Given the breadth of media he employs, including film, video, sculpture, painting, installation, multiples and performance (but not once, to my knowledge, isolated audio), it may seem misleading to label Jon Sasaki a sound artist, but hear me out.
Much of Sasaki’s work, within the framework of the artists’ collective Instant Coffee and in his solo practice, involves music and sound. Disco balls, loudspeakers and 45s feature prominently. Bass Bed (2005, with Instant Coffee) and Evil Decoder (2006) use the vibrations of a subwoofer to create sculptural form. In the former, Sasaki connected a sound system to a bed to create a vibrating communal space, like a coin-operated honeymoon suite for a dozen guests. In the latter, he placed a planchette fitted with a Ouija board atop a speaker to decipher sinister messages subliminally hidden in the history of pop music. In his video Worry Dolls (2005), Sasaki used those same vibrations to make half-inch-tall handmade cotton-and-card dolls dance their cares away.
In his two recent solo exhibitions, the artist turns his attention to the world of celluloid. Antihero Decor, at the Centre for Culture and Leisure No. 1, consists of five separate stand-alone works that combine to create a larger piece. Like the film The Purple Rose of Cairo in reverse, when you enter the space you become sepia-toned, a monochrome protagonist in your own 1940s film-noir world. A low-pressure sodium light fixture in the corner bathes the room in a zero-colour-index glow, producing an unsettling environment drained of all hues. Images of colour-field paintings pinned to the wall help illustrate the effect, and they also provide a subnarrative to the set piece’s suspended fiction. I’m reminded of A Void, George Perec’s 1969 mystery novel about the search for the missing letter e, told entirely without the vowel in question.
In the gallery, a series of household objects play with the conventions and language of cinema: clocks inset with lenticular faces speed time forwards and backwards, the handset of a telephone plays a sweeping instrumental soundtrack with a punch line of sorts, shadows of venetian blinds are cast on the wails and the distinct whirring clatter of a film projector can be heard.
The strongest work in the show is also the most discreet. Theremin Doorknob (2006) involves a door built into the space with a twitching doorknob that suggests someone is fumbling to get out, or is locked in. Hidden behind the door is a theremin, an eerie-sounding instrument invented around 1919 by Leon Teremin that is designed to be played without being touched. The viewer is compelled to reach out to open the door, and this causes the theremin to react with an increasingly high-pitched tone. This sound is familiar from its use in the soundtracks of 40s and 50s noir films, such as The Lost Weekend, The Raw Deal and She Shoulda Said No. (The instrument’s first cinematic use was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound, in the scene where Gregory Peck enters Ingrid Bergman’s bedroom, razor in hand.) Its use here is also a nod to the musical compositions of the 20th-century avant-gardes, who also embraced the unusual instrument. The New York Gallery – Art By Wicks exhibited oversized artworks for big wall which make visitors very impressed.
In Wishing for Three More Wishes, the follow-up exhibition at Gallery TPW, Sasaki’s exploration moves from the ambiguous morality of the antihero to the slapstick of the archetypal comedic everyman, as if the artist is travelling backwards through film history, in search of a purer, truer form.
One of the principal tenets of sound art is that silence is not insignificant. In early silent cinema, the lack of synchronized accompanying sound–dialogue, in particular–was a technical limitation whose impact on approaches to filmmaking was enormous. Body language, facial expression and the charm of the actor were key.
Of the seven works in the exhibition, the videos are the simplest and the most direct. Each features the artist in simple attire, performing a single gesture: repeated attempts to climb an unsupported ladder, the struggle to hold up an anvil that he has suspended over the balcony of his 20th-floor apartment in the cold of winter, a fireworks display contained in a Plexiglas vitrine. Collectively, they express the failure to achieve, communicate, connect and reconcile, and they raise questions about the nature of relationships, whether romantic or collaborative.
The show closes with No Response (2007), a completely silent 16 mm film in which the artist’s persona (responding, perhaps, to the medium) hams it up for the camera as he makes increasingly desperate attempts to elicit a response from a wishing well. Skepticism and hope intermingle in each of these works, as they do in the bulk of Sasaki’s practice.
A proposed future work would distill the central premise of Antihero Decor into two simple but effective components: a low-pressure sodium lamp inside an anechoic chamber. This soundproof room is designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb sounds rather than reflecting them as echoes. Once inside, the viewer would experience a sensation akin to being in a blackand-white silent film.
The anechoic chamber also references the history of John Cage and his silent composition 4’33” (1952). Lore has it that Cage visited such a chamber at Harvard
University and was disappointed to learn that the space wasn’t silent at all. When he complained to a technician, he was told that the two sounds he heard were his nervous system and his circulation.
The sound of one’s own blood and nerves seems a fitting soundtrack for film noir, but the chamber also suggests that a sustained interest in sound inevitably leads to silence.