Sasaki creates a paean to folly and triumph

by Gregory Beatty


Jon Sasaki: Good Intentions
Dunlop Gallery
Until March 31

I first saw work by Jon Sasaki in the J.J. Kegan McFadden-curated exhibition Cabin Fever at Neutral Ground in November 2011. The show included seven artists, and using the dictionary definition of cabin fever as a starting point, sought to explore the psychology of boredom and ennui.

For several years, the Toronto-based Sasaki has done videos, performances and installations where he sets himself a stiff bordering on impossible challenge, like trying to catch a firework in a confined space and stacking small ladders one atop the other to scale a high wall. Doggedly he tries to achieve his goal, but always he fails (sometimes spectacularly).

Sasaki’s tasks are so quixotic and futile that they suggest a person with waaay too much time on their hands. So he fit comfortably within McFadden’s curatorial thesis. But for me, that’s not the true strength and genius of Sasaki’s work. Themes that the Dunlop highlighted in its press release on Good Intentions (which was guest-curated by Ann MacDonald) included success, failure, ambition, tragedy and cynicism. That’s the stuff of myth and legend, and I mean that literally.

Take Flyguy Triggering His Own Motion Sensor. It consists of an inflatable cactus-shaped mascot of the type you often see at special events that twists in the wind so that it looks like it’s nodding and waving at you. Typically, they’re a bright and cheery colour. Sasaki’s inflatable is grey with a slash of red for a mouth. It’s also rigged so that it never receives enough air to become fully upright. Instead, it flounders around, rising up from the floor a bit but then collapsing back down.

The loss of air pressure is triggered by a sensor that the mascot activates with its upward movement. It doesn’t get any more Sisyphean than that. Taking pity, some patrons try to help the inflatable stand (even though they’re not supposed to touch the art). It’s a natural human tendency, I suppose. We admire people who, when they fail, even if it’s many times, pick themselves up and try try again.

In ancient Greek myth, Zeus punished Sisyphus for being a shifty shit by compelling him to endlessly roll a boulder up a steep hill, only to have the boulder escape him near the top and roll back down. While Sisyphus, because of his dishonesty, was the author of his own misfortune, the myth is used today to describe aspects of life in general that are mind-numbingly humdrum and futile.

When that condition is a stark reality of everyday life, as for someone born into extreme poverty who must struggle ceaselessly just to survive, the myth captures the tragedy of the human condition. But other times the Sisyphean task is one that we undertake willingly — like tech nerds who strive obsessively to be on the bleeding edge of technology with smart phones, computers, video games, TVs and the like.

Good luck with that. Not only will it cost you a bundle, you’ll always be racing desperately to keep your status in your peer group by getting the latest model the millisecond it hits the market.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is another Sisyphean task that many people seem to have set for themselves these days — if debt to income ratios of average Canadian consumers are any indication. Luxury goods and services abound in our society. If you can afford them, fine, I guess, although the conspicuous consumption some people indulge in sure comes across as crass. But if you can’t afford it…

Sasaki captures that sense of quiet desperation in a video called Cycle. In it, a cyclist is shown peddling energetically — even frantically — on a busy city street. But because his 10-speed is in high gear, which is usually reserved for steep uphill climbs, he’s hardly moving. In the background, you see cars and even other cyclists whizzing by him. It’s like the old joke about swimming ducks. On the surface, everything’s serene. But underneath, they’re paddling like hell to stay afloat.

Not everything about Good Intentions falls into the category of “mind-numbingly humdrum and futile.” Take Interactions. It’s a video Sasaki did during a recent residency in Tasmania where he walked up to a number of decent-sized stones in a field and overturned them. For anyone with roots in rural Saskatchewan, the video perhaps evokes the dreaded spectre of “rock-picking” where you trudge endless acres excavating and removing stones that might do damage to valuable machinery during farm operations.

But Interactions also contains a strong sense of wonder and discovery, as underneath every rock is an assortment of exotic (and being Australia, even deadly) insects and other creatures. They exist around us, but we’re largely oblivious to the ecosystem they inhabit. So, in essence, the video depicts a clash of two realities — one rather modest, by human standards anyway, the other now taking its first tentative steps to expand beyond Earth into space.

In an artist statement on Interactions, Sasaki says the panic the creatures experience when they’re exposed can engender “pity and empathy” in viewers. Perhaps. But most, I suspect, are simply grossed out by all the creepy crawlies. The work does inspire one final thought, though, at least for me. If insect worlds exist in our midst that we regard as insignificant, do larger realities than ours also exist where we operate on the level of insects in relation to other beings?

All in all, this is a great show. And I saved the best for last. If you stop by to see it, you might score a free sno-cone.