Four life-sized installations grace the quaint UTM campus. Each installation features a pair of photos: Black-and-white stills of men leaning against their partners for rest during a depression era dance marathon are juxtaposed with coloured stills of solo dancer recreating the exhausted poses. 

The artwork comes from Jon Sasaki’s A Rest, the newest series brought to life by the Blackwood Gallery’s lightbox exhibit. Sasaki’s choreography and cinematography bring new meaning to what it is to be a dancer, putting a trained athlete in positions of physical endurance to lose control of themselves. 

Sasaki wasn’t always a multidisciplinary artist. He originally studied fine arts at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. It was only after moving back to his home in Toronto that he discovered a new world of art amid the area’s unique artistic landscape. 

Exploring new mediums felt like a natural progression in his career, so Sasaki forewent classical painting. “At the time, working in one particular medium and identifying only as a painter felt limiting to me.” 

Sasaki explored different mediums and rebuilt his identity, which lead him on a path to performance arts. Since then, the Toronto-based artist has debuted more than 50 large-scale installations and performances, with themes ranging from temporary functional sculptures (Improvised Light Fixtures, 2018) to commentaries on environment-harming consumerism (Destroyer and Preserver, 2015).

The inspiration for his current exhibit—A Rest—came in 2016 when Sasaki and fellow artists were invited by the Toronto Dance Theatre to choreograph a solo performance. Coming in as an outsider with no experience in choreography, Sasaki says, “I was interested in creating a dance that wasn’t really a dance.” 

He achieved this by contrasting the exhaustion and momentary peace portrayed in the 1920s’ and 30s’ dance marathons with a solo dancer maneuvering through stressful and straining positions. As Sasaki says, “We were given a clean slate, which was so generous and trusting from the Toronto Dance Company to collaborate with artists who never worked in dance before.” 

Rather than a fluid dance highlighting strength, Sasaki choreographed a piece of art that demonstrates a trained dancer, James Phillips, being put to the test. Although the original piece was a live performance, with Phillips moving and holding unique positions, the stills featured in the Blackwood Gallery allow spectators to marvel at the unsustainability of these positions. 

Inspired by themes explored through one of his earlier works, I Promise It Will Always Be This Way (2008), Sasaki pushes the boundaries of physical strength, examining the toll the body endures in times of loneliness. The lighting highlights Phillips’s muscles and accentuates the strength needed to hold each pose, while the shadows on the floor imply the absent dance partner’s support. Watching Phillips’ body slowly break through progressive poses reminds us that we’re all social beings in need of partners, and loneliness will always be our downfall.

The Covid-19 pandemic has given new meaning to Sasaki’s lightbox pieces. With the anxiety and physical exhaustion depicted in his work, the artist hopes to reflect and connect with the stress many feel during this time of isolation. 

“I think it would be interesting if part of the anxiety [of A Rest] gets read as economic or social,” says Sasaki. “The Covid-19 lens just makes it more interesting.”

If you’re on campus, I encourage you to stop by and admire Jon Sasaki’s A Rest. The installation will be up for viewing until March 14, 2021. If you’re unable to visit the pieces in person, Jon Sasaki’s original choreography is available for viewing on his website, while digital versions of A Rest can be seen on the Blackwood Gallery website

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