Jon Sasaki visited by Jesse Birch

Jon Sasaki

JB — I am interested in the electric guitar that is sitting in the corner of your studio. I notice that there is a discrepancy between the guitar and the case it belongs to. Could you talk about this incongruity, and how it might relate to your practice on a whole?

JS — So the guitar in the corner of the room is actually just something I have kicking around my place, and not really intended as an artwork. Although now that you mention it, it does seem to talk about misfitting, enclosure, vulnerability etc… themes I frequently incorporate into my work. Very astute of you to see it that way. The full story behind that “Flying-V” is that, when I was 17, I got fed up with playing the trombone, took it to the local music store and traded it for that guitar. My parents weren’t too happy and wouldn’t pay for guitar lessons, so I never took any. I have only ever played, like, four chords on it. Unfulfilled potential is another big theme for me. The “Epiphone SG” case behind it just kind of fell in my lap years later.

I had a similar experience when I was twelve. I begged and pleaded for a bass guitar (the coolest instrument in grade seven band), but I ended up dragging a tuba around all year long. I guess my mom thought any bass instrument would do. Needless to say I didn’t drag it up to high school, and that was the end of my music playing.

So maybe this would be a good transition point to talk about your work The Artist’s First Painting, Bronzed (originally painted in 1988, bronzed in 2007) which also appears to refer back to teenage experiences. Could you explain this piece, and how it might function in relation to some of the aforementioned themes?

Jon Sasaki The First Painting Bronzed talks about a few things for me. I was interested in the “first” aspect, celebrating the quaintness and sincerity, the earnestness that went into the original painting. Celebrated with a highly destructive gesture. First baby shoes get memorialized in bronze making them tacky, this first painting becomes both tacky and obliterated. (Also a sly reference to minimalist painting’s eschewing of representation.) It is kind of a melancholy comment on those “pure intentions” (I don’t fully know what I mean by that…) that go into juvenalia, and the loss thereof when artists “professionalize” those creative impulses.

There are a few layers of negation here. It talks about the act of memorializing as being a destructive process that in some way destroys the original object or intent. As a former self-portrait, it talks about negation of the “I”. Ironically, although the painting’s original subject is removed, the bronze actually highlights the brush strokes lying just below. The brush stroke traditionally being a signifier of individualism … an index of the virtuoso hand that laid it on the canvas. (Not that I’m claiming there was anything virtuoso about this particular painting!). As well, the frame was originally gold…bronzing over top is just plain funny. And it reminds me of HAN SOLO when he was encased in carbonite. It could be seen as most closely related to the fireworks in the plexiglass plinth video. On one level it is about stifling, smothering, claustrophobia, yet somehow the result is something (in my opinion) really beautiful. It couldn’t exist without its limitations. in some ways it transcends them.

Did you bronze it yourself?

I had the framed painting bronzed at ELMO’S BRONZING in Oshawa (Ontario). Elmo was really confused for a while. I told him i wanted to cover a painting with bronze and he was like: “we can do that. You’ll of course have to remove the painting from the frame…” and i had to tell him that indeed I wanted the painting itself encased. His response was: “well … I should probably explain that the bronze isn’t transparent … you won’t be able to see the painting through it. That is why it will have to be removed first…” and that went on for a while.

Jon Sasaki The discomfort that surrounds this precious negation (The Artist’s First Painting, Bronzed) is actually very compelling, and as you pointed out even amusing. I see this tension in much of your work. The piece Jon Sasaki’s Best Friendship (2006-ongoing) seems to function in this way. I noticed that the broken heart pendants that you pledged to wear half of as a symbol of best friendship are now hanging on a bust. Do you see this as an antagonistic gesture, or are you drawing attention to the limitations of some relationships?

The necklace is still intended to be worn around my neck. That posed a problem, as i wanted to include it in the TPW show, but didn’t want to hang out in the gallery for 4 weeks. I know it is a bit of sleight of hand with the piece’s meaning, but I decided to put it on display on the bust. At first I was a bit uncomfortable with the shifted usage, but then hit on the idea to put it on a plexi-topped plinth, exactly like the one in the Fireworks (2006) video. They are both in the same section of the gallery, and really “talk to each other.” They use the same vocabulary to connote containment, new parameters from shifted contexts, formalizing or making official something that is usually more undefined and ‘out in the world.’ (Friendships, art practices, specifically relational ones, and more literally, fireworks.)

So as you point out, the display case and bust are about limitations. But I don’t see these limitations as always negative. I’ll send you pictures of the installation when i document the show … the pendants in the showcase are really really beautiful. More so than on my hairy chest. But that’s where they’ll eventually end up at the end of the exhibition. For now I think of it as a useful kind of containment. An acknowledgment of the difficulty of wrapping our heads around relationships, but also recognizing the preciousness of them. It is actually fairly non-antagonistic. I have a genuine desire to try to connect with people, regardless of the fact that the goal is riddled with obstacles and possibly too ambiguous to achieve.

Jon Sasaki Thanks Jon, that was a really helpful explanation, I’m looking forward to seeing the photos, but I wish I could actually see your show in person.

I must say that I really enjoy the video documentation of your piece Theremin Doorknob (2006). Seeing it documented gives it an interesting context, as theremin sounds are of course often used in the form of nondiegetic sound whenever the scary, creepy, or otherworldly needs to be signified in film (although it has now become mostly kitsch), I like the diegetic reversal. In the installation you seem to have made the space itself suggest “creepy” through the use of live sound (not to mention the ghostly door handle) and yet watching the video it looks really fun. It’s playful and really seems like it would engage people, yet it has built in repulsion power. What were people’s general reactions to it? How loud was it in the space? This was part of the larger Anti-hero Décor (2007) installation, right? Can you tell me about that show and how Theremin Doorknob functioned in relation to the other objects in the exhibition?

P.S. I meant that theremin sound in older film (sci-fi etc.) is now received as kitsch, not always in general.

Regarding the theremin piece, i actually made it not knowing the terms diegetic/nondiegetic, so I’m really grateful you brought them to my attention. The relationship between the two, and where they become conflated or inverted was exactly what i was interested in. In terms of reception, a lot of people missed the piece entirely. The installation didn’t call much attention to the doorknob, to someone who didn’t know the space, it probably looked like it was part of the gallery itself. The sound during the opening was not loud enough to be heard over the chatting after a while, (and the theremin became untuned, causing a shrill constant note). We turned it off for the last hour or so. During the run of the exhibition, it was at an appropriate soundtrack volume, and the speaker was hidden behind the door so the sound was not particularly directional. More ambient. I hoped that the piece worked with the other Anti-hero Décor pieces … inviting the audience to insert themselves into a “real world” approximation of cinematic space. It’s hard for me to say how intensively people projected themselves into that. It could be they simply engaged enough to “get” the technical trick, but I hope people gave it a bit more time. I often want to set up a webcam that i can use to watch viewers over the course of a show. See how they react, whether they engage or not. Audience engagement is a sticky subject for me right now, something I wrestle with a lot … how to connect meaningfully with people, figuring out relevant and desirable outcomes, finding non-exploitative strategies, etc. Since going on hiatus from Instant Coffee, my work has been pretty self-involved, but I can see reexamining relational practice down the road. At first it might be in a somewhat cynical or micro-dystopian form … a verbal abuse booth or some such thing … who knows.


For information on Jon Sasaki:

Jon Sasaki Online Portfolio

Instant Coffee

Gallery TPW

Centre For Culture and Leisure No.1