Brian Jungen |Prototypes for New Understanding

 

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.

 

Megapolis India| Without Walls | Studio X

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The process of making a city ‘modern’ has brought joy as well as anomie – joy because people are getting exposed to new forms of information and communication technology, integrating sections of society, anomie because modernisation tends to shun the unprivileged even more. The changing dynamics of Mumbai’s infrastructure and economy have resulted in patterns of spatial segregation  – which have denied the poor their right to the city. The homeless, classified as the “other”, are rendered passive in the changing urban landscape. However, in recent times, the plight of the poor has witnessed a certain revival in popular imagination. A co-curated multimedia exhibition by Megapolis India and Studio X, along with inputs from NGO Pehchan, has focused on the plight of the homeless by exposing the everyday struggles faced by them.

Upon entering the exhibition, one sees a series of video interviews displayed on a projection screen, where women, young and old, reveal their daily struggles living on footpaths. For instance, Meera, a woman in her 30s, along with her family has been living on the footpath for years. She says, “This is where we were born and raised, where our children were born and raised.. Where will we go, even if you chase us away?”. This powerful statement gives us a glimpse of the lives of the homeless, making the urban city dweller question whether or not the homeless have a right at all to decide upon what type of urbanism they want. The series of video interviews made me raise certain questions — on whose ideology does the city run on? Is urban planning done taking into consideration the homeless/poor? Has urbanisation completely become a capitalist endeavour? Are the homeless completely left out of the process of globalisation? 

One whole wall of the exhibition is assigned to maps of areas where the homeless dwell, along with photographs which display the areas where the homeless reside. Thus, as a viewer when I began to engage with the map, there seemed to be a sense of loss of identity and belongingness. In my opinion, the larger than life map displayed on the wall seemed to be overwhelming, further making the observer feel displaced. There seems to be a “growing amnesia” towards the poor, making them appear as overlooked elements of society, as political scientist Rajni Kothari recalls. The homeless seem to be perceived as an unchanging, mundane aspect of the urban dweller’s life.

As an observer, I also find it amusing to see how the visual space of the gallery can transform mundane aspects of life to sacred. The homeless are seen as inhabitants of a space, but who do not seem to catch the everyday pedestrian or a car go-er’s gaze. However, when the lives of the homeless are displayed in a gallery, they instantly become noticed and valued. The visual space of a gallery has the power to alter the perception of an object/group of people. Furthermore, the public then starts to pay attention to the plight of the homeless population.

Moreover, as one walks through the exhibition, a certain sense of a nomadic lifestyle seems to prevail in the images. As a viewer, I feel as if Mumbai’s homeless are living as urban nomads. The temporary lifestyle — similar to that of a nomad, lacks privacy, makes a person succumb to loneliness, keeps an individual always thinking of new places to rest and work in. Nevertheless, the exhibition is an eye opener and can be looked at as a tribute to Mumbai’s homeless.

The Complexity of The Monogamous Norm

Humans are dynamic beings, upon whom static norms have been imposed. One such norm is that of monogamy. There have been several debates between evolutionists about humans innately being polygamous or monogamous. Majority of the world functions on the law of monogamy amongst individuals. They claim it ensures ‘order’ in society. By stating this, do these people look at religions like Islam or other communities which rest on polygamous law in a negative way?

Monogamy in simple words is described by “The practice of marrying or state of being married to one person at a time” (Merriam-Webster). Societies have presupposed that humans are innately monogamous, hence they must be placed in an environment where monogamous laws are practiced. However there is absolutely no reason to believe that individuals are monogamous. Instead, historical evidence has revealed that “Ours is arguably the most sexual species on Earth.” as said by author Christopher Ryan. That being said, the argument towards a monogamous lifestyle takes a different turn all together.

Early societies which were characterised by primitiveness were highly polygamous. It was normal to breastfeed the babies of other members of the society, at that stage of evolution, sharing was the norm. There was no sense of individuality or identity developed, as the notion of property was not so strong. As societies progressed, the understanding of property started becoming essential to humans, it became crucial to figure out where the boundaries of ones property was differentiated from that of their rivals or other members of society. The only was this could be done was, through limiting the relationships of women and men that is.. through the law of monogamy.

Many have questioned the transition from polygamous behaviour to social monogamous behaviour in humans. This could be because; in primitive societies females found the need for security of their babies from other males who would kill if they found out that the offsprings were not theirs, in order to promote the multiplicity of their respective genes. This is a form of social behaviour evolved through evolution.

Claude Levis Staruss, the founder of the school of structuralism, stated that humans think in terms of binaries, that is in terms of two. An example of this would be marking people as inferior and superior, pure and impure or male and female. There was only room for extremes or opposites never for the space for the in between or the ‘grey area’. The idea of polygamy thus became unfamiliar to man and the idea of monogamy prevailed.

If we look at the lifestyle of our closest animal relatives, we can say that among primates around 80% have been listed as polygamous. So when we say this, we clearly imply that monogamy is not natural for humans. In fact, what is natural is polygamy and it is       a task for humans to play a monogamous role. Many evolutionists such as Daniel Kruger, have used the term “mildly polygynous” to describe the innate human nature and have opposed humans as being naturally monogamous. Others such as sociologist, Pepper Schwartz has said, ”I don’t think we are a monogamous animal. A really monogamous animal is a goose – which never mates again even if its mate is killed.”

People who have been in relationships over countless years and endless amounts of time, often feel frustrated in being in another’s company. The couple’s therapy counsellor is constantly giving umpteen ways to ‘fix things’, yet relationships remain stagnant. Why is that so? Conceptualising more than one partner is treated as a sin in many religions and other social institutions. The vision that these institutions have is that, it takes two individuals of the opposite sex to maintain stability of the family and splits equal responsibilities towards the development of offsprings. This binary understanding is known as social monogamy or living in pairs for the well being of children.

So when a pair is living under the same roof, sharing salaries and resources to support a family, the probability of the pair being socially monogamous is high. However it is important to note that while the relationship is shared, there are occasional signs of adultery, nevertheless the pair is still very much together. This type of behaviour must NOT be confused with sexually monogamous behaviour where there is only one sexual partner throughout ones life. Many people think of marriage as sexually monogamous, however it is a socially monogamous relationship. Hence the idea of a nuclear family is propagated through institutions because they aim towards social monogamy.

So what is the final take on monogamy? What can be said is that, monogamy is a constructed term which is looked at as an investment and only practiced to achieve a certain ‘balance’ in society. However, the question of humans being naturally monogamous people remains in the minds of many. For all the people out there with such a thought process, the question to ask is, if we are innately monogamous, shouldn’t following monogamy becoming easier? or for that matter why is adultery  still on the rise in many parts of the world?