When walking into Harlem’s Triple Candie on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, hours before the mania and media fanfare descended upon the nation, it seemed appropriate to find myself confronted with an installation that addresses Western sport culture through space and materials. Expanding over 4,000 square feet of this former brewery space, Brian Jungen's first solo project in New York features 221 sweatshop tables, which are assembled to form a large elevated basketball court. On each end of the carefully leveled field, the baskets are attached to steel warehouse ladders, which invite the audience to climb up for closer inspection. If viewed from above, the flat plane and its familiar markings lose their initial characteristics and shift into abstract territory. Exposing gaping holes where sewing machines were formerly inserted, the tabletops of these readymade workstations transform into a rhythmic pattern of lines, negative space, and polished wood.
For Jungen, the 2002 recipient of the recently established Sobey Art Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Turner Prize), this site-specific work might feel unusual in scale, but not in its fundamental thematic gist. Since the late 1990s, Jungen has received international recognition with sculptures and installations that examine ethnological identities by fusing and recombining cultural characteristics. Considering this Vancouver-based artist’s own complex background (his father is Swiss and his mother is a D‡ne-Zaa Indian), Jungen’s unabashed focus and sensible insight is not surprising. Using everyday objects as grown-up puzzle pieces, he gives his environment a perfectly provocative makeover. Works such as "Cetology" (2002), a life-size whale skeleton assembled from scraps of white plastic chairs, or Prototype for New Understanding (1998-2003), a series of Aboriginal tribal masks sewn together from dissected Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes, are as poetic as they are factual and critical. Pushed into architectural dimensions while keeping the key to the riddle simple, Jungen’s creations become even more confrontational.
The New York installation contrasts the image of the basketball court, which functions as a symbol of fun activity, team play, and competitive ambition, with the grim associations connected to the source material. Looking at the vast number of sweatshop tables one can almost feel the presence of hundreds of workers gathering around them, fabricating expensive, high-status sports gear, such as Nike sneakers. Here, the metaphorical implication of massive hard and underpaid labor, most likely to be performed by recent immigrants, the uneducated, or women and children employed in Western factories that are planted in Third World countries, stands in strong opposition to the positive and entertaining qualities generally linked to sports. Not unlike a desert mirage, which upon first glimpse seduces the desperate through sheer visual temptation, the illusion of Jungen’s basketball court dissolves quickly. All that remains is an inhospitable space. Just as a player would be incapable of running over this dangerously pot-holed surface, a sweatshop employee will hardly be able to escape or improve his miserable situation. Facing limited options from the get go, the athlete as well as the worker will find themselves standing on quicksand, trapped in a disorienting environment with obvious physical and spiritual restrictions.
Compared to Jungen’s earlier works that are displayed as artifacts and comment on the concept of museological display techniques, the New York installation is much more raw. Rather than an object, which remains separated from the viewer when observed in a protected museum space, the basketball court feels threatening because of its subtle invitation to participate. Here, the "don't touch" consensus, which is largely obeyed in more formal exhibition spaces, does not apply. Looking down at the perilous ground, one does anything but consider sprinting to the other side or starting up a game.
In a time when the sinister concept of a "global village" has almost become reality and diverse cultures are rapidly swallowed by Western capitalism, art’s noblest function is to preserve the archipelago of human thought, tradition, and history. Forget about being trendy, self-congratulatory, self-mocking, and sensationalist, Jungen’s work and determined mission prove that the expression of political bite continues to be an effective thematic choice for younger generation artists. Especially when stripped of preachy undertones and presented as visual melody— minimal, yet spicy.