Tiny Grandeur | BESIDE

Tiny Grandeur

The artist Jon Sasaki wants you to reconsider the scale of a landscape in his new series of photographs showing the bacteria left behind by famous nature artists.

Text—Allison LaSorda
Photos—Jon Sasaki

At first glance, Jon Sasaki’s photographs look like landscapes, but it’s hard to tell what sort. At once alien and familiar, they bring to mind vivid patterns found in nature, like tide-pool fauna or frost patterns. The reality is even more interesting. The images in Sasaki’s exhibition Homage at the McMichael Gallery in Ontario are photographs of petri dishes with bloomed bacterial cultures.

The (surprisingly beautiful) microbes on display are derived from swabs of the palettes and brushes handled by members of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, artists who painted Canadian landscapes in startling new ways through the 1920s.

The Group of Seven forged an important movement for Canadian art. Their paintings often depict “untouched” landscapes — effectively erasing the land’s Indigenous history — while capturing vast, compelling, and diverse natural scenes across the country.

Under the microscope, Sasaki’s bacterial landscapes reveal that nature is more complicated than meets the eye: it’s with an artist’s attention that we’re able to see the profound wildness that, invisibly, makes up everything around us.

Sasaki’s work flips a traditional impulse to capture and distill expanses of nature on the canvas and instead finds beauty in the sum of its parts: unseen forces that cover and form everything, from nature itself to the paints used to portray them. ​​The Group often painted en plein air, or out in nature, to better represent wilderness, so the bacterial cultures originate not only from the painters and their materials but also, perhaps, from the physical places where these paintings emerged.

As Sasaki writes, “I started seeing the city as teeming with nature on a more quotidian scale. Macro gave way to micro, and I began to think of nature as the cold virus on a subway handle, the mildew on a shower curtain, the bacteria that make our cheese plates, the microbiome that accompanies every one of us inside and out.”

Arthur Lismer sketching at Long Beach, Vancouver Island, BC, c. 1960s. Courtesy of Arthur Lismer Collection and McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives, Kleinburg
Jon Sasaki, Microbes Swabbed from a Palette Used by Arthur Lismer, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto
Jon Sasaki, Microbes Swabbed from a Palette Used by Arthur Lismer, detail, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto

What did this project, and in particular its tiny scale, teach you about landscape and nature? 

The project was a way for me to expand my thinking around landscape, to look in other places for the awe-inspiring forces that inspired the Group of Seven members. As someone who lives fairly far from Algonquin Park or Algoma or the North Shore of Lake Superior, it is easy to feel a bit disconnected from their subject matter. But in the petri dishes I got to see these thriving, variegated, lush, untamed ecosystems which, although physically much smaller, were no less impressive to me than a majestic river valley or a forested hillside.

What do you find sustaining about the Group of Seven’s work? What was it like to be in conversation with their influence? 

The project is underpinned by a sincere admiration for the Group of Seven and their work, and I thought it was a good idea to signal that with the title. I’ve been looking at the Group of Seven’s work since childhood, and it has meant different things at different times. Early on I would take regular trips to the AGO [Art Gallery of Ontario]’s Canadian galleries to spend a Sunday in quiet, happy contemplation. The sketches, to me, were idyllic places I intended to visit someday, and they were also a set of technical lessons to be unpacked and learned.

Later, I took a more critical approach, shifting focus to the ways the work was problematic. Looking at the work became something of a guilty pleasure for me. I was no longer convinced that “Canadian identity” (whatever that was) could be wholly described by a painted depiction of a Canadian landscape scene. Yet I couldn’t dismiss it entirely.

The idea that we are nature, tied inextricably to other non-human forms of nature, remained compelling, even more so after learning of recent research into the brain-gut axis. In my modest, cocktail-party-conversation understanding of it, the trillions of microbes that inhabit our bodies are by and large beneficial, helping us quietly in surprising ways. The notion that our microbial passengers help us with mood regulation, help us deal with anxiety, and even possibly influence our decision making was eye-opening, to say the least.

It feels to me like a concrete link between Nature and our identity, not unlike what the Group of Seven were getting at; [it’s a] similar conclusion but a different route to getting there. And as an aside, I love the idea that some of Tom Thomson’s or J. E. H. MacDonald’s microbes might have made their way into my own microbiome through this project, and that whatever influence they exerted on those people might become part of my programming.

Tom Thomson with fish in front of Camp Mowat (later Mowat Lodge), Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, c. 1914 Courtesy of McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives, Kleinburg
Palette thought to have been used by Tom Thomson Photo: Craig Boyko, courtesy of McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg
Jon Sasaki, Microbes Swabbed from a Palette Thought to Have Been Used by Tom Thomson, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto
Jon Sasaki, Microbes Swabbed from a Palette Thought to Have Been Used by Tom Thomson, detail, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto

You started as a landscape painter and then moved to photography and sculpture. Still, there’s confrontation with nature in many of your works, like your boat-building performance in waist-deep water gesturing to your grandfather’s work as a fisherman before he was interned along with other Japanese Canadians during WWII. Does nature appear differently when you shift between media? 

I internalized a lot of the mythology that accompanied the Canadian Landscape genre from the Group of Seven. I know they defined themselves as a group and often travelled in packs, but it was the images of solitude that really resonated with me. I liked to imagine Thomson alone in his canoe looking for scenes to paint.

When I made my own landscape paintings it was always a solitary activity. I would sit on a hillside, trying to make sense of the landscape in front of me, editing it, embellishing it, and trying to bend it to my artistic will. Most of the time I would be thwarted, either by my limited skill or by the cold, rain, wind, shifting light, unstable clouds, or whatever. In my mind I was channelling the Romantic hero struggling alone against overwhelming natural forces.

That mindset, the idea that working with the landscape can be both adversarial and generative, has informed a bunch of other projects in other media. Definitely the boat-building piece. I like the unpredictability of working outdoors; there are always things that happen that are beyond my control, and those things are often the best part of the story. I would almost describe the relationship as collaborative.

F.H. Varley with his wife, Maud, sketching on Georgian Bay, Ontario, c. 1920 Courtesy of McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives, Kleinburg
Jon Sasaki, Microbes Swabbed from a Palette Used by F.H. Varley, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto
Jon Sasaki, Microbes Swabbed from a Palette Used by F.H. Varley, detail, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto

When I’ve spoken to others who’ve viewed Homage, I’ve asked them to guess what the photographs are before reading about them. I’ve heard: the Arctic, flowers trapped in ice, pollen, and ocean creatures. Microbes don’t seem to spring to mind immediately, and the beauty of these bacterial landscapes is surprising. Is this ambiguity in the images something you expected?

I’m very bad at anticipating how things will turn out . . . pretty much across the board for every project I do. When I do a participatory performance, I will go in with some predictions of how people will react, and I’m almost always wrong. Likewise, I went into this microbe project with a picture in my head of how the microbes would arrange themselves, and I was pretty far off. But it was for the better: I love the surprises. Strange textures and colours that I didn’t foresee make the piece better for me than if everything had just fallen into place as I envisioned. The series, after all, is about relinquishing control to an extent. About acknowledging the fact that, despite all our miraculous advances in science, there are still moments where nature is beyond our control.

I really enjoy hearing the free associations people make when they look at the microbes. It’s very much like describing Rorschach test blobs or looking up at clouds or constellations of stars and letting one’s imagination run wild. It’s a creative process. I get excited any time I hear a new interpretation; the accumulating layers of free-associated imagery make the photos more interesting for me!

Allison LaSorda’s writing appears in Southern Humanities Review, The Walrus, Scientific American, Hazlitt, and other venues.

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