There’s a new bronze beast ruling the corner of Dundas and McCaul streets in Toronto. Or, at least, balancing on a circus ball. Dane-zaa artist Brian Jungen’s Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill (2022) now lives where Henry Moore’s Large Two Forms (1966-1969) once did, adjacent to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
It’s a whimsical artwork that invites us to run our hands over it and snap 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, Ont., in 1885. The sculpture’s Dane-zaa subtitle translates to “my heart is ripping.”
Jungen said he identified with Jumbo and “this idea of something that’s kind of forced to perform,” he explained over Zoom from the AGO 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 some substantial firsts: it is the Art Gallery of Ontario’s first public art commission. And it is Jungen’s first installation in bronze – an homage 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 drastically different than when he conceived of the sculpture.
Couch Monster is the final completed piece from Jungen’s Okanagan studio on the ranch where he lived and worked – and tended cattle – near Vernon, B.C. for eight years. Last August, it was all lost in a wildfire. Including, from his studio: works in progress, Jungen’s entire archive and works gifted to him from other artists.
The main house had somehow survived the fire – but a fir tree collapsed onto it, destroying it.
“It was completely unrecognizable,” Jungen says, 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, B.C. The horrible summer of 2021 was not the first time fire destroyed Jungen’s life as he knew it. When he was seven, his parents were killed in a house fire.
He was raised by relatives and at 18 moved to Vancouver to attend what is now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
In 1998, he began the work that cemented his art-world-and-beyond fame. Jungen deconstructed Nike Air Jordan sneakers and turned them into sculptures resembling Northwest Coast Indigenous masks. He named the series Prototypes for New Understanding.
His dismantling and reassembling of consumer goods into whimsical structures that have deeper connections to Indigenous culture has expanded. Plastic patio furniture becomes a whale skeleton; golf bags a totem pole. He turns chest freezers and filing cabinets into plinths. He won the inaugural Sobey Art Award in 2002 and the 2010 Gershon Iskowitz Prize, which led to his first solo exhibition at the AGO. A second, Friendship Centre, followed in 2019.
After installing that show, Jungen returned to the Okanagan to finish the prototype for Couch Monster. He managed to get it to the Washington State foundry the week the border closed. Then everything shut down, including the foundry, for months.
Even when the foundry re-opened, Jungen could not travel there as planned. With the borders closed, the intricate work had to be done as a collaboration between Jungen and the Walla Walla Foundry over Zoom and Facetime. “It was very, very frustrating,” he says. “Because I’m such a maker. I just really want to get in there.”
It was crucial to Jungen that the piece have the sags, folds and seams as he had created them. In the end, he says, it required about 270 separate casts. They had to be welded together, the textures matched and those seams made invisible. “There’s like thousands and thousands of hours of just that, essentially, recreating the texture of the leather by hand.”
One of his goals was to make the piece irresistible to touch. Jungen had spent a lot of time watching people interact with the Moore. “I really liked how people kind of sat on it, used it kind of like furniture, and had a comfortableness with it that I wanted that to continue,” he says. (The Moore sculpture is now installed at 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: that poor creature was here in Canada, so far away from its indigenous homeland,” he says, noting a circus elephant balancing on a ball has a sadness to it. And is hard to ignore. “I wanted to have something on the streets of Toronto that would make people turn their head.”
During installation, heads turned – and many people could not resist touching it. Success.
Couch Monster is monumental, and a monumental achievement in Jungen’s career. But it’s more than that. “The piece for me really represents the end of that studio,” Jungen says, “the eight years of working at the ranch.”
The climate emergency announced itself with deadly intensity in B.C. last summer. A year ago at this time, residents were about to experience a rare, horrific heat dome. The town of Lytton was destroyed by fire. And then, more fires.
In August, with the White Rock Lake fire burning out of control and approaching Jungen’s area, he was evacuated from his property. He left too quickly to see to his cattle and had to leave them behind.
In his Airstream trailer, he decamped to the property of artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Muller, who live in Grindrod, B.C., far enough away for safety.
Jungen was there when, back home, the fire reached the ranch on Aug 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 to night in Armstrong and in Vernon,” he says. “And you know the fire is pretty much at your place.”
He turned off his phone and went for a paddle on the river. “Because there was nothing you can do, right? You just make it worse if you just fret and worry about it.”
Five days later, he got the permits he needed to return to the property and look for his livestock. The fire was still active. “Driving in there was like a war zone. It was totally unrecognizable,” he recalls. Choppers flew overhead. The local store at the bottom of the hill had been completely burned down.
But he found the cattle. “They survived, miraculously. My neighbour down the road, he lost his whole herd.”
Jungen’s barns and studio had burned down, a bridge was destroyed. The two houses survived because he had turned the irrigation guns on them. “But really it was like an island of green,” he says. “The fire completely surrounded it. It just came down one side of the valley and up the next.” The tree through the larger house made it unsalvageable.
A massive clean-up followed, but Jungen was done with the ranch, and done with ranching. He sold the cattle; the property is on the market. “It was a really good experiment,” he says. “I grew up in agriculture and it was something I wanted to return to, but having an art career and trying to be a rancher, it was way too much.”
After the fire, Jungen moved back up to the Fort St. John area. He spent the winter reading books and watching films. Taking time to think about what’s next. He thought about climate change – the element of fire in particular – and how that might factor into new work.
He’s not sure where he’ll ultimately land. But he is no longer tied to this part of Northern B.C. just by history and family. He he taken on a big commitment to the future of the place.
Jungen has now joined his community’s volunteer firefighting department. This spring he underwent training. He recently went to his first call, a house fire.
“It was actually really amazing. We were able to knock it down pretty quick and save the structure and yeah, it was really good for me, I think. To kind of confront it.”
He thinks of this time as being a kind of sabbatical as he figures out where he’s going to have his next studio, and closes the chapter on the last one, the lost one. He’s been enjoying the time with his family. “I haven’t spent a whole winter up in Northern B.C. in a long time,” he says. “And actually it was really beautiful. It was, I think, very therapeutic for me.”
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