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Sunday, 2 September 2012

On cars and sacred architecture ...

Brian Jungen and Henry Moore artworks,
installed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in summer 2011.
Photo from

Last summer I stumbled upon an exhibit of Brian Jungen's work at the AGO in Toronto. It featured deer hides, circles missing where they had been cut out for drum heads, stretched around car fenders and displayed atop pristine white freezer chests. Below is a letter I wrote to my best friend who attended the exhibition with me, late in the night after viewing it.

Years ago (maybe a decade) I read Ronald Wright’s brilliant book, A Scientific Romance. It’s an apocalyptic novel which imagines the outcomes of the environmental choices and technical innovations we are making now in a future England where something has drastically altered the world and killed almost all of the human population.

A time traveller from 20th century London journeys north until he encounters a small group of survivors who have turned the skeletal remains of cars into upright monoliths and arranged them in a vaguely Stonehenge-esque fashion as a sort of religious architecture/ritual site. The idea that after human life is long gone, our cars will remain; and be misunderstood as expressions of our spiritual quests (or conversely appropriately understood as the fetish objects they actually are) makes me laugh and cringe at the same time.

I think Brian Jungen and Wright are on the same page to an extent. The use of car remnants as vertical and monumental sculpture references our culture's consumerism-turned-into-a-religion; an idea that turns up repeatedly in Jungen's work. The hides are not unlike his earlier uses of leather -- think of black leather sofas being skinned to make a teepee, or Nike Air Jordans being dismembered to make masks -- except in that they are removed from the consumer economy: pre-consumer versus post-consumer uses, if you will. That shift distills his materials to their essences; reduces them to simplest terms.

Also the use of the freezers as pedestals is kind of interesting. The freezer is potentially the resting place of the flesh of the animal whose hide is mounted on the exterior. That play of interior vs. exterior, essences vs surfaces is kind of interesting. But again it speaks to meat/food/abundance/wealth in an essentially pre-capitalist or non-capitalist context; one in which the producer of the food is also its end consumer. A cashless economy, in which one's work feeds one's family in a very direct and unmediated way.

But meanwhile the freezers themselves are consumer items, and are likely to end up as relics, the remains of which will outlive us; and are in this exhibit already taking on the role of "religious architecture" if you will.

For more posts about Brian Jungen, click here or here.

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