A big bronze 'Couch Monster' has arrived in Toronto
Brian Jungen on his new public work for the AGO. Meant to be playful, there's a heavy story at its heart
A strange and curious creature has found a new home at the corner of Toronto's Dundas and McCaul Streets. Standing four metres tall and five-and-a-half metres long, it's a circus elephant of sorts — a pachyderm-esque Frankenstein monster, stitched together from sofas and armchairs and other discarded furniture, but ultimately cast in bronze.
The sculpture, which was created by the artist Brian Jungen, is the Art Gallery of Ontario's first ever public art commission, and it was unveiled Monday on a spot formerly occupied by a long-time Toronto landmark, Henry Moore's Large Two Forms.
That particular monumental bronze spent 43 years outside the AGO. In 2017, it was moved to Grange Park, the green space behind the gallery, where it continues to function as the city's best-loved modernist sculpture-turned-playground, clambered upon by the park's younger visitors, as it has been for decades.
In a nod to the public legacy of Large Two Forms, the new sculpture (Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch'ill) invites visitors to come out and play. Literally climbing the elephant is discouraged, mind you, but as the artist explains, it was definitely designed to be touched. Jungen told us more about the creation of the piece when we reached him by phone this week.
CBC Arts: So many people pass that corner. (I certainly do quite a lot.) What does it mean to you to have a piece become a permanent fixture — a future landmark even?
Brian Jungen: You know, it's not about me; it's not about a fine art exhibition. It's about an object in the street — and it's a strange, curious thing. So I think people might be drawn to it.
The project's been a long while in the works, yes? When did the AGO first approach you with the commission?
BJ: It's been about five years. Kitty Scott [the AGO's former Carol and Morton Rapp curator of modern and contemporary art] invited me when she was working here.
Were there any sort of guidelines you were given for developing the piece?
BJ: A little bit. I'm fairly new to public art, but I think they wanted something that was going to be very — I hate the word iconic, but something that was going to be very recognizable and identifiable. I wanted to make something that fulfilled those qualities.
A lot of my artwork in museum collections is very hands-off. Like, you're not allowed to touch it, and it's very frustrating for people because I use very common objects. Making something that was deliberately acceptable for people to touch was very exciting for me. I wanted to make something that was very irresistible, that you kind of — you can't not touch it.
I was just there, and seeing it from across the street I didn't think I was looking at bronze at first. Like, my gut reaction was: that's leather! There's something about the way it droops and sags that really gives you that impression. But tell me about the piece: why did you want to make something that evokes old chairs and sofas? And why an elephant? What's the story that you're telling here?
BJ: Well, when I was doing research here on the project, I kind of stumbled on the story of Jumbo, from the Barnum and Bailey Circus, who died in Saint Thomas, Ont. And I remember the first time I saw an elephant was at the Metro Toronto Zoo. It's the only time I've seen an elephant. (laughs)
I asked a lot of my elders back in my Indigenous community about if they had ever seen an elephant, and a lot of them hadn't, but a lot of them remembered seeing an elephant at the Shrine Circus. I asked them what they thought of it, and to them, it didn't evoke ideas of joy. They were shocked at how such a large animal had submitted to humans — had been trained. It was basically like its spirit had been broken.
Although it looks friendly or comical or whatnot from across the street, it has a sadness to it and a weight.- Brian Jungen, artist
There's a certain amount of cruelty to entertainment and art that's invisible, and I think a lot of artists and performers have at times felt like a trained elephant or something that is being forced to perform, or being forced to deliver a certain amount of talent. And so maybe I identified with that. The more I researched, the more I wanted to make something that kind of touched on that, because although it looks friendly or comical or whatnot from across the street, it has a sadness to it and a weight.
And the other thing that I really noticed while visiting Toronto was that at the end of the day, all the trash is discarded on the sidewalk. That doesn't really happen in Vancouver and a lot of the western cities. I saw all these people stacking furniture and stuff that they were throwing out on the sidewalk. Years ago, I took photos of it, and recognized that there's a certain language of stuff on the street that goes invisible. People who see it all the time don't even notice it.
Spending time out here in Toronto, and even in New York, I was looking at streetlights and stuff, wanting to use something that was already existing on the street.
I want to go back to the story of Jumbo the Elephant for a second. You say you related to it a bit, but what was timely about that story to you? Why did you want to reference it now and why here on this particular corner in Toronto?
BJ: I mean, I've been exhibiting my work since I was in my late 20s, and I've reached a certain level of success, and I've had a lot of exposure around the world. At times, I do feel like I'm kind of forced to perform and it's part of the job, right?
I also wanted to make something that was so foreign. Like, I don't understand why people would make a sculpture of a moose, because they're so common in Canada — especially where I live (laughs). I wanted to make something that I've really never seen before. I wanted to make something that had a sense of playfulness, and I think everyone identifies with building sofa-cushion forts as kids, so I wanted to approach it like that.
People instantly recognize what it is, so it's really great that way, but when they walk up to it, they realize it's actually not made out of leather — it's metal.
I wanted to make something that had a sense of playfulness, and I think everyone identifies with building sofa-cushion forts as kids.- Brian Jungen, artist
How is the look of the bronze going to change as people interact with the sculpture? Like, how do you picture it evolving?
BJ: Right now it has a chemical patina on it, and that acts as a protectant. So over time, as people touch and rub it, that will get worn away and a kind of yellowish bronze colour will come through. That will only make it look more like worn leather, so the more people touch it, the better it'll look.
That's one of the things I really liked about the Henry Moore piece [Large Two Forms], is that people kind of used it like furniture.
And they still do!
Can you tell me more about how you're referencing that Henry Moore sculpture? How did you want to nod to that piece in making this one?
BJ: Well, that piece itself, it looks like some sort of strange beast. It's very big, it has a very unusual form. If you look at certain angles it does resemble some sort of animal or monster or something. Kids really respond to that because it's like it activates their imaginations, and I think that's a really great thing about the piece. I wanted to kind of reference that with the material and also the form of the sculpture.
And you know, an elephant represents a lot of things. It represents memory and intelligence and a sense of family and lineage. I think those are things that Moore was also very interested in. It's funny, because after I chose the form of an elephant and was working on it, the AGO showed me that Henry Moore had done all these drawings of elephants. They have them in the collection here. It was a totally blind coincidence, but it was really great!
I want to hear a little bit about how you actually made this piece. I noticed pictures of cut-up furniture on your Instagram. Are those from when you were building Couch Monster?
BJ: That's from when I started.
They [the Walla Walla Foundry] really wanted me to do a 1:1 scale. Like, a model of the artwork that they would then basically copy 1:1 in bronze.
What happened to the elephant made of furniture?
BJ: Oh, I asked them to destroy it. It doesn't exist anymore. And it was — I mean, it took a lot of trial and error to build because I didn't want to look at images of an elephant. I wanted to use my memory.
I built the piece in 2019 and the beginning of 2020, right before the pandemic. The same week that it got to the foundry, the border closed. And so it sat there for five months because the foundry shut down.
The plan was for me to go down there and work with them and go through all the details of what they can and can't do. I really wanted the sagging and the puffiness and stuff to come through. We had to do it all on FaceTime and Zoom, which was very frustrating for me because I'm a very hands-on artist, but we wound up in a place that I was really happy with. They did an outstanding job.
When did you first see it in person?
BJ: Last month.
I was down there for a week, and it was really overwhelming seeing it — and also meeting all the folks who worked on it.
It was a huge challenge for them, but they really got behind it. They got it — because they're makers as well, right? They really appreciated that I made this thing myself and that I considered so much.
From across the street, you get it — you get the form of it. But then, when you get closer, it kind of changes and turns into furniture. And then you get closer and you really see the texture — you really see the grain in the leather, and the seams and everything. That's where your focus lands, and then you just have to stop and touch and feel it. It's almost like you get to pet an elephant.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
The AGO is celebrating the arrival of Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch'ill with a special event at the corner of McCaul and Dundas Streets. Meet the Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch'ill takes place Wednesday, June 22 between 5-9 p.m. Find more info at www.ago.ca.