Data in Contemporary Art: Brian Jungen


Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

Last month, Manuel Lima caused a bit of a stir in the data visualization world when he proposed a divide between Information Visualization and Information Art. This kind of phylogenic approach aside, how does data fit into a contemporary art context? To answer this question, it might be helpful to start with an investigation into contemporary artists who use or have used data within their practice. A few months ago, I featured an article on Mark Lombardi, whose data-centric illustrations have found their way into the collections of many major art galleries & museums. This time I’ll move away from 2-d form and look at a piece by Canadian artist Brian Jungen.

Brian Jungen‘s 2001 piece Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time consists of hundreds of plastic cafeteria trays, stacked neatly on a wooden shipping pallet. As is often the case with Jungen’s work, this piece is more complex than it may at first appear. Start with the wooden pallet, which has been hand-carved from red cedar. Above it, the trays themselves are also carefully considered: the number and colour of the trays correspond to the population of Aboriginal males incarcerated in Canada’s prisons. This block of trays looks solid, but it is in fact a hollow container; in the center a TV plays, showing a looping series of daytime television programs. Finally, the entire work references a historical event, in which an inmate at Ontario’s Millhaven Institution escaped inside a makeshift structure of stacked trays.

I think it’s possible to understand Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time, at least in part, as a data visualization. In general, Jungen’s practice resolves around disassembly and re-assembly – both key parts of any visualization project – so it is not too much of a surprise to see him treading into this territory. Though some of his later work involves data in more abstract ways (his famous Prototypes for New Understanding were made in a strictly numbered edition corresponding to Michael Jordan’s number; other works involve the construction of new maps from boundary data), Passage of Time remains his most data-centric work.

A major exhibition of Brian Jungen’s work is currently on show at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. An excellent introduction to Jungen’s work can be found on the NMAI’s website, including a brilliant essay by museum curator Paul Chaat Smith.

2 thoughts on “Data in Contemporary Art: Brian Jungen”

  1. Hi Jer,

    I think that this division between information art and information visualization is, partly, due to an (false) assumption that "data" refer only to quantitative data. All kind of arts – and not just only information art – contains a lot of data and information, but mainly qualitative, and mainly about emotions (of the artist or the viewer). I'm not sure that this split between art and design is so accurate or precise, maybe it's about the context and the goals of the user, not just about the kind of data. Could art be seen as the visualization of emotional data? Maybe, depending of what the user will do with that information.

    Anyway, thanks for continuing the discussion. This is an excelent topic.

  2. Well, some artists talk about their work as being "serendipity." So therefore, I think that data can really make art depending on how you approach it. I for one, think that the photograph above is far more beautiful than much of the art I've seen of late.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *