by Jen Hutton
Jon Sasaki doesnâ€™t shy away from slapstick: his diverse practiceâ€”which includes video, installation, and performanceâ€”is injected with a dry humour that often brings about an ironic turn with delightful results. In advance of his solo exhibition at the AGOâ€™s Young Gallery, titled Pine, Sasaki answered a few questions about the work in the show, which takes a wry look at the Canadian landscape as depicted by the Group of Seven.
Jen Hutton: Your new exhibition revisits Canoe Lake in northern Ontario, where Tom Thomson and his Group of Seven peers painted many of their iconic works. What was your initial attraction to this site and its history?
Jon Sasaki: When I was a kid I used to go down to the AGO on a Sunday afternoon and sit with those paintings for hours. I had a very uncomplicated relationship to them. Over the years, though I found myself increasingly disconnected from the Canadian landscape tradition. As a city-dweller who rarely goes north of Bloor, the idea that my identity can in some way be constructed around notions of â€œthe Northâ€ or â€œthe Wildernessâ€ became a bit difficult for me. Yet while find the landscape synecdoche to be vague and of dubious relevance, I canâ€™t dismiss it entirely. There is still something that resonates with me on more than just a nostalgic level. This work tries to get at that. The title Pine suggests a longing, in part for a time when my relationship to the Thomson/Group of Seven work didnâ€™t feel so fraught.
JH: Did the work originate based on a planned idea, or from your own blunders while working in the forest? Tell me a bit about your adventure in the woods.
JS: I had gone up to Algonquin Park a month earlier to shoot a different video using a Steadicam. I pictured a slow dreamy glide through the woods. However, the footage I shot was all unusableâ€¦the stabilizer constantly bumped into trees, the camera jostled as I stumbled over rocks and the soundtrack for the most part was my exhausted breathing. I packed up and went home dejected, concluding that a 60lb Steadicam was out of its element in Algonquin Park. Not long after, I realized that that was, of course, what I had been trying to get at all along. Spotlighting the friction between subject and apparatus felt to me like a satisfying way of dealing with it.
JH: Michael Snowâ€™s film La RÃ©gion Centrale (1971) is a sly reference point for Jack Pine, 8â€™ Camera Crane, but Iâ€™m wondering if there were other sources that informed the work? Iâ€™m thinking of The Cameraman (1928), where Buster Keatonâ€™s various pratfalls with faulty or mishandled moviemaking equipment gave excellent comic results. Is your work more aligned with one or the other?
JS: Both Snow and Keaton were on my mind. I was standing on the shoulders of giants in order to poke fun at some other giants!
JH: The 360-camera pan is a framing device that seems to fit within cinemaâ€™s grand manner in its presentation of a seamless panoramic view. Can you talk a little about the fetishization of this gesture in capturing landscape?
JS: There was a lot of stuff that didnâ€™t get recorded in those Thomson/Group of Seven sketches. Apparently a bunch of them were painted from the comfort of a porch at a cozy tourist lodge. I guess it was in their best interests to be selective in what they depicted, it would have punctured the illusion to have lace curtains or a parlour tea set in the frame. I liked the idea of including the entirety of the Grand Lake jack pine site, I wanted to show everything that was edited out of Thomsonâ€™s singular view point. In terms of the cinematography, I was probably more fixated on realizing the piece as a single long take. I enjoy how the convention builds a sense of tension and plays on our expectations for something to happen. Expectations which, in this case, get thwarted as the camera returns to its original position, suggesting a state of stasis and irresolution.
JH: Is there anything funny about landscape anyway, or does it need to be a man vs. nature dialectic in order to convey humour?
JS: For me, the landscape is only funny as a character foil. That deliberate, tightly-controlled establishing shot followed by the messy slapstick of that first branch still cracks me up. Any gravitas that was there evaporates immediately when the camera collides with those trees. The humour is affectionate, and it goes both ways. While Iâ€™m poking fun at historic Canadian landscape painting, Iâ€™m also laughing at the sort of super-earnest contemporary video art that I love.
Pine opens at the AGOâ€™s Young Gallery on Wednesday, April 6 with a reception from 5-7 pm. The exhibition runs until June 5.