Brian Jungen Friendship Centre at the AGO

Art, Toronto

Last time I was down around Toronto I stopped into the Art Gallery of Ontario to see their new exhibition, Brian Jungen Friendship Centre (June 20 – August 25, 2019). Jungen is a Dane-Zaa / Swiss artist based in British Columbia. Although a lot of his artwork is related to his Indigenous heritage he also looks at issues of environmentalism and consumerism. Jungen is probably best know for his mask sculptures that use Nike Air Jordan sneakers to create Indigenous style masks. The new exhibition at the AGO is the largest exhibition of his work and is meant to be an in-depth exploration of his artwork.

I was very excited to see this exhibition because I am a big fan of Jungen’s unique artwork. Seeing his work in person always feels like an experience and his work really is best viewed in person so you can appreciate the three-dimensionality of his sculptures. The exhibition is basically divided into two sections, the first revolves around a his work that is made from sports paraphernalia and the second is more loose and looks more at Indigenous artistic techniques but is not as concise as the first section with its theme or type of works.

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Walking into the exhibition you are first presented with Jungen’s cigar store Indian made from baseball mitts. This pretty well establishes the theme and mood of the exhibition. Playful but with underlying darkness and very political in terms of dealing with Indigenous identity.

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Walking into the main gallery of the exhibition is kind of amazing. The room is designed like a high school gymnasium with basketball hoops on either end of the court and lockers down the hall leading to the second part of the exhibition. In the centre of the room on plinths are examples of Jungen’s masks made from the Nike shoes. Each one is unique and requires close examination to understand all the elements. There are also a number of “totem poles” made from golf bags around the room. These in particular require you to walk around to see the three-dimensional quality of the work and make out the faces of animals like you would see on a wooden totem pole. There are also a few examples of Jungen’s weaved sports jerseys on the wall.

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The exhibition text is minimal but it mostly focuses on spaces of community and gathering places on Indigenous reserves, evoked by the school gymnasium exhibition design. Jungen also thinks of galleries as places for people to come together and draws a parallel between the school gym and the gallery as community spaces. As with most of Jungen’s work it seems light and playful but when you dig deeper there is a dark political undercurrent that highlights Indigenous issues and oppression. With the totem poles for example, the use of golf bags evokes to Oka Crisis of 1990 where there was a stand off in Oka, Quebec over the expansion of golf course onto a Mohawk burial ground. The gallery becomes a place for us to have a conversation around Jungen’s work and the types of Indigenous issues he evokes.

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There is a small gallery off the main one by the entrance that features a video of Jungen making the mask artworks and it gives an interesting perspective to his practice and techniques.

The second room of the exhibition is a little more loose in its themes and features work from Jungen’s jerrycan series that evokes traditional Indigenous bead work, a series of drums made from modern chairs as the frames, one of his monumental whale skeletons made from plastic chairs and a video made with artist Duane Linklater that explores  their relationship to the land through moose hunting. This part of the exhibition broadly explore Indigenous identity and traditional artistic practices through Jungen’s unique practice using found objects. Individually each series made sense but I felt that the curators could have helped the audience to understand how all the different works connected and spoke to a larger theme by adding some additional wall text. The first part of the exhibition felt so cohesive and then the second part felt disjointed. Additionally because of the design of the exhibition only being two large rooms full of artworks if had to illusion of being small even though this exhibition was being touted as a deep-dive into Jungen’s career. I know Jungen has a larger body of work and I wish more of that had been included to extent the exhibition a bit.

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Overall I really enjoyed the exhibition and it was a great look into Jungen’s approach to sculpture. I do wish there had been more text and maybe a bit more of a retrospective but the caliber of the works was excellent. It was also interesting to see the diverse mix of people visiting the exhibition on a Saturday afternoon. I noticed a large number of young men who were probably drawn in by the use of Nike Air Jordan shoes in Jungen’s work. Even though Toronto has a more diverse museum going population it was great to see how Jungen’s work could draw in different audiences to the AGO.

There are still a few more days to see the exhibition before it ends on August 25th!

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