SALLE YOUNG GALLERY AT THE AGO, TORONTO, APRIL 6 TO JUNE 5, 2011
Sitting down in front of Jon Sasaki’s Jack Pine, 8’ Camera Crane, part of Pine, his exhibition at the AGO, I was immediately transported to the north of my childhood. I saw the same windswept trees, presented in an elegant, almost sensual, pan up from the ground; I saw the same rugged, rocky outcroppings so dominant in my memory. I sat transfixed as Sasaki’s camera began its 360-degree pan of the site of Tom Thomson’s iconic Jack Pine. Suddenly, the smooth pan was interrupted: the camera became stuck on a branch, and began manoeuvring wildly to get free, breaking the branch in the process. Instinctively, I giggled. The serenity lasted no more than 15 seconds, but the humour—the mad-cap quality of the camera’s darting about, trying desperately to free itself from the very foliage it was trying to capture—was sustained through the film. Not only can we not go ‘home,’ to that landscape so prominent in Canadian cultural memory, Sasaki seems to say, but trying will result in a somewhat hilarious, potentially violent confrontation.
Sasaki’s work is an earnest, and ironic, meditation on the place this landscape—made famous by Thomson and the Group of Seven—holds in the Canadian collective consciousness. While this project is nothing new (references—or homages—to the likes of Michael Snow seem unavoidable), Sasaki’s gentle tongue-in-cheek somehow reads fresh. He presents us with the difficulty of ‘accurately’ capturing the landscape in its totality by documenting his own comedic failure to do so. He does not seek to change or infect the landscape, as did General Idea; he does not try to claim that the landscape of our collective memory is a ghost we must exorcise for the sake of progress. Instead, his works serve as a gentle reminder that the landscape Thomson captured, much like the landscape of my childhood, is gone, and no amount of longing, no attempt to reinsert oneself in that landscape, will ever foster our desired reunion with this imagined past.
Indeed, various attempts at reunification are presented as fraught (the camera hopelessly lodged between pine trees, in the photograph Northern River, 8’ Camera Crane), commercial and crass (the corporate commodification of the waters of Canoe Lake, presented for our consumption—in all their murky glory—in Canoe Lake Water Cooler), or potentially dangerous (the water cooler features a lengthy warning regarding the water’s safety; visitors must consume at their own risk). Nature seems to interfere in every way possible, reminding us that it is not a series of passive, static objects for our contemplation: it is mutable, mysterious; it can harm us, just as Canoe Lake took Thomson’s life. Our memories may veil this threat, but it is ever-present.
According to Sasaki, then, the joke is on us: the more we pine for these mythic landscapes, and the more we struggle to capture their every aspect, the more comedic our attempts become. The greater our desire to become one with these remembered landscapes, the more we open ourselves to violence: nature’s disaffected power, but also the psychic violence created by the disjunction between memory (whether cultural or personal) and reality.