The Ontario Art Gallery unveils its first public art order, elephant bronze by Brian Jungen

There is an elephant in the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) – no less a bronze elephant, but it is not in the room or in any room on the exhibition grounds in downtown Toronto. Rather, it is on the corner of Dundas and McCaul streets at the eastern end of the gallery, a place once occupied by Henry Moore Big two shapes (1966-69), which a few years ago was moved to a park behind the gallery.

The elephant titled Sofa monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill (my heart is torn) (2022), is by Brian Jungen, a famous European and local heritage artist from British Columbia. This is his first large-scale bronze sculpture, all 11,000 pounds of it, which AGO calls “a poetic homage to the plight of captive creatures.” About 5.5 meters long and 4 meters high, it was cast in a foundry in Walla Walla, Washington, which is said to be one of only two in the world capable of such a huge undertaking.

Brian boys, Sofa monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill (in detail), 2022 Ontario Art Gallery Collection. Commission, funded by the Government of Canada / Gouvernement du Canada, the Canadian Council for the New Chapter of Arts Program, the Rennet and David Berman Family Foundation, Charles Brindamour and Jose Letarte, Bob Dorance and Gale Drummond, Angela and David Feldman, Hal Jackman Fonda Phil Lind and Ellen Roland, TR Meighen Family Foundation, Partners in Art, Paul & Jan Sabourin, anonymous donor, and with exchange funds from Mori and Jennifer Chaplik, 2022. © Brian Jungen

Jungen is known for using everyday art materials, including sneakers, golf bags and lawn chairs. It was after seeing piles of discarded furniture on Toronto’s sidewalks, much of it leather, that he chose to use bronze, processed to look like animal skin and which will look even more so over time. He was also a tribute to Moore, one of Jungen’s influences.

Sofa monster however, some time remains to come. “The road here has been really long,” says Jungen. He created a full-scale prototype using second-hand furniture in his studio, which was then sent to the foundry. There were additional complications due to Covid-19, as Jungen was unable to cross the border and had to communicate with the foundry by telephone. “Five years have passed,” he added. “I decided to let my hair grow.” That was obvious.

Brian boys With the kind assistance of the artist

The play is inspired by the sad ending of a legendary elephant named Jumbo, a huge circus star PT Barnum, killed by a freight train while being transported to the rails in St. Thomas, Ontario, in 1885. His story is said to have inspired Walt Disney’s animated classic Dumbo.

As with many public art, people are encouraged to touch Sofa monster. The fact that Jungen uses what he calls “things they are familiar with” is an additional incentive. Amazingly, it even feels like leather. “I don’t really want people to climb it,” he added, “but I think it could happen.” Or, as one sponsor who was available for the launch aptly put it, “You can’t stop kids from doing stupid things.”

Brian boys, Sofa monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill2022 Ontario Art Gallery Collection. Commission, funded by the Government of Canada / Gouvernement du Canada, the Canadian Council for the New Chapter of Arts Program, the Rennet and David Berman Family Foundation, Charles Brindamour and Jose Letarte, Bob Dorance and Gale Drummond, Angela and David Feldman, Hal Jackman Fonda Phil Lind and Ellen Roland, TR Meighen Family Foundation, Partners in Art, Paul & Jan Sabourin, anonymous donor, and with exchange funds from Mori and Jennifer Chaplik, 2022. © Brian Jungen

AGO Director and CEO Stefan Jost said at the start: “I want it to be both accessible and complex. “The public owns it,” he added, noting that Moore’s sculpture “is almost never marked.”

No figures have been released on the issue of spending, although Yost hinted that it was a very expensive proposal, with significant government funding and even the Henry Moore Foundation, which is kicking off in support.

The elephant’s tusks have been trimmed – Jungen obviously felt they didn’t fit a circus animal – but his trunk is a lot of evidence, obviously to Jost’s daughter’s delight. “For her, it’s about touching the trunk and getting lucky,” he said.

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