Around 1535, Spanish priests offered bounties for the sacred objects of Mexico's defeated natives. They wanted to smash and burn those sculptures as false idols. "You want idols?" said the exhausted locals. "Okay, we'll give you idols, if that's what it takes to make you happy," and they set about making works of "native" craft whose only function was to sate their conquerors.
That may be the first example of native peoples making art to fill colonial demand. But it was not the last. To this day, the gift shops in Vancouver and Seattle airports have an endless supply of "traditional" Indian carvings, made in the trademark red cedar of Northwest Coast art.
Brian Jungen, whose mother is from British Columbia's Dunne-Za native group, is just the most recent in a long line of aboriginal artists making art built to fulfill others' notions of their identity. It just so happens that the art Jungen makes is so subtly complex, and deals so tellingly with the whole predicament of what native art is all about, that he counts as one of today's most interesting and widely acclaimed younger artists of any ethnic group. That must make his Swiss father just as proud as his Indian mother.
Jungen's first retrospective, a touring show that recently premiered at the prestigious New Museum in New York, presents a sampling from almost a decade's worth of work.
The pieces that first gained him attention may still be Jungen's best. Starting in 1998, Jungen began working with Nike Air Jordan athletic shoes -- fetish objects up there with sacred eagle feathers -- which he cut up, then reconfigured into credible facsimiles of native masks from the Northwest Pacific Coast. Jungen lucked out with his source material, because the red, white and black of the Air Jordans, as well as their swooshy shapes and logos, were dead ringers for the colors and forms preferred by pre-contact native craftsmen. Using only pieces of Air Jordans -- along with occasional strands of lank black "native" hair -- Jungen sewed and glued together one mask that's like a long-beaked bird. Another shows a google-eyed spirit. A third depicts a killer whale, said to be revered by the oceangoing inhabitants of the Pacific rain forest. Several dozen others run through an imagined native pantheon.
Like a physicist smashing atoms to come up with new elements, Jungen has done a mash-up of old native art and new Western commodities, to construct a hybrid that fully partakes of both. His "Prototypes for New Understanding," as he calls these works, are a kind of re-imagining of what native culture might be if it took account of all the forces acting on it, from spirit dances to the NBA.
You'd imagine that one of the most powerful of those forces would be a treasure trove of ancient Indian traditions. Jungen's work, however, suggests that just as powerful would be a kind of feedback loop of purely foreign ideas about nativeness -- that Western stereotypes of Indian culture are just as relevant to today's natives as forms that once were fully theirs.
Jungen's masks don't really have that much in common with the sacred objects that they're riffing on. It's hard to imagine a Haida dancer, circa 1800, recognizing them as anything he could ever use. Instead, they seem only to satisfy crude Western cliches of what native art looks like and means. Like those conquered Mexicans, Jungen seems to be saying, "You want native-looking stuff from me because I'm supposed to be a native artist? Okay, here are forms that ought to fit the bill."
The fact that Jungen's native ancestors occupied lands hundreds of miles and a mountain range away from the rain forest carvers of the coast hardly seems to matter when it comes to making art that satisfies the modern art world's Indian ideals. (Even a sophisticated essay in the exhibition catalogue, which presents the story of those conquistador priests, doesn't seem to acknowledge that the Dunne-Za are absolutely different from the coastal groups.) It's as though Jungen is stuck with other people's weirdly artificial notions of his identity -- as perhaps most of us are -- and tries to live up to those notions, using the materials that come to hand in the mixed-up urban culture that is truly his.
So Jungen gives us "classic" native masks cobbled from Nike shoes.
Or, in more recent works, life-size models of huge whale skeletons -- Jungen's a British Columbia native, right, so aren't he and whales supposed to have an almost sacred link? -- which he hangs overhead like natural-history displays. Except that the hundreds of "bones" of Jungen's whales have all been cut from the cheapest plastic lawn chairs.
Or things can go the other way. Jungen has also used the "traditional" skills and materials of native art to duplicate icons of international capitalism. The coarse pine shipping pallets that literally underlie global trade have been remade by Jungen in gorgeously finished, hand-pegged red cedar, as carefully crafted as any potlatch tray -- or high-end airport souvenir.
Not all of Jungen's work involves questions of Indian art and identity. For all his semi-native roots, he's a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Western art world, and he's worked on a wide range of contemporary concerns, from the fate of utopian modern architecture to the cultural status of abstract art.
But in every case, he's probed the issues with an irresistible mix of caustic humor and flawless visual appeal. However well you understand the problems that his masks address, you want one for over your mantel -- right beside your soapstone walrus and ebony elephant.
Brian Jungen's solo show is at the New Museum, 556 W. 22nd St. in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, through Dec. 31. Call 212-219-1222 or visit www.newmuseum.org.