Strange Comfort, Brian Jungen‘s exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), is as delightful as it is disquieting. Jungen, who is part Northwest American Indian, transforms objects of American consumption into relics of tribal culture. The result is transcendent hybrids that raise questions about the relationship between art, culture and commodity.
Six pieces from the Prototype for New Understanding series greet viewers entering the exhibit. While these pieces appear to be authentic tribal headdresses displayed under glass vitrines, it is soon revealed that they are in fact made of Nike Air Jordans. Because of this material transformation, the sculptures are in a state of constant becoming—at once creatures, masks, animals, shoes, and fantastical hybrids. There is a confusion of body parts as plushy shoe openings become eyes, rubber-tipped toes become mouths, and thick fabric tongues become beaks. The reassigning of parts designed for the anatomy of a foot to fit the anatomy of a face is as grotesque as it is wonderful.
Jungen ironically critiques the way marginalized cultures have been pillaged for their goods by Western colonialists. He attacks commodity by making a triple-commodity—tribal relic, Nike shoes, and marketable art object. Jungen brings us further into his natural history museum of commodities with Shapeshifter, a huge whale skeleton made of white plastic chairs.
Side by side, the chairs become the sleek vertebrae and ribs of this immense animal. Suspended several feet above its platform, the whale’s shadows are haunting and give it the believability of an extinct, magnificent sea creature. Its empty body and ghostly shadows play foil to the recognizable lawn chairs that are its bones, for as much as we believe that this creature was once living in a faraway time, we know that it is part of our vernacular existence.
Questioning our own knowledge, we wonder if this whale could have really existed, or is it a made up version of Western history?
The context of the NMAI lends another layer to Jungen’s work. We are invited to view his sculptures as more than art. In this context, they become American Indian artifacts. By marrying seeming opposites, consumer and tribal cultures, Jungen proves that the treasures that fill the NMAI are not merely relics of a faraway past—they are the thoughtful products of a people that are part of contemporary society. This assimilation into mainstream commodity culture, for better or worse, perhaps provides a “strange comfort,” for both seekers of these treasures, and also the people to whom they belong.
Brian Jungen’s Strange Comfort is on view October 16, 2009–August 8, 2010 at the NMAI on the National Mall, Washington, DC.