There’s a new bronze beast on the corner of Dundas and McCaul streets in Toronto. Or, at least, balanced on a circus ball. Dane-zaa Artist by Brian Jungen Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill (2022) now lives where Henry Moore is Large Two Forms (1966-1969) has already done so, alongside the Art Gallery of Ontario.
It’s a whimsical work of art that invites us to run our hands over it and take selfies with it, but it’s also meant to make us think. Jumbo, the circus elephant that inspired it, was killed by a train in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1885. The sculpture’s Dane-zaa subtitle translates to “my heart is tearing.”
Jungen said he identified with Jumbo and “this idea of something that’s sort of forced to play,” he explained on AGO’s Zoom this week. “And I think he probably had a miserable life. In the name of entertainment, he was turned into this kind of monster.
couch monster marks important firsts: this is the first public art commission from the Art Gallery of Ontario. And it’s Jungen’s first bronze installation – a tribute to Moore.
But it also marks an end. By the time couch monster was unveiled this week, Jungen’s world and the life he lived was radically different from when he designed the sculpture.
couch monster is the last completed piece from Jungen’s Okanagan studio on the ranch where he lived and worked – and herded cattle – near Vernon, British Columbia for eight years. Last August, everything was lost in a forest fire. Including, from his studio: works in progress, the entire Jungen archive and works donated to him by other artists.
The main house had somehow survived the fire – but a fir tree collapsed on it, destroying it.
“It was completely unrecognizable,” says Jungen, describing his first return to the property after the fire. “It was like being on the moon.”
Jungen, 52, was born in Fort St. John, British Columbia. The horrific summer of 2021 wasn’t the first time a fire had destroyed Jungen’s life as he knew it. When he was seven years old, his parents were killed in a house fire.
He was raised by parents and at 18 moved to Vancouver to attend what is now Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
In 1998 he began the work that cemented his fame in the art world and beyond. Jungen deconstructed Nike Air Jordan sneakers and turned them into mask-like sculptures of Northwest Coast Indigenous people. He named the series Prototypes for new understanding.
Its dismantling and reassembling of consumer goods into fanciful structures that have deeper ties to indigenous culture has expanded. Plastic patio furniture becomes a whale skeleton; golf bags a totem. It turns chest freezers and filing cabinets into baseboards. He won the first Sobey Art Award in 2002 and the Gershon Iskowitz Prize in 2010, which led to his first solo exhibition at the AGO. A second, Friendship Centre, followed in 2019.
After installing this show, Jungen returned to the Okanagan to complete the prototype of couch monster. He managed to get it to the foundry in Washington State the week the border was closed. Then everything stopped, including the foundry, for months.
Even when the foundry reopened, Jungen was unable to get there as planned. With the borders closed, the intricate work had to be done in collaboration between Jungen and the Walla Walla foundry on Zoom and Facetime. “It was very, very frustrating,” he says. “Because I am such a maker. I just really want to get into it.
It was crucial to Jungen that the piece have the sags, creases and seams as he had created them. In the end, he says, it took about 270 separate casts. They had to be welded together, the textures matched, and those seams made invisible. “There are like thousands and thousands of hours of this, basically recreating the texture of leather by hand.”
One of his goals was to make the piece irresistible to the touch. Jungen had spent a lot of time watching people interact with the Moore. “I really liked the way people sat on it, used it a bit like furniture and felt comfortable with it, I wanted that to continue,” he says. (The Moore sculpture is now installed in Grange Park.)
Along the way, he was asked more than once: why not make a moose, or an elk? Something more Canadian? But he preferred an animal that was more foreign to him. “I thought: this poor creature was here in Canada, so far from its native homeland,” he says, noting that a circus elephant balancing on a ball has sadness. And is hard to ignore. “I wanted to have something on the streets of Toronto that would turn people’s heads.”
During installation, heads turned – and many people couldn’t help but touch it. Hit.
couch monster is monumental and a monumental achievement in Jungen’s career. But it’s more than that. “For me, the piece really represents the end of this studio,” Jungen says, “the eight years of working at the ranch.”
The climate emergency unfolded with deadly intensity in British Columbia last summer. A year ago at this time, residents were about to experience a rare and horrifying heat dome. The town of Lytton was destroyed by fire. And then, more fires.
In August, as the White Rock Lake Fire grew out of control and approached the Jungen area, he was evacuated from his property. He left too quickly to take care of his cattle and had to abandon them.
In his Airstream trailer, he decamped to the property of artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Muller, who live in Grindrod, British Columbia, far enough away to be safe.
Jungen was there when, back home, the fire reached the ranch on August 15. He was following updates on Twitter, getting information from the Okanagan Indian Band, watching the skies. “In the middle of the day, it turned black; like, it totally turned into a night at Armstrong and Vernon,” he says. “And you know the fire is pretty much where you are.”
He turned off his phone and went paddling down the river. “Because there was nothing you could do, was there?” You only make things worse if you worry and worry about it.
Five days later, he got the permits he needed to return to the property and pick up his cattle. The fire was still active. “Driving there was like a war zone. It was totally unrecognizable,” he recalls. Helicopters flew overhead. The local store at the bottom of the hill had been completely burnt down.
But he found the cattle. “They survived, miraculously. My downstairs neighbor, he lost his whole herd.
Jungen’s barns and workshop had burned down, a bridge had been destroyed. Both houses survived because he had pointed the irrigation cannons at them. “But it was really like an island of greenery,” he says. “The fire completely surrounded him. It just went down one side of the valley and up the next. The tree through the biggest house made it unsalvageable.
A massive cleanup followed, but Jungen was done with the ranch, and done with the ranching. He sold the cattle; the property is on the market. “It was a really good experience,” he says. “I grew up farming and that was something I wanted to get back to, but having an artistic career and trying to be a rancher was way too much.”
After the fire, Jungen returned to the Fort St. John area. He spent the winter reading books and watching movies. Take the time to think about what’s next. He reflected on climate change – the fire element in particular – and how this could be taken into account in new work.
He does not know where he will ultimately land. But he is no longer tied to this part of northern British Columbia solely by his history and his family. He made a big commitment to the future of the place.
Jungen has now joined his community’s volunteer fire department. This spring, he took training. He recently went to his first call, a house fire.
“It was actually really amazing. We were able to take him down pretty quickly and save the structure and yeah, that was really good for me I think. To kind of take him on.
He thinks of this time as a sort of sabbatical as he figures out where he’s going to have his next studio, and closes the chapter on the last, lost one. He enjoys the time spent with his family. “I haven’t spent a whole winter in northern BC in a long time,” he says. “And actually, it was really beautiful. It was, I think, very therapeutic for me.
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