New York Times, February 8, 2004
ART: Finding Art In Sports and Sweatshops
By Murray Whyte
IN 1998, Brian Jungen, a 27-year-old artist in Vancouver, took apart a heap of identical Nike Air Jordans, splayed them open and restitched them into an improbably accurate rendering -- complete with real hair -- of a ceremonial mask used by the Haida people of British Columbia. He called it ''Prototype for New Understanding.''
Curators and viewers alike were drawn to ''Prototype,'' finding it both playful and provocative. It rounded up a number of contemporary ideas: an obsession with brand-name products, references to a global economy that allows them to be mass produced cheaply, and a postcolonial angst resulting from the buying and selling of North American native culture like so many Air Jordans themselves. The last of these Mr. Jungen knew well, living in Vancouver, where native products are a major part of a thriving tourist economy.
Soon Mr. Jungen, who is of European and Native Canadian heritage (his father, a Swiss, and his mother, a member of the Dunne-za tribe, both died when he was 8), was showing masks (he started with 9 and later expanded to 12) and other work in Canada, Europe and the United States. Currently he has a new site-specific installation at Triple Candie in Harlem. There he has shoved together 221 industrial sewing tables -- remnants of Harlem's sweatshop past -- and reconfigured them as a half-size, college regulation, though unplayable, basketball court.
Where he once used Native Canadian references, he has now stepped into the heavily freighted history of another North American minority culture, African Americans. ''A lot of sports gear was mass-produced right there in Harlem 40 years ago,'' Mr. Jungen said. ''I'm drawing parallels between the history of industry and sweatshop production there and the attention given to sports as a way of escaping that manual labor, that manufacturing life.''
The rift between aspiration and reality is a potent artistic motif for Mr. Jurgen. In ''Shapeshifter'' (2000), for example, he dismantled hundreds of white plastic stackable chairs and reconfigured them into the skeleton of a full-size right whale, a weighty spiritual symbol among Northwest native cultures. In another recent piece, ''Beer Cooler'' (2002), Mr. Jungen carved a host of traditional native images into a disposable polystyrene cooler, filled it with Budweiser King cans and took it to the Hammertown art exhibition in Edinburgh.