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On the hunt for meaning

Artists Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater hunger for a ‘Modest Livelihood’

When is a moose just a moose? And when is it a metaphor… for existential meaning, for traditional wisdom, for art-world success?

Canadian art star Brian Jungen teamed up with multidisciplinary artist Duane Linklater to create Modest Livelihood, a 50-minute video projection currently installed at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Linklater, an Omaskêko Cree based in North Bay, recently won the $50,000 Sobey Art Award, one of Canada’s richest; Jungen, a Dane-zaa of mixed ancestry, who splits his time between Vancouver and Fort St John, BC, won the inaugural prize in 2002. The pair’s enigmatic, minimalist film may offer a sly comment on Aboriginal artists trying to make a name and a living for themselves in the capricious and at times harsh international art scene.

Jungen shot to stardom in 1999 with sculptures made from Air Jordan sneakers ripped apart and re-stitched to resemble West Coast Aboriginal masks. He’s gone from success to success with a string of witty and seductive sculptures addressing mass consumerism and colonialism: a whale skeleton made from lawn chairs, a giant turtle shell made from garbage buckets, blankets woven from shredded sweaters of professional sports teams. He was the first living artist to get a solo show at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The title Modest Livelihood is inspired by a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1999 that recognized First Nations’ traditional use of natural resources for basic sustenance, a “moderate livelihood.” The film premiered last year at the Banff Centre for dOCUMENTA (13). It follows Jungen and Linklater on two moose hunts in the Peace River valley in British Columbia near where Jungen grew up. The first hunt is in the presence of an elder, Jungen’s uncle, Jack Askoty. The second hunt finds the artists on their own. No one and no thing are ever identified in the film; it is screened without sound or titles.

Shot on luscious Super 16mm film, the loose narrative is comprised of long static shots of gorgeous scenery, plenty of quick flashing edits and jerky camera movements, and a constant return to the men looking… and looking. At one point, there’s an encounter at dusk with some animal, possible a family of moose, but it’s unclear what happens. Then, suddenly, it’s winter and only Jungen and Linklater continue the hunt. More looking. Early one dawn they finally bag their quarry. Then begins the arduous task of skinning and butchering the carcass: white guts spill out of brown hide, white ribs and red meat, blood pooling against fat, red slush. Some more quick cuts and the pick-up truck drives off. Two birds careen in the sky. The end.

Both Jungen and Linklater are generous artists; their works consistently invite all viewers to engage, to ponder the place of Aboriginal culture in the wider scheme of things, to ponder our own place in that scheme. Their works inspire multiple readings.

At one point, in the first half of the film, the three men sit around a campfire drinking hot tea, gabbing.

Figuratively and literally, it’s as far away as you can get from New York City or any other centre of the international art scene. Whether the men are discussing the mysterious or the mundane, we can’t know. The film’s silence respects the way traditional knowledge has been passed down through generations; the silence stretches across the vast distances the two artists have travelled.

When the two men finally get their moose, it’s almost pitch black. Shots fired in the dark hit their mark: a potent symbol for art-world success.
Or perhaps it was just a moose.

MODEST LIVELIHOOD Until June 15.  Art Gallery of Ontario. 317 Dundas St W. ago.net.

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