becoming more important in my new work, this sense that I'm from Northern Canada. I've lived in Vancouver for about 15 years now, and though I really like the arts community in Vancouver, I find myself returning to Northern BC a lot, especially in the last few years. Maybe it's because I'm approaching middle age, and want to make connections to the place I grew up. I don't know if it's that, I just like the environment and the folks up there. I generally like the climate, believe it or not. There's hot summers, cold winters, probably just like Edmonton, but it's sunny and it's a proper winter. In Vancouver you don't really get a winter, you get a cold monsoon, and it's a different type of cold. I really miss winters like this. I've been here for the last two weeks, and folks in Edmonton have been saying how unusually cold and how much snow it's been this year, but I totally like it!
AF: Well I'm glad somebody likes it.
BJ: I guess I get to leave, but place is becoming more important in my work, I'm doing less site-specific work and building everything on-site, which I've been doing for the last several years.
AF: You're also showing in Close Encounters, the largest exhibition ever organized in the world on contemporary Indigenous art, happening in Winnipeg right now. Can you speak about that?
BJ: Sure, what I really like in Canada is that there is no division. You can be a contemporary artist and making work on Aboriginal issues and identity, but you're still a contemporary artist, whereas in the States, there's a huge division. That became really apparent to me when I did this project at The Smithsonian last year, Strange Comforts. It made me realize how much more wide open the Canadian contemporary art field is. Like with Close Encounters, I think it's amazing. If that show was curated in another country, it would be generally ignored by the contemporary art press, but not in Canada, which is great. It's very inclusive that way.
AF: Let's talk about the works in this show.
BJ: We have two of the whale skeletons, Shapeshifter and Cetology, both on loan, and Carapace, which I initially made in France two years ago. I was working in this old chateau that was converted into a contemporary art space and it had been surrounded by idyllic farm land, except the last few years it was all being converted into suburbs, just like what you would see in Calgary, Edmonton, Fort St John. In these suburbs I kept seeing these new garbage bins that just became a symbol for the sign of the times and a symbol of unbridled housing excess that I decided to use the bins as source material. I also thought it would be a nice pairing of this idea of this waste of garbage bins with the structure of a tortoise, which is a symbol of the Earth in many cultures, and is a house and home.
AF: Can you tell me about the construction of these works?
BJ: I keep working with material until I feel some sort of resolution with it, that a way of working with the materials has been realized. So with Carapace, instead of making a new one three different times, I decided to use the same materials three different ways over three different times. After the first time in France, I saw a completely different way of constructing it that would be a lot more dynamic, so I made it a second time last year at the Smithsonian, and when Catherine [Crowston] invited me here I proposed making it a third and final time. This will be the final configuration of the materials.
AF: What do you think viewers can expect from this, who generally will not have seen the first two configurations?
BJ: Because the piece is quite large, there's usually an immediate response. People want to go inside it, and they have this very strong physical reaction to it. People want to touch it and climb it—which you can't do—but the last two times, people sometimes saw it just as the materials and so they don't see it as art works. They think they can be interactive with it, which they can't, so now I'm actually cutting up the materials enough that you can't really recognize at first what it's made out of it.
AF: How many bins are you actually using?
BJ: I don't know. We usually deal directly with the manufacturers, but we basically take what we can get. Same with the chairs. When I was making those, I was just driving around to all the Canadian Tires, buying them up and clearing them out. If I need more, it's something so plentiful that you can just go out and get more. I bought some new bins here in Edmonton. There are certain things that are global products that you can basically get anywhere.
AF: And that really is the impetus of your work, how everything has been globalized, including art.
BJ: Yeah, there's a discourse about that. Art has taken on a much stronger profile in the last 10-plus years with museums wanting a much bigger presence in cities, to become a tourist attraction, like this place, the AGO, the Bilbao Guggenheim, that's how it's changed a lot, I think. Not sure if it makes art more accessible to the general public, but it has made a certain type of style or international strategy around art institutions.
*First published in Vue Weekly