The wildfires in BC have destroyed artist Brian Jungen’s Okanagan studio. His AGO installation, Couch Monster, was the last piece completed

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

A new bronze beast reigns on the corner of Dundas and McCaul streets in Toronto. Or at least balancing on a circus ball. Dane-zaa artist Brian Young’s Bank monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill (2022) now lives where Henry Moore’s Big two forms (1966-1969) once did, adjacent to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

It’s a whimsical work of art that invites us to run our hands over it and take selfies with it, but it’s also meant to make us think. Jumbo, the circus elephant that inspired it, was killed by a train in 1885 in St. Thomas, Ont.

Jungen said he identified with Jumbo and “this idea of ​​something that is a bit forced to perform,” he explained via Zoom from the AGO this week. “And I think he probably had a miserable life. In the name of entertainment, he was turned into this kind of monster.”

Bench Monster marks a number of substantial firsts: it is the Art Gallery of Ontario’s first public art commission. And it is Jungen’s first installation in bronze – a tribute to Moore.

The wildfires in BC have destroyed artist Brian Jungen's Okanagan studio. His AGO installation, Couch Monster, was the last piece completed

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

But it also marks an end. By the time Bench Monster revealed this week, Jungen’s world and the life he led was drastically different than when he conceived the image.

Bench Monster is the last completed piece from Jungen’s Okanagan studio on the ranch where he lived and worked — and herded livestock — for eight years near Vernon, BC. Last August, everything was lost in a wildfire. Including from his studio: works in progress, the entire archive of Jungen and works by other artists donated to him.

The main building had somehow survived the fire, but a pine tree collapsed and destroyed it.

“It was completely unrecognizable,” said Jungen, describing his first return to the property after the fire. “It was like being on the moon.”

The wildfires in BC have destroyed artist Brian Jungen's Okanagan studio. His AGO installation, Couch Monster, was the last piece completed

The wildfires in BC damaged Brian Jungen’s ranch and decimated his studio.Brian Young / Brian Young

Jungen, 52, was born in Fort St. John, BC. The terrible summer of 2021 wasn’t the first time a fire destroyed Jungen’s life as he knew it. When he was seven, his parents died in a house fire.

Raised by relatives, he moved to Vancouver at the age of 18 to study at what is now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

In 1998, he began the work that cemented his art-and-beyond fame. Jungen deconstructed Nike Air Jordan sneakers and turned them into sculptures that resemble native masks of the northwest coast. He called the series Prototypes for a new understanding

The wildfires in BC have destroyed artist Brian Jungen's Okanagan studio. His AGO installation, Couch Monster, was the last piece completed

Jungen’s Couch Monster during patination at Walla Walla Foundry.Brian Young / Brian Young

His dismantling and reassembly of consumer goods into erratic structures that have deeper ties to indigenous culture is extensive. Plastic patio furniture becomes a whale skeleton; golf bags a totem pole. He turns freezers and filing cabinets into baseboards. He won the inaugural Sobey Art Award in 2002 and the 2010 Gershon Iskowitz Prize, leading to his first solo exhibition at the AGO. A second, Friendship Center, followed in 2019.

After installing that show, Jungen returned to the Okanagan to finish the prototype for Bench Monster† He managed to get it to the Washington state foundry the week the border closed. After that, everything lay still for months, including the foundry.

The wildfires in BC have destroyed artist Brian Jungen's Okanagan studio. His AGO installation, Couch Monster, was the last piece completed

The Couch Monster prototype will be ready for shipment to Walla Walla Foundry in March 2020.Brian Young / Brian Young

Even when the foundry reopened, Jungen was unable to travel there as planned. With the borders closed, the intricate work had to be done as a collaboration between Jungen and the Walla Walla Foundry via Zoom and FaceTime. “It was very, very frustrating,” he says. “Because I’m such a maker. I just really want to be in it.”

It was crucial to Jungen that the piece had the sags, folds and seams as he made them. In the end, he says, about 270 individual casts were needed. They had to be welded together, the textures matched, and those seams had to be made invisible. “There are thousands upon thousands of hours of just that, essentially, hand-imitating the texture of the leather.”

The wildfires in BC have destroyed artist Brian Jungen's Okanagan studio. His AGO installation, Couch Monster, was the last piece completed

Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill is a whimsical work of art that invites us to run our hands over it and take selfies with it.Brian Young / Brian Young

One of his goals was to make the piece irresistible to the touch. Jungen had spent a lot of time watching people interact with the Moore. “I really liked how people sat on it, used it as furniture, and liked it so much that I wanted it to stay that way,” he says. (The Moore sculpture is now installed in Grange Park.)

Along the way, he was asked more than once: why not make an elk, or a moose? Something more Canadian? But he preferred an animal that was stranger to him. “I thought, that poor creature was here in Canada, so far away from its native homeland,” he says, noting that a circus elephant balancing on a ball has a sadness. And is hard to ignore. “I wanted to have something on the streets of Toronto that would make people turn their heads.”

During the installation, heads turned – and many people couldn’t resist touching it. Good luck.

Bench Monster is monumental, and a monumental achievement in Jungen’s career. But it’s more than that. “The piece really represents the end of that studio for me,” Jungen says, “the eight years of working on the ranch.”


The climate emergency announced itself with deadly intensity in BC last summer. About this time a year ago, residents were about to experience a rare, horrific dome of heat. The town of Lytton was destroyed by fire. And then burn more.

In August, as the White Rock Lake fire spiraled out of control and approached Jungen’s area, he was evacuated from his property. He left too soon to care for his livestock and had to leave them behind.

In his Airstream trailer, he left for the property of artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Muller, who live in Grindrod, BC, far enough away for safety.

Jungen was there when, at home, the fire reached the ranch on August 15. He followed updates on Twitter, got information from the Okanagan Indian Band, and looked to the sky. “It turned black in the middle of the day; like, it was getting all night in Armstrong and in Vernon,” he says. “And you know the fire is pretty much your house.”

He turned off his phone and went paddling on the river. ‘Because you couldn’t do anything, could you? You will only make it worse if you only worry about it.”

Five days later, he was granted the permits he needed to return to the estate and search for his livestock. The fire was still active. “Driving there was like a war zone. It was totally unrecognizable,” he recalls. Helicopters flew over. The local shop at the bottom of the hill was completely burnt down.

But he found the cattle. “They survived miraculously. My neighbor down the road, he lost all his flock.”

Jungen’s barns and studio had burned down, a bridge had been destroyed. The two houses survived because he pointed the irrigation guns at them. “But it really was an island of greenery,” he says. “The fire completely surrounded it. It just came down one side of the valley and up the other.” The tree by the bigger house made it irreparable.

A big clean-up followed, but Jungen was done with the ranch and done with the ranch. He sold the cattle; the property is on the market. “It was a really good experiment,” he says. “I grew up in farming and it was something I wanted to return to, but having an art career and trying to become a farmer was way too much.”

The wildfires in BC have destroyed artist Brian Jungen's Okanagan studio. His AGO installation, Couch Monster, was the last piece completed

Jungen’s barns and studio had burned down in the wildfire that swept through the Okanagan.Brian Young/AGO

After the fire, Jungen went back to the Fort St. John area. He spent the winter reading books and watching movies. Take time to think about what the future holds. He thought about climate change—particularly the element of fire—and how it could play a role in new work.

He is not sure where he will eventually land. But he is no longer tied to this part of Northern BC just by history and family. He took a big commitment to the future of the place.

Jungen has now joined his community’s volunteer fire department. He attended training this spring. He recently went to his first phone call, a house fire.

“It was actually really great. We were able to take it down pretty quickly and save the structure and yeah it was really good for me I guess. To confront it a bit.”

He sees this time as a kind of sabbatical as he considers where he will have his next studio, and closes the chapter on the last one, the lost one. He enjoys time with his family. “I haven’t spent a whole winter in northern BC in a long time,” he says. “And actually it was very beautiful. It was, I think, very therapeutic for me.”

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