Brian Jungen, Prototypes for New Understanding, 2003.
Prototypes for New Understanding (1998-2005) is a series of sculptures by Canadian artist Brian Jungen. For these sculptures Jungen deconstructs items like Nike sneakers and other sports gear and re-purposes them to resemble Northwest Coast Aboriginal masks. Prototypes for New Understanding is both a tribute to Jungen’s heritage as well as a comment on the relationship between commodification, exploitation and cultural value in our society.
In an Art21 interview Jungen talks about how strange he found seeing Nike sneakers being displayed in glass vitrines at a store, and how he “started to make connections between the commodification of those shoes, and the same thing that’s happened to Native art”. The shoes Jungen uses are expensive and can be seen as a form of status symbol in our society, which is exploited for the sake of profit. Jungen keeps the sneakers very recognizable, leaving logos and tags visible, allowing the viewer to make connections between the expensive shoes and their new form. This new form of the Northwest Coast Aboriginal masks brings to mind the much larger exploitation of Native American artifacts and culture as Canadian tourist attractions and souvenirs.
Canada’s tourism is built upon the exploitation and of Native American art and culture, making it a very important issue that needs to be talked about and addressed. I believe that Jungen’s sculptures comment on this issue in a very interesting way by relating it to the exploitation of Nike sneakers as a status symbol for mass profit. While the situation with the sneakers is nowhere near as important or heavy as the exploitation of Native American culture throughout Canada’s history, it is a way for viewers who may not have a complete understanding of the issue to connect with it and possibly gain understanding and start conversation around the issue.
Reference video used and photo from: Art in the Twenty-First Century, episode “Vancouver” from Art21.org https://art21.org/watch/art-in-the-twenty-first-century/s8/vancouver/