Don't stereotype Jungen's works as 'Indian' art. He challenges the totemic folkways of us all.
By Blake Gopnik
Or you might say he's been possessed by the trickster spirit: He's assembled the skeleton of a whale, sacred to so many of this continent's first peoples, out of fragments of cheap plastic lawn chairs.
If you said either of those things, you'd be playing into Jungen's hands. His new show at the National Museum of the American Indian, called "Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort," is all about probing such cliches of Indianness, which stick like glue to anyone with native roots. That probing puts him on the leading edge of native culture, as well as in the thick of international contemporary art.
Those red, black and white Air Jordans, pulled apart and reassembled into masks, look a lot like the most famous Indian carvings of British Columbia and Washington state--but what's that to Jungen? The coastal groups that make such carvings have almost nothing to do with his people, who occupy farmlands a thousand miles away, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.
Natives are supposed to be in touch with nature in a way that all the rest of us no longer are, right? And yet Jungen's own people are more likely to know plastic lawn chairs than an aquatic mammal that swims in oceans they may never have seen, except on TV.
Outsiders, and some natives, have often bought into a notion of "Indianness" that risks leveling such differences. It's easy to act as though there's some Indian essence underlying groups that are actually more different from each other, by far, than the French are from Norwegians. Though we'd never make the mistake of imagining Parisians eating lutefisk, we're happy to imagine Dunne-za communing with whales.
We also wouldn't demand that every Frenchman wear a beret, but we do something close to that in dealing with the Indians who live right among us.
"Native cultures are living, and shouldn't be in the Museum of Natural History. . . . It's good for people to realize native art isn't just beads and carving," says Jungen, giving me a tour of his show at NMAI.