Access denied: Jon Sasaki’s Pine at the AGO

As a kid raised in the suburbs, the work of Jon Sasaki evokes a drama as familiar to me as my parent’s battle for the perfect front lawn. Though diligently nurtured with aspirations that rose like the sun, their modest plot of turf was never far from failure’s encroaching weeds. Aspiration and failure; neither makes much sense without the other, and in Sasaki’s hands their friction generates narratives as ancient and fascinating as fire. They twist and dance in an early performance video where he repeatedly tries to climb an unsupported ladder, taking it as high as he can before gravity shows who’s boss. It hardly matters that the ladder leads to nowhere or that a Chinese acrobat could do it better. Time and again I’m embarrassed to find my inner parent rooting for him like I was watching my baby’s first steps. This awkward space where feeling turns self-conscious signals I’m in Sasaki territory again. His flirtation with sentiment encloses a passport to our guts, where he elicits hope and puts it under scrutiny. Thankfully, the question of whether his art colludes or collides with a clichéof the indomitable human spirit is left beguilingly open.

     A familiar setup in Sasaki’s performance work is that the tools employed fall short of their intended task; or rather that in given situations they perform to the best of their abilities while displaying limitations. The opening in a vacuum bag from Vacuum (2009) spews as much as it holds, a wound down watch requires constant shaking to chug out a few extra seconds in a video from 2008, and A North American Bulb in a 220V Socket (2010) loops a bulb that shorts out after only a moment’s bright light. These machines feel human, paralleled by the way his human subjects act like machines. His recent offering at the Art Gallery of Ontario featured a single channel video whose ostensible subject was the iconic Jack Pine painted by Canadian legend Tom Thomson. Shot in Algonquin Park where Thomson found inspiration, Jack Pine, 8’ Camera Crane (2010) consists of a single 360-degree crane shot that struggles to get off the ground.

     Thousands of viewing hours have made each of us intimately familiar with the crane shot. Like it sounds, it’s filmed with a camera mounted on a mechanical arm that gives it a particular floating quality. With the crane shot’s ability to soar skyward it’s perfect for situating a movie protagonist in a vast landscape. Cheaper and lighter technology has made the crane shot infinitely more accessible, so today even low budget productions can make use of a tool that was once an expensive Hollywood luxury.

     Mobilized vision is the crane shot’s special appeal. It gives wings to the eyes of the viewer, in a sense gratifying the age-old dream of flight. From its God’s eye perspective movie characters can feel like pawns (see Welle’s famous opening from Touch of Evil). An unleashed crane shot puts vision on steroids, a projectile hypersight darting between the vast and the particular. It can be as thrilling as a roller coaster, the rush of its movement conjuring a world without limits.

     Jack Pine opens to the gentle gurgle of water as the camera ascends a solitary tree. If we’re prepared for the Hollywood treatment, the fabric soon starts to unravel. A plaque in the middle ground sounds a reflexive note, a reminder that we’re not just in nature but on location. Wind ruffles the microphone, and snaggy branches jut close to the eye. Things worsen as camera and crane become hopelessly tangled in branches. Whipped by needles and yanked off course, the shot falls victim to its very subject. Jack Pine’s setup is minted for failure, a slapstick dance where the camera plays stooge to the forest’s straight man. The shot persists deadpan as if to deny technical difficulties, but like Wile E. Coyote from the Roadrunner classics, it’s not a question of whether the camera’s going to get it, but when.

     The video staggers forward and focus is difficult. Though spatially shallow and narratively convulsive, the sonic interference is even more subversive.  A host of invisible branches outside the range of the camera continually scratch against its body, their noise pointing to what you can’t see, a saw-toothed index of the camera’s blind spot. Here sound highlights the limits of vision, a boreal chorus chanting “access denied”. 

     Henri Bergson’s beautiful evocation of the comic as, “something mechanical encrusted on the living,” springs to mind, but what exactly has ossified? Surely Jack Pine is funny, but if laughter liberates, from what are we being freed? As in all great comedy, the secret is in the timing. For sporadically, among the bristling boomerang of branches the camera springs free and resumes its effortless glide, rekindling my hope for a crane shot the wayit’s supposed to be- unobstructed and free, naturally! So the real contraption of Jack Pine turns out not to be a rig in the forest but my own mechanical response that’s been conditioned by a long-standing relation to moving images. The concept of crane shot internalized, instinctually pushing forward, blunted and repelled by the True North.

     Jack Pine is described as “an affectionate critique of the ineradicable Canadian landscape genre, and a humourous look at the ways it is incompatible with the tools of contemporary art-making.” But Sasaki’s video is anything but a deconstruction, as a quick look at his inspiration reveals a surprising continuity in both his and Thomson’s depiction of natural space. In the few short years before his drowning, Thomson’s mature work came to represent the Canadian wilderness with a signature flatness. The handful of elements that comprise his painting The Jack Pine (1916-17) are laid on top of each other like cutouts, their absence of modeling creating a shallow relief. Sky and water are pulled together in an identical treatment of horizontal brush strokes, and depth is compressed with a recurring mound motif in foreground and distance. Warm bands of orange and gold draw the viewer into the distance but are interrupted by a veil of pine branches at the heart of the picture. Both painting and video give the viewer little room to manoeuvre. Perhaps what accounts for the persistence of this genre is the challenge it presents to generation after generation of artists that perceive the wilderness as impervious and unforgiving.   

     Other elements of the Pine exhibition riff on the central work but play against its dynamics, diminishing the overall comic effect. A backlit photograph called Northern River, 8’ Camera Crane derives inspiration from Thomson’s Northern River (1914-15). Both are woodland scenes, though in Sasaki’s version we see the camera and crane used to shoot his video sandwiched in the brush. But the revelation appears more posed than pickled, a desultory contrast to the oscillating tension of expectation and  frustration in the video. Less information might have proved more powerful, for revealing the source of the trouble distances the viewer from the fray and chills the video’s subjective tease.  In another work, an enticing water cooler sours as mandatory public health warnings detail its contents as river water. Litigation concerns notwithstanding, they predetermine (and effectively defang) the gesture, turning the experience of it into something scripted. What reads as explanation hinders these works in ways that Jack Pine, 8’ Camera Crane resists, showing that laughter (like beauty), gratifies more than justification.

     Still, Jack Pine's missing pieces continue to resonate. Sasaki's incomplete shot is a perfect vehicle for the quest of an elusive closure, a striking analogue for the way Thomson's life and work have impacted Canadian imagination. For the man commonly associated with the Group of Seven was in fact never a member, his prodigious influence in stark contrast to a mysteriously brief professional career. Even the tree that inspired the painting is long gone, the plaque glimpsed at the video's opening commemorates the area where it once stood. A sensible connection has been made between Jack Pine and Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale for their use of film and machinery in the landscape, but I’m drawn to the final work of Sasaki’s fellow romantic conceptualist Bas Jan Ader, whose piece In Search of the Miraculous (a quest for crossing the Atlantic in a twelve and a half foot sailboat) resulted in his loss at sea.

     That was back in 1975, when king television still held the collective dream throne. Today’s vision is on the move, from three dimensional computer imaging that renders antique the need for an actual crane, to online presence and locative media that increasingly trace movement, thought, and action. Perhaps the concept of disappearance itself will have vanished in time, a quaint notion for a transparent world…

Video stills from Jack Pine, 8’ Camera Crane courtesy of Jon Sasaki. To see the video click on the portfolio section of Jon’s website at

  1. plentybyjasonschiedel posted this