Brian Jungen is part of a younger generation of artists who have emerged over the last few years amid an active scene in Vancouver, Canada. He was born in Fort St John, British Columbia to a First Nations mother and a Swiss-Canadian father. This dual heritage, and the tensions and links between aboriginal traditions, pop culture and consumerism, often provide the themes and subject matter for his work.

He talks about the mix of research and improvisation that goes into his work with curator Jessica Morgan.

Jessica Morgan
Your work often involves anthropological research or an investigation into how institutions display and interpret culture. How did this begin?

Brian Jungen
At art school, when I was taking my required non-western art classes, a lot of it was native Canadian art history. I didn’t know much about it, yet the teacher was constantly looking to me for validation. I would read about my own ancestral past and that got me interested in anthropology – I would actually see my uncles in some textbook, which was quite bizarre. I was being recruited to be part of this serious political correctness, which didn’t interest me. I was interested in exploring my identity, but not in this post-colonial way. At the same time, I was going to museums of natural history and the display of these objects was something I got very interested in.

Jessica Morgan
Your work is also characterised by a particular use of consumer materials. The first objects that you made were the masks made from Nike trainers? [Prototypes for a New Understanding 1998–2005]

Brian Jungen
Yes, in 1998 I saw the trainers in Niketown in New York, which was the first time I had been there. I had just visited the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum. I always get kind of depressed in those places, especially the Museum of Natural History, because of the problems of presenting aboriginal cultures there. I then went to Niketown, where they also present their products in big, hermetically sealed vitrines. It was a museum-like environment. I had been reading a lot of anthropology texts, such as Levi Strauss’s Way of the Mask, and I had a weird epiphany that day. I went back to Canada, where I was doing a residency, which provided both money and time to devote to art making. So I bought these Air Jordans and I started taking them apart and reassembling them. But it was unplanned – the works evolved as I made them.

Jessica Morgan
Your method of working seems often to involve a balance between studio practice combined with a response to the site of the exhibition (museum, gallery or so on). How do you balance the two?

Brian Jungen
When I have been asked to make shows in unusual environments I always take the site into account. A lot of the work that was made on-site was a result of gallery residencies, so that’s when I started using the gallery as a studio, which is what led to the giant whale skeletons [Cetology 2002]. I had a month to make something in an artist-run centre in Vancouver, and the process was fast, intuitive and quite scary. I then wanted to make another skeleton in Seattle and a third in Vienna, but I realised I could make the whale skeletons anywhere because those chairs are available everywhere. So that really got me thinking about how to work in the studio and adapt each piece to a specific environment.

Jessica Morgan
Your recent work, The Evening Redness in the West # 1, consists of two riding saddles that were made from disassembled, vibrating leather chairs that were designed to accompany entertainment systems. The saddles were connected to speakers that were covered with skulls made from softballs. Could you describe this work and what interested you in particular about the products you used?

Brian Jungen
Supposedly affordable leather furniture was something that members of my family would buy as soon as they got some money. It was like a symbol of luxury. So I wanted to see if I could make these saddles out of the chairs and play around with the idea of the western. The skulls were partly to do with my interest with Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. I had read this book several times and I wanted to make some kind of homage to it using these home theatre systems. This incredibly violent novel tells the story of the Mexican American wars, with these bounty hunters on a mission to slaughter the Indians. In the book there is actually one scene that has always stuck in my head where one of the apaches is described as wearing a wedding dress that he took from someone they had killed. For the apache, the wedding dress had no use-value. This sense of misplaced use-value relates to how I looked at a lot of Indian material in museums, and how I looked at the chairs and softballs. Often in museums you can see western items within Indian objects, which creates a third, hybrid object – spoons, for example. But this assimilation of material stops when mass production is introduced.

Jessica Morgan
We started to discuss this project for Tate some time ago and since then you have had a number of ideas that you decided not to take forward. One idea we discussed involved the Treaty signed between your tribe in Canada, the Doig River band of the Dunne-za Nation in Northern British Columbia, and the British Crown in the nineteenth century. This is now something that you are planning to develop for another exhibition, but perhaps you can describe it a little here?

Brian Jungen
My new work is very much about my personal history and origins. When I go to my hometown every summer, there is always a Powwow in July. Gradually this became a rodeo, but now they also connect this event to a lot of the historical residue of the treaty – including a five-dollar handshake. Part of the Treaty agreement stated that a Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable would give each Indian from my tribe five dollars on the day of the anniversary of the treaty, which is July 17. So the local RCMP detachment heads up there on the anniversary, and one guy is dressed in traditional scarlet uniform, and the whole historical thing is re-enacted. Of course the whole idea is insulting because the amount was never increased with inflation. So my cousins call it the ‘pack of cigarettes handshake’. I don’t know exactly what kind of project will result from this research or my interest in the treaty, but I think it will include many different objects and media – photography, documents, sculpture, and possibly a land-claim lawsuit with the Canadian government.

Brian Jungen is fifth in a series of exhibitions conceived by Jessica Morgan, Curator, Contemporary Art, Tate Modern, and is curated by Jessica Morgan, assisted by Amy Dickson, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.