Toronto – Red Bull 381 Projects

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Red Bull 381

Red Bull 381 Projects, Toronto, July 8–August 8, 2009

A paradoxical combination of enthusiasm and futility, slapstick and sincerity, has become a hallmark of Jon Sasaki’s practice. In “The Old College Try,” a show of the artist’s recent work in Toronto, Sasaki’s infectious eagerness is shared with emerging artist Jessica Vallentin: an undergraduate student whose promise as an artist resulted in a university award and the opportunity to exhibit with Sasaki. The exhibition marks a turn in Sasaki’s practice and suggests, through Vallentin’s work, the legacy his œuvre may have on future artists.

Sasaki is represented by several new pieces in the show, including Untitled (2009), an unoccupied and deflated mascot costume that now slumps against the gallery wall and floor. The costume is a familiar character from I Promise It Will Always Be This Way (2008), a performance created for last year’s Nuit Blanche that challenged twenty-six costumed mascots to maintain a stadium crowd’s enthusiasm over the twelve hours of the event. The snowman-shaped figure is Nork, the retired mascot of the city of North York (which was amalgamated into Toronto in 1998) who now looks hopelessly dated and anachronistic. As curator Nicholas Brown puts it in one of the wall texts, “Now, [Nork] must once again face his obsolescence—out of the limelight and out of place in this temporary gallery setting.”

Anachronism and renewal are also at play in the nearby video Cycle (2009), a short looped scene that documents an unknown bicyclist, dressed in Sasaki’s standard “everyman” wardrobe, as he madly pedals down Queen Street. As the cyclist’s legs continue to desperately pump and cars whizz by, the streetscape in the background moves incongruously slowly and the viewer suddenly realizes that the track bike (an older model that has recently enjoyed a renaissance in the messenger community) has been altered to be as inefficient as possible and that the rider is unlikely to ever reach his destination.

Vallentin’s Smithissauga (2007-09) installation depicts another kind of journey, this time through the suburban neighbourhood of Mississauga, where she currently lives. Using a phone book to locate every resident with the last name Smith, Vallentin photographed the occupants’ cookie cutter houses and then conducted phone interviews with them to probe their feelings about the region. While the project immediately brings to mind Dan Graham’s landmark Homes for America (1966-67) series, Vallentin’s installation is distinct in its adaptation of conceptual art strategies alongside genuine sincerity and personal investment in the landscape she documents. While Sasaki often plays the anonymous everyman in his works, Vallentin continuously outs herself in her phone interviews as a student doing work for school. This purposeful declaration of her social and economic positioning is a refreshing reminder of the ways enthusiasm is often appropriated for ideological ends that lends an unexpected critical dimension to much of Sasaki’s previous work.

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