On the corner of Dundas and McCaul streets in downtown Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) unveiled its first public art commission on Monday — a looming bronze circus elephant balancing on a tiny ball. Artist Brian Jungen built his 13-foot-tall “Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill” (2022) out of old leather sofas before the prototype was cast by a foundry.
Working on a massive bronze sculpture was a first for Jungen, but repurposing materials was not. The artist turns mass-produced objects into recognizable forms from both European and Indigenous art history — he is perhaps best known for stitching Air Jordans together into the shapes of traditional First Nations headdresses and masks, and recently, Jungen molded the sneakers into the eerie beaked masks of 17th-century European doctors.
For the AGO commission, however, Jungen wanted to create a tribute to the plight of captive animals, according to the museum. “Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill” pays homage to Jumbo the elephant, the world-famous circus animal whose deeply tragic story inspired Disney’s heart-wrenching 1941 movie Dumbo. The titular words “Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill” translate to “my heart is ripping” in the language of the Dane-zaa people, from whom Jungen is descended. (A panel next to “Couch Monster” will be written in both English and a different Indigenous language, Anishinaabemowin, which is spoken more widely than the Dane-zaa language in Canada’s Great Lakes region.)
In an interview, Jungen said he was thinking about the story of Jumbo, who died in Ontario, and asked elders in his community whether they had ever seen an elephant.
“A lot of them hadn’t, but a lot of them remembered seeing an elephant at the Shrine Circus,” he said. “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 the sculpture arrived in Toronto only earlier this month, “Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill” was many years in the making. Jungen first had the idea to use the sofas as his medium after seeing discarded furniture on Toronto streets during a 2017 visit, and in March 2020, he completed the full-scale prototype. He then sent it to Washington state to be cast at the Walla Walla Foundry.
The resulting surface is remarkably realistic, conjuring the leathery texture of an elephant’s skin, and Jungen hopes the statue will evolve as people interact with it.
“Like the leather couches, the more people engage with the work, the more the bronze patina will change over time,” Jungen said in a statement. “I want people to lounge on and explore and really embrace this Couch Monster — it is yours and I am so thrilled to have it live here in the years to come.”