The Art Gallery of Ontario unveils its first public art commission, an elephantine bronze by Brian Jungen

There is an elephant—a bronze elephant no less—on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), but it is not in the room, or in any room in the showcase of the downtown Toronto. Rather, it is on the corner of Dundas and McCaul streets at the east end of the gallery, a location once occupied by Henry Moore. Large Two Forms (1966-69), which was moved to a park behind the gallery several years ago.

The Elephant, titled Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill (My Heart Tears) (2022), is by Brian Jungen, the famous artist of European and Aboriginal descent from British Columbia. This is his first large-scale bronze sculpture, all 11,000 pounds, what the AGO calls, “a poetic tribute to the plight of creatures in captivity”. Measuring approximately 5.5m in length and 4m in height, it was cast at a foundry in Walla Walla, Washington, which is said to be one of only two in the world capable of such an enormous undertaking.

Brian Jungen, Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill (detail), 2022 Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Commission, with funding from the Government of Canada/Government of Canada, the New Chapter program of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Renette and David Berman Family Foundation, Charles Brindamour and Josée Letarte, Bob Dorrance and Gail Drummond, by Angela and David Feldman, Hal Jackman Foundation, Phil Lind & Ellen Roland, TR Meighen Family Foundation, Partners in Art, Paul & Jan Sabourin, an anonymous donor, and with exchange funds from Morey and Jennifer Chaplick, 2022. © Brian Jungen

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

couch monster was a while to come, however. “It’s been a very long road to get here,” says Jungen. He created a life-size prototype using second-hand furniture in his workshop, which was then sent to the foundry. There were further complications due to Covid-19, as Jungen was unable to cross the border and had to communicate with the foundry by telephone. “It’s been five years,” he adds. “I decided to let my hair grow out.” It was evident.

Brian Jungen Courtesy of the artist

The piece was inspired by the sad end of a legendary elephant named Jumbo, an oversized star of the PT Barnum circus, killed by a freight train as it was driven through the tracks in St Thomas, Ontario in 1885 His story would have inspired Walt Disney’s animated classic Dumbo.

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

Brian Jungen, Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill2022 Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Commission, with funding from the Government of Canada/Government of Canada, the New Chapter program of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Renette and David Berman Family Foundation, Charles Brindamour and Josée Letarte, Bob Dorrance and Gail Drummond, by Angela and David Feldman, Hal Jackman Foundation, Phil Lind & Ellen Roland, TR Meighen Family Foundation, Partners in Art, Paul & Jan Sabourin, an anonymous donor, and with exchange funds from Morey and Jennifer Chaplick, 2022. © Brian Jungen

AGO Director and CEO Stephan Jost said at the launch event, “I want it to be both accessible and complex.” “The public owns it,” he added, noting that Moore’s sculpture was “almost never tagged.”

About the cost, no figures were disclosed, although Jost hinted that it was a very expensive proposition, with significant government funding and even the Henry Moore Foundation in support.

The elephant’s tusks have been shorn off – Jungen apparently felt they didn’t fit a circus animal – but its trunk is very visible, apparently to the delight of Jost’s daughter. “For her, it’s about hitting the trunk and getting lucky,” he said.

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