Brian Jungen Wishes You a Merry Consumass

Brian Jungen, art star, used to draw pictures with his friends in a shitty apartment in the bad part of Vancouver, and then fold them up into paper airplanes and shoot them out of his window. This summer, the artist had his “Project for a New Understanding” (which features masks he made out of Nike Air Jordans that resemble the native art of British Columbia) in Montreal in the Musee des Arts Contemporain where I was set off in fascination by them because I overheard someone discussing the spiritual importance of the work. It seems hard to remember to even look for spiritual significance in most art these wild days that we live, but hell, we all have spiritual experiences and needs that do need to be interpreted and presented in some way, and art is a good space for an exploration of all this.

So I carried my interest in his work with me when I was tramping through a forest one day and I found a pond in the midst of it. I could hear crows and finches, swaying cracking trees and little else. I was staring at the pond and the bright sun on a floating white golf course sign, contemplating Brian Jungen when Oh Shit!, I received a flash of revelatory insight into the man’s work. Buying-selling-shopping and all that, consumerism, is always around floating in our brains because it’s obviously very important to us. So! If that’s the case, then our spiritual experiences and needs have to be given meaning within the material world of consumerism that surrounds us. While it’s hard to remember to look for the spiritual side of things anymore, it is possible that we are acting spiritually in strange consumerist new ways.

It actually seems almost inevitable in this historical time period to do so because consumerism and advertising is such an important and communal part of our lives, just as direct contact with nature was part of our workaday life millenia ago. Because we interact and communicate with each other, we must do so with the symbols and language readily available, and so together we will likely interpret and present our needs according to the pervasive economic world surrounding us. It is the space in which we have spiritual experience. To attempt to find some “purer” space like an untouched forest is almost impossible, and if it were possible, would detach spirituality from our day to day lives. I don’t think Jungen’s work is condoning some religious justification for brutal economic practices, but just pointing at the inevitable and simpler fact of the spiritual through the material.

What I like about the “Project for a New Understanding”when analyzing it from a spiritual perspective is that it doesn’t condemn the consumerist-spirituality. The work doesn’t make a normative case for the symbols of native spirituality being “better” than the symbols of our time like perhaps Michael Jordan or Nike are. But at the same time, while bringing this to the fore of our conscious, we can decide, first of all, if its true, and if so, is this okay? How will this world that surrounds us affect our future spiritual experiences? Do we care?

What Jungen’s work does seem to condemn, however, is the distance between contemporary Canadian society and the culture of Canadian Aboriginals which has been pushed to the fringes. While many Canadians consume native artifacts and art to exocitise their homes, it is done so in a way that fixes native culture as one that is distant and dead instead of one that is living and breathing. Jungen bridges the distance and re-enlivens native art and life to non-native Canadians by making one and the same the two through the Nike sculptures, and this shows that the very needs and capacities of spirituality are in all people, alive in us, not merely part of a “dead” culture. Contemporary Canadian society has these same needs and capacities just as traditional native society did and does, and Canadians must be aware that they have not gone beyond them into a truly secular society, but instead present them in a seemingly secular manner.

Or my flashing revelatory insights could be bullshit.

To Brian Jungen!