In an exhibition titled “Prototypes for New Understanding”, displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, one encounters artist Brian Jungen’s creative endeavour — a unique hybrid creation of Nike’s Air Jordans with aboriginal masks. This synthesised creation merges elements of tradition and contemporary, and carries with it undertones of commodity fetishism, alienation, and consumerism. By integrating the sacred and mundane, Jungen’s sculptures not only encourage multiple ways of seeing ordinary objects, but also reflect an unconventional symbolical meaning.
Upon looking at the masks, one perceives the mass-produced Jordans as signifiers of eliteness and comfort. Perhaps, the reason for using Jordans amongst other shoes can be attributed to the notion of sanctitude attached to the shoes itself. As an average price of Air Jordans is estimated to be ranging between rupees ten to twelve thousand ($150 – $180), it is quite clear that these shoes are exquisite. They seem to have a pristine quality, satirising the quality of an artefact placed within a museum space.
Further, this enthralling dichotomous creation can be associated with Duchamp’s “ready mades”— the urinal. Just as Duchamp took an ordinary object, placed in the walls of a museum and tagged the object as ‘art’, in the same light Jungen has taken a pairs of Nike shoes and has placed them within a museum calling it art. However, in the process of placing the Jordans in the sacred space of a museum, their original meaning becomes lost. As a result, the viewer tends to attribute meanings that have absolutely no connection to the object’s original purpose.
Moreover, taking a closer glance at the shoes, one may notice that the shoes remain in their most original and unaltered form. Along with that, in many masks the “made in …” tag is also visible. Since the shoes are primarily made in third world countries, the artist draws a vital connection between the Jordans and the workers present in such countries. His work draws attention to the issues of the exploitation in Nike sweatshops. In the capitalist model, the consumers spend around hundred dollars on each pair, while the sweatshop workers receive less than quarter of that per day, resulting in alienation from the product itself. However, the moment the Jordans become linked to money, buyers start to view the objects as inherently carrying value instead of taking into consideration the amount of labor which has gone into creating the object. As a result, the Jordans become perceived as a fetishised commodity.
Jungen’s idea is simple: to re-contextualise daily objects in order to give them a new definition and meaning. The artist through his work conjures the masks into existence by using human hair in few of the masks, thereby creating a sense of eeriness around them. Further, it appears as though the artist is making an anthropological reading about the cross culture resemblance between Nike’s consumer culture and aboriginal culture. By using pigments of red, white, and black, the artist might be subtly trying to hint that the giant shoe brand Nike could be borrowing designs from a previous culture.
In essence, Jungen’s unique Nike masks symbolise themes of commodification, alienation, and critical expressions of contemporary consumerism. As the title of the exhibition “Prototype for New Understanding” suggests some type of experimentation or modification, Jungen has truly changed the manner in which masks may be perceived in the eyes of the viewer.