Monday, April 16, 2012

Bourgeois and Jungen: Identity as Cultural and Personal Heritage

Cetology, Brian Jungen
Maman, Louise Bourgeois

The sculptural works of Louise Bourgeois and Brian Jungen deal with the theme of identity as a main focus. Post-modern theory states that a work of art is an indirect self-portrait of the artist. Each decision and element of the work is a reflection of the artist’s identity. In the case of these two artists, this idea is at the forefront of discussion because their cultural heritages and personal histories are the motivating factors of their work. We will first examine each artist’s process to get a context for their work. Then we’ll describe the two artworks selected for discussion and examine how these pieces deal with the theme of identity in similar and different ways.
Louise Bourgeois’s work stems from her reliving and expressing her experiences as a child. “My childhood has never lost its magic. It has never lost its mystery. It has never lost its drama” (Art21). The anxiety and frustrations she felt during those years have served as a vein from which she mines symbolic imagery to express her remembered emotions. She has never been able to get over the trauma of her past because as a child she was helpless, so her works take on a neurotic and eccentric aspect. She uses traditional sculptural techniques with an emphasis on the handmade because hands express true identity. She has stated “I am not what I do. I am what I do with my hands” (Art21). In many ways, the act of creating provides relief and insight into the pains of her past. This presents her artistic process with an existential paradox: there always has to be some unresolved pain to use as source for the work.
Not all artists use such a personal and intimate source as inspiration as Bourgeois’s. Brian Jungen’s work is motivated by breaking down the social and cultural stereotypes of his First Nations (Canadian) and European (Swiss) heritages. His sculptures and installations incorporate found objects, but instead of leaving them as is (as ready-mades), he fashions them into new creations that resemble artefacts reminiscent of his First Nations background (i.e. totems, medicine masks). He plays on the assumption that a sacred object is singular, but makes them out of manufactured consumer goods. Jungen’s work calls attention to the effect of globalised capitalist systems on cultural heritages in particular how this affects Canadian First Nations cultural identity.
Bourgeois’s piece entitled Maman resembles an ominous, giant spider. The piece is 927 x 891 x 1024 cm and was built in 1999. There are several versions of the spider in Bourgeois’s oeuvre, it represents her mother and the “ability to ‘redo,’ or to repair” (Ann Coxon, 68). Bourgeois viewed her mother as the one keeping the family together amid the turmoil of an unstable marriage. The piece is made from steel and has marble eggs in the sac in the abdomen. It is also a freestanding sculpture: to emphasize the predatory aspect of the piece, viewers can walk underneath it, and put themselves in the position of prey.
Jungen’s piece called Cetology is a sculptural work that resembles the skeleton of a whale, much like the one in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. It measures 161.5 x 1260.4 x 168.7 cm and was made in 2002. The sculpture is made out of plastic patio chairs. These are the cheap, mass-produced kind that you’d find at stores like Canadian Tire. Jungen left some of the price stickers still attached to the installed piece. The sculpture is suspended in the gallery space from the ceiling so that viewers can walk all around the piece. This style of presenting the work is reminiscent of how a natural history museum would present a cast of whale bones. This places the viewer in position of idle onlooker.
It is evident that these two works both approach the theme of identity relying not on factual representation of the self, but through pieces that embody elements of the artists’ heritages. This is an indirect approach and perhaps speaks volumes more about the inner thoughts of each artist than any self-portrait could. It is commonly understood that “[a]n artwork’s subject matter, its formal properties, and the very materials it is created from reflect the identity characteristics, on the individual and broader cultural level, of both the artist and the intended audience” (Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel, 41). This method of talking about identity goes deeper than the self-portrait because the artist can examine more thoroughly one or several aspects of it.
Both pieces use animal symbols as representations of the elements of the artists’ heritage. Bourgeois’s spider makes reference to the fact that her family owned a tapestry business: the spider is an adept weaver. “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and she repairs it” (Coxon, 68). More specifically, it represents Bourgeois’s mother, who she felt was “the enemy-mother who envelops and encompasses” (Coxon, 68). Bourgeois’s relationship with her mother was a complex one and this is reflected in the piece. On the one hand, the spider is protective and provides for her offspring, but there is also a venomous and predatory aspect. This would imply a reverence and fear of her mother, and it is this reaction to her situation that helped to shape Bourgeois’s identity as a child.
Jungen’s whale, although not a direct link to his Dane-zaa people heritage, is a reference to the whale skeleton as natural history museum artifact. The whale acts as a symbol of the institutions involved in the stereotyping of aboriginal cultures. “Jungen brings to life these inventively crafted objects as they hover between sculpture, natural history specimens and critiques of museum culture and even of certain whaling practices” (Vancouver Art Gallery, 10). There is a loose reference to the whale as a spiritual animal for many First Nations people (the whale being a symbol of wisdom and storytelling) in this piece, which is consistent with the central themes of the rest of Jungen’s work: the mixing of assumptions and stereotypes to make new connections.
Both sculptures explore the theme of identity in very different ways. The way we relate the self to the world and others is one way in which these two pieces differ. Bourgeois’s piece makes reference to her own personal history. Her history is specific to herself: the individual self. “Over the years, she may have been driven by a need to create as a way of silencing her demons, of recording her past [. . .] of calming her anxieties [. . .]” (Coxon, 8). Maman is a reflection of Bourgeois’s individual struggle with her emotions and fears, and references her inner-self. Jungen’s piece refers to his identity within the aboriginal community: the communal self. “He is as well-versed in Dane-zaa family stories as he is in Western art history [. . .]” (Vancouver, 5). His piece refers to the self in terms of the community. He questions what it means to be an individual as part of a community deemed as “other” by European culture. Bourgeois’s piece implies she is alone in relation to the world, where Jungen’s piece implies he is part of a group of people in relation to the world.
Another way these two pieces deal with the theme of identity on different terms is in how they function conceptually. Bourgeois’s spider is a metaphor for her relationship with her mother, whereas Jungen’s whale is a visual pun about global capitalism and how it affects local culture. The metaphor is a poetic device and the choice to use it speaks to Bourgeois’s views about beauty in art which was beauty is in the expression of the subject, even if the subject itself is not necessarily beautiful. Jungen’s visual pun acts like a parody or satire in terms of art-making. This idea of the satire in art is a contemporary idea about how art is empty which is along the same lines as the idea that the body is devoid of a soul. This concept has replaced the idea that art has to be beautiful in order for it to be art. These two different conceptual approaches to art speak about a philosophical identity. This is important because shows this framework defines each artist’s identity as artists.
The technique of producing the artwork is another way in which the difference in expressing the theme of identity is apparent in the work. Bourgeois’s piece has a handmade and an organic look to it. Even though it is huge, it still has a sense of intimacy about it and is animate. “The medium is secondary to me [. . .] the wish to say something antedates the material [. . .]” (Coxon, 38). Bourgeois’s artistic identity lies in the handmade and techniques that reinforce the organic and natural. Jungen takes the opposite approach in art-making. The work is made from repurposed consumer products, which critiques consumer culture and the ready-made object. The materials used in the work are of the same importance as the form the work takes. “Jungen is interested in the physicality of objects, especially those circulating as commodities, and his art emerges from an act of dramatically physical transformations that turn common, often prefabricated materials into highly symbolic sculptures and installations” (Vancouver, 10). His process and methods speak to his identity as an artist with a post-modern philosophy under his belt (identity as constructed from culture) and also points to the idea that there is no true self; hence, the artist’s hand should not be visible in the work.
Louise Bourgeois’s Maman and Brian Jungen’s Cetology are two artworks that are very different from each other but deal with a similar theme. Both of these pieces speak volumes about the identities of each artist through their use of materials, subject matter, and the theoretical underpinnings they employ. Both pieces take similar approaches through the use of symbols and references to the artists’ respective heritages. They also differ in their definitions of self and the process in which each piece was made. It is interesting to note how one theme in art is never truly isolated from another theme. Jungen’s piece, while dealing with identity also speaks about place (West Coast) and also about science in terms of the natural sciences. Bourgeois’s piece, while speaking about identity, also speaks about time (i.e. the past). The pieces by these two artists demonstrate that an artwork is a type of self-portrait. Even if the artist tries to hide any traces of their hand, it is still a poignant statement about their identity.
  Works Cited: Coxon, Ann. Louise Bourgeois. London: Tate Publishing, 2010. Hunt, Mead, dir. Art:21 Identity. Film segment. PBS, 2001 . Robertson, Jean and Craig McDaniel. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Vancouver Art Gallery. Brian Jungen. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Vikky Alexander

For the last journal assignment, I decide to write about the work of Vikky Alexander because I found her take on the idea of the fake environment rather interesting. Unlike the work of Edward Burtinsky or Andreas Gorsky who deal with affected nature, Alexander looks at the environments that we created to mimic nature. From her glass sculptures of furniture to her straight photographs of malls and theme parks, Alexander questions the motives of creating these environments and how we relate to them.
I was particularly taken with the last set of black and white photographs she showed us about the enclosed green house which we cropped and composed to exaggerate how the plants were trying to escape its metal and glass cage. It made me question the idea of the garden: is it really pretty and benign or is it a manifestation our perverse need to control nature? Is our need to make sense of the natural world really that threatening that we have to find ways to contain it? In many ways this is true . . . and I will never look at Beacon Hill Park the same again.
I think it particularly effective that the photos from this series are black and white. First it speaks about the bleak or dramatic connotations of the apocalypse and the revenge of nature and the manufactured environment. Second, it makes reference to old daguerreotypes and the birth of photography in old Paris (the structures of the greenhouse is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower). The use of colour would have made the photos too attached to time whereas black and white leaves them timeless or eternal.
This piece reminds me of the installation in Seattle where Mark Dion transplanted a tree into a greenhouse space in a busy downtown area (Neukom Vivarium). To install this piece, a large amount of resources are needed to transport the tree trunk (thereby removing it from its ecosystem on which the next generation of tree depend) and then an equally large amount of resources are needed to maintain the fabricated ecosystem in the greenhouse space. It’s a disturbing statement about urban and rural space: is there equilibrium or will one system consume the other?
In light of the current state of the global environment, it seems fitting that the idea of the garden is a microcosm of what we do to our planet. In the words of Carl Sagan “How would we explain all this to a dispassionate, extraterrestrial observer? What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet earth?” How would do we account for how we treat others and the world? Are we in for a rude awakening?

Vikky Alexander

Carl Sagan: bromance!