Jon Sasaki at the GNO and AGS
An accompanying text by Kenneth Hayes
Jon Sasaki’s tandem exhibitions at Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario (GNO) (May 27 – June 30, 2016) and the Art Gallery of Sudbury (AGS) (July 7 – September 5, 2016) constitute an eloquent and unusually comprehensive investigation of cultural conditions in the place where they were presented, the city of Sudbury, Ontario. While each exhibition focuses on one of the base industries that have determined Sudbury’s historical development – mining at the GNO, forestry at the AGS – it is when they are examined together that they illuminate the origins of Sudbury’s hallmark ecological disaster, which continues to fascinate visiting artists.
Having these two opportunities to see Sasaki’s art reveals the depth of his commitment to reconceiving landscape art and the novel artistic strategies he brings to that project. Sasaki’s work differs from prior ambitious artistic representations of Sudbury by such artists as Louie Palu, Geoffrey James, Ed Burtynsky, Allan Sekula, and Mariana Lafrance, in that it does not primarily utilize photography. Photography, with its underpinnings of documentary realism, is the art form most commonly identified with the project of creating a cultural topography. Sasaki, however, engages with place through an agile combination of video, performance and installation. Sasaki also has an idiosyncratic approach to making objects; even when he makes something durable and permanent (or at least meant to be of long duration) it usually cannot plausibly be described as sculpture.
In fact, setting aside questions of artistic media makes it easier to identify gesture as Sasaki’s primary artistic mode. It is tempting to further characterize Sasaki’s work as comprised largely of futile or failed gestures; so many critics have done so that this description has become a trope in writing about the artist’s practice. Nevertheless, a proper understanding of gesture makes that characterization redundant – another keyword in writing about the artist. In an interview, Jacques Lacan queried, “What is a gesture? A threatening gesture, for example?” and answered, “It is not a blow that is interrupted. It is certainly something that is done in order to be arrested and suspended.” A gesture, Lacan contends, is intentionally incomplete; to feint is by no means to fail. He elaborated, “It is this very special temporality, which I have defined by the term arrest and which creates its signification behind it that makes the distinction between the gesture and the act.” Sasaki’s work often occupies this arrested condition; the distinction between gesture and act also explains why Sasaki’s art cannot be considered a form of activism. Rather than seek to change a condition or presume to move the viewer toward a particular course of action, Sasaki hopes to induce an intense, almost hallucinogenic, apperception of the arrested object, be it a familiar painting viewed in an entirely new manner, a particular tree plucked from a forest, or a letter opener comprising a piece of shrapnel.
Time, or rather temporality, which concerns modes of experiencing or dwelling within time, is the crux of Sasaki’s art, which often posits improbable periods, conjoins moments, and frequently produces effects of dilation. Surrealism thoroughly plumbed the temporal dimension of the encounter with a significant object, but Sasaki’s work is more closely related to later developments like Fluxus, and shares Conceptualism’s peculiar blend of axioms and tautologies and its fixation on duration. In line with Conceptualism’s mature development as institutional critique, Sasaki’s arrested moments are often designed to raise consciousness of the ways in which art and art-making is determined by its setting or context. Sasaki aspires to condense and communicate the totality of its productive conditions in his work, including both the condition of the viewer and the artist’s awareness of acting within an institutional system. Indeed, this is part of his larger project of promoting general historical consciousness. The title of his AGS exhibition, In the House Built by Those That Came before Me, signals this project by acknowledging the temerity of proposing to exhibit art about trees in a public gallery that was once the home of a lumber magnate.
Installation view, remnants in Gallery 2. « In The House Built By Those That Came Before Me », at the AGS.
Forestry no longer plays as large a part in Northern Ontario’s economy as it did when Sudbury was named Sainte-Anne-des-Pins in recognition of its magnificent pine forests. But well after the rapid ascent of mining in the region’s economy, the forests were still extensive enough to make William Bell one of the city’s most successful businessmen. He and his wife Katharine were also to become the city’s most generous cultural benefactors, donating land and money for parks and churches, and upon Katherine’s death in 1954, donating their home, named Bell Rock, which eventually became the Art Gallery of Sudbury.
Sasaki’s work for the Art Gallery of Sudbury consisted of selecting a single large pine tree, having it harvested, and, working with a crew of volunteers, maneuvering it into the gallery and hauling it to the second floor exhibition space where it was placed on display for the duration of the exhibition. At several stages along the way to the gallery the tree had to be further cut; a number of large branches had to be removed to pass through the gallery’s main door, where they remained in a pile, and a long section of the tree’s trunk was placed in the small glass conservatory after it was lopped off in order to hoist the tree up the nearby flight of stairs. The bulk of the tree occupied the gallery space in something like the manner that large boulders occupy rooms in Magritte’s paintings. Adjacent to the space where the tree lay, a 17 minute video projection presented the lengthy collaborative process of selecting, harvesting and transporting it.
The title of the exhibition, « In the House Built by Those That Came before Me », can be simultaneously understood in two registers. One is established by the history of the house as a luxurious and prominent dwelling built with the proceeds of forestry. This leads to questions of the relationship between the exploitation of natural resources, the representation of landscapes, and patterns of cultural benefaction, both in a local context and nationally, as a general matter of Canada’s neo-colonial culture. The other has to do with a specific convention of Canadian landscape art, the symbolic representation of a single, iconic tree[i]. Sasaki has had a long-standing and explicit engagement with the legacy of the Group of Seven painters who were active at precisely the same time and often in the same forests as lumber barons like Bell.
The tree Sasaki chose, however, was nothing like the noble, gnarled wrecks favoured by the Group of Seven artists; it is instead readily recognizable as one deliberately planted in order to be harvested as lumber. Uniform and quite free of incident that might be interpreted as character, it is part of a second or even third generation of trees to grow since the old, natural growth was cut a century ago. Sasaki’s choice of this particular tree may have been expedient, but it also serves to foreground the question of the availability of resources and the arbitrary, invariably elevating, character of an act of artistic selection. Sasaki’s work both acknowledges and attempts to neutralize the iconicity of the tree by making it real, not represented. He knows, however, that representation is stubbornly persistent, and that the real is not easily grasped[ii]. Here too, his work can be understood as a gesture, and the significance behind it is the ambivalence between the identification with the iconic tree and weariness with its dominance in Canadian landscape art, which Sasaki demonstrated through selecting four paintings of trees from the Gallery’s collection and hanging them in an arrangement that he refers to as a ‘grove.’
Though he probably would not express it in the same terms, Sasaki might sympathize with the sentiment famously professed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari at the beginning of A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, (1980): “We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics.” Sasaki, however, seems unlikely to make a break as definitive as Deleuze and Guattari when they proclaimed, “Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial root, adventitious growths and rhizomes.” Critical of the limiting terms of the Canadian landscape tradition but unwilling to abandon it entirely, Sasaki renders the iconic solitary tree as a sort of familiar spectre, laying, and dying, on the gallery floor.
From The Ground To The Sky And Back Again (Part One), 250′ inflatable, two blower fans, controller
Sasaki has recently developed his practice through undertaking artist’s residencies of varying duration in a variety of places. It has made him something of a reconnaissance agent, adept at rapidly apprising cultural situations. Sasaki’s initial exhibition in Sudbury From the Ground To The Sky And Back Again at the GNO resulted in part from a brief residency; upon arrival, the artist’s attention was drawn to the city’s most prominent landmark, the INCO Superstack. Of course, it is not unusual for visitors to the city to marvel at a landmark that seems easier to see from a distance than in close proximity (its base is located deep within a restricted industrial area), but Sasaki’s interest was predetermined, since smokestacks have an established place in his practice. In 2010, the artist used one of the inflated tubular fabric figures, of the sort installed along commercial strips in North America in order to draw attention to carwashes or fast food restaurants, to make a work titled Flyguy Triggering His Own Motion Sensor. Five years later, Sasaki modified this device to make an installation of nineteen 25-foot tall ‘smokestacks’ of nylon fabric printed with brick patterns. Exhibited during the 2015 Nuit Blanche at the PowerPlant on Toronto’s harbourfront, the work was designed to evoke the ambivalent feelings roused by the rapid disappearance of smokestacks from North American cities. For his exhibition in Sudbury, Sasaki sewed ten of the nylon tubes end-to-end to fabricate his own extra-tall stack. Then, rather than install this structure outdoors in direct competition with the Superstack, he inserted it into the former commercial storefront that houses Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario. Inflated at each end by a pair of large fans, the improbably long fabric tube doubled back several times over, became tangled on the gallery floor, and tossed about as if in agony.
The obvious significance behind Sasaki’s gesture is the loss of iconic industrial structures. Due to the need to disperse the sulfur dioxide released by smelting nickel sulphide ore, Sudbury has been the site of many smokestacks, several of which were the tallest of their time in Canada. Each has vanished in turn without a trace. It is worth noting that even the future of the Superstack, once the world’s tallest freestanding structure, is now in doubt, and it may be demolished. But Sasaki is not interested in industrial archeology as such. He described his own work as an image of ‘a giant writhing snake or a heaving intestinal tract.’ The latter description might suffice (at least for those of a certain generation) to evoke André Masson’s iconic representation of the base materialism theorized by Georges Bataille, which featured a headless figure with a coil of intestines that were imagined as a materialist labyrinth roiling secretly away in the revolutionary modern worker. Indeed, visitors to the gallery faced a labyrinth of sorts as they attempted to traverse the gallery space without treading on the artwork.
Given Sasaki’s penchant for associations, he might also welcome the comparison that came to mind for me: Dan Graham’s conceptual piece Detumescence (1966-1969). Graham’s work consisted of placing an advertisement soliciting a clinical description of ‘the typical post-sexual emotional and physiological aspects of post-climax in the sexual experience of the human male.’ Graham’s observation of the absence of such a description – he called it a ‘structural “hole” in the psycho-sexual conditioning of behaviour’ and suggested that it may be culturally suppressed – was affirmed by the failure of his search to elicit a response. The work is a classic example of conceptual art because its ambition is to articulate a conventional, culturally determined limit on everyday experience.
Like Graham, Sasaki seeks to elicit complex feelings that are repressed or generally resist expression. With this installation, he continues to reflect on the general cultural investment in a symbol of industry, the value of which is ambivalent to say the least, and the feelings of loss and estrangement that are nevertheless aroused by the prospect of its loss. As an artist, and thus as a primary form of producer, Sasaki takes it upon himself to express for us the complex sentiments aroused by the loss of an entire order of industrial production. He has made a monument to an industrial extinction event, if you will. Oscillating between the sublime and the comical his work rouses powerful and quite specific feelings the presence of which we were hardly aware.
The second component of the GNO installation rendered these sentiments even more intense, nuanced and personal. Sasaki made a video with archival footage documenting the use of nickel in fabricating munitions for the First World War and the carnage caused. These historical facts gained a shockingly contemporary and concrete focus when Sasaki discovered for sale on e-bay a letter opener fashioned from a piece of shrapnel from the War. Sasaki purchased the letter opener, and in an eloquent, silent, and solitary gesture, brought it to Sudbury and buried it in an area of tailings that are slated to be re-processed. The artefact may remain buried for years, or it may soon be incorporated in another form, like a jet engine or a piece of medical equipment. The exhibition’s title refers to trajectories that span extraordinary moments in time. Sasaki’s work exposes the uncomfortable fact that, historically, Sudbury has flourished as a direct result of its provision of a material strategic to modern mass warfare. As a guest to the city, he dutifully brings a gift, but given his commitment to historical truth, it is one that pointedly recalls his host’s material complicity in the history of mass slaughter. Nevertheless, his gesture holds such grace that it is clear that his intentions are not defamatory or accusative, but rather elegiac and even cathartic.
The ability to discover the pathos in seemingly trivial or debased objects is probably Sasaki’s greatest artistic skill. Behind the humor so often evident in his work lays a powerful sense of suffering and unfreedom. The presentation of the parings from the pine tree, for example, bears a strange resemblance to the Christian icon of the Stations of the Cross; admit that, and his performance/installation begins to take on even stranger allegorical dimensions. In this light, it appears that Sasaki’s work on Sudbury’s primary or extractive industries contains another significance that can probably be decoded as a meditation on Sudbury’s devastated and revenant landscape. The ecological disaster that has indelibly defined Sudbury’s image and made it a watchword for the cost of modern industry was not only the product of nickel mining and sulphur dioxide emissions, as is widely assumed, but of the interaction of forestry and mining. Sasaki’s two Sudbury exhibitions utilize artistic gestures to conduct a compelling dialogue on the landscape created by resource extraction economies. Doing so frees his work from the conventional limits of historical Canadian landscape art; indeed it places it at the forefront of ecological thought in contemporary art.
[i] See Wall, Jeff. “Into the Forest.” Rodney Graham: Works from 1976 to 1994. Eds. È. Van Balberghe and Y. Gevaert. Toronto: Art Gallery of York University, 1994. 11-25. Wall has also contributed to the genre, especially his picture The Pine on the Corner (1990).
[ii] For a detailed analysis of this problem, see Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Freidrich and the Subject of Landscape.