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Brian Jungen
Shapeshifter, 2000
Plastic chairs
145 x 660 x 132 cm
Purchased 2001

Brian Jungen's hybrid ancestry has made him keenly aware of the ironies involved in cultural transformation. Born of Swiss and aboriginal parents, Jungen was raised in the northeastern interior of British Columbia, near Fort St. John, and is a member of the Doig River band of the Dunne-za Nation. He graduated from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1992 and has lived and worked, at different times, in Montreal, New York, and Vancouver.

Beginning with the exhibition of his 1999 series of Northwest Coast-style masks created out of chic brand-name running shoes, Jungen has been questioning the idea of what constitutes Native art while making radical use of the commercial "ready-mades" of the international mass market. Shapeshifter, whose title alludes to tales of metamorphosis, continues and develops these lines of inquiry. Hung from the ceiling, it appears at first glance to be some sort of dinosaur skeleton, of the kind found in natural history museums. On closer examination, it becomes clear that the work is actually made of pieces carved out of plastic patio chairs and bolted together.

The whale skeleton in Shapeshifter is not an anatomically correct one, but is an amalgam based on photographs of different species. Jungen's impulse, almost paradoxical in its direction, was to create a sculpture out of chairs in the very way that Native artists from prehistoric periods created their sculptures out of whale bones. Here, however, Jungen has restored the "whale bones" to the whale. His way of working can be thought of as a kind of reverse archaeology: beginning with a new, whole object, he has mined it to find skeletal fragments, which he has then pieced together to form the remains of a creature that looks as if it once might have existed.

Jungen first started using plastic chairs when he was making his Bush Capsule (2000), a work conceived as a temporary seasonal shelter, similar to the kind that would have been familiar to his Dunne-za family. He was initially attracted to the chairs for their ordinariness as much as for their beautifully sculpted lines, and it occurred to him that he could construct a kind of geodesic dome using pieces of them as modular support elements, not unlike the whale bones once used by the Inuit for the walls and rafters of their winter houses. At about the same time that he was making Bush Capsule, he developed an interest in the displays of whales at both the Vancouver Aquarium and the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology. Thinking about how contemporary cultural institutions present the endangered species as educational exhibits and as tourist attractions, he began to see the plight of the whale as symbolic of the plight of Native people and their culture, simultaneously fetishized and marginalized. Shapeshifter intriguingly combines these troubling social themes with an exuberant deconstruction of the material surface of our throw-away culture.