National Gallery of Canada builds Basketball Court with a twist

The NBA strike is over and, to the relief of many basketball fans, the agreement ensures at least 10 years will pass before millionaire players and millionaire team owners have another fight over the billions of dollars they share each year.

Meanwhile, at the National Gallery of Canada, Brian Jungen has a large and eloquent comment on the people at the other far end of the basketball economic equation. It’s a basketball court – not quite full-sized but big enough to have oomph – and the floor beneath the two nets came from just the sort of sweatshops where some shoes and other basketball gear are made. To be precise, the floor is made entirely of wooden table-tops that were once parts of industrial sewing machines used in sweatshops. The piece is titled Court, which nicely alludes to it as a question of justice, or injustice.

You wouldn’t want to shoot some hoops on the floor of Court, as each of the 210 table-tops has a large hole where the machinery of the sewing machine once was. But then, this court is built not for playing but for provoking, and for creating an unavoidably clear and discomforting link between the exalted top and the exploited bottom of the basketball food chain.

Jungen is a 41-year-old Vancouver artist of Native ancestry. Visitors to the National Gallery may know his work through several other pieces in the permanent collection, most notably Shapeshifter, a life-sized whale skeleton built entirely of cheap, plastic, white lawn chairs. There has also been much written about his series Prototypes of New Understanding, which includes contemporary versions of West Coast Native masks built entirely of the parts of disassembled Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes. I’ve only seen the Air Jordan masks in photographs, but even there they are powerful and wholly distinctive works.

Court may not have the immediate brand recognition of the iconic Air Jordan shoes, but it has grand scale and effectively continues Jungen’s creation of socially charged art built of  “universally recognizable” materials.

“I like mass-produced materials because they are a reflection of our society in this period of history,” Jungen says, in an email interview. “Most folks have some sort of relationship to them. I tend to use materials that I can source in my immediate environment, and materials that proliferate in western culture. Eventually most of the products we see today will fade out of use and be replaced.”

He built Court in 2004 while working in Harlem, New York, where the piece was first displayed. “It was in a neighbourhood where there were several outdoor basketball courts, tenement housing, and light industrial buildings,” he says. “It’s well known that Harlem has historically been a working-class African-American district. I was responding to the location and what I felt was a long-standing disparity between the hopes and dreams of basketball stardom and the reality of repetitive manual labour.”

He got the 210 table-tops (the original installation had 224 but was modified to fit into the National Gallery) from a New Jersey company that refurbishes sewing machines used in garment factories in the United States and elsewhere. “I think the term ‘sweatshop’ is commonly used to refer to factories which pay their employees ‘piece wages’ and, as you know, the term is a pejorative.”

Jungen is one of the principal artists in the vast, private collection of Bob Rennie, who made a fortune as a Vancouver real-estate marketing consultant. Rennie has previously loaned Court for display as far away as Shanghai, and is donating the piece to the National Gallery, where it can be displayed and seen by many people.

“We’re all engaged in what an NBA player’s retirement package looks like and how much he’s making in a year,” Rennie says over a cell phone from Kona, Hawaii, where he’s on vacation (yet already taking calls at 6 a.m.). What pro basketball players earn “has no bearing on our day-to-day life, but for some reason social structure has caused us to talk about it.” People talk about the billionaire’s status, he says, and Court may lead people to consider the sweatshops’ status. “ There is a culture in between that’s fascinating,” he says, the question of “why we’re all paying attention.”

Rennie speaks about art with passion and conviction, yet he is refreshingly democratic about it. He understands that a function of art can be to merely entertain, and if people “decide to get more involved, that entertaining will turn into more dialogue and will turn into more reading and dissecting. But you have to bring people in innocently.”

Jungen, with his arresting imagery made of broadly recognizable and even beloved consumer objects – shoes, lawn chairs, golf clubs – subtly draws in a broad swath of the population, including those who don’t otherwise spend a lot of time thinking about art. “It’s a very innocent way to put something quite palatable in front of you, but then when you start to scratch the surface there’s a lot more,” Rennie says.

That’s precisely what makes Court so attractive, and what makes Jungen one of the most consistently compelling Canadian artists working today.

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