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Work shows affection for fish-out-of-water

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Jon Sasaki's exhibition at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, his first solo show with the gallery, is titled Unabashed Optimism. The emphasis is decidedly on the word "unabashed."

For in the course of the exhibition, which is made up of videos, video stills and smattering of poignantly frustrating objects (such as a little cast concrete model of a highway cloverleaf that is so busy being symmetrical and self-referential it never leads anywhere), Sasaki had made himself into what the gallery press release deftly terms "an Everyman character [who]performs tasks with a perseverance and dedication that go unrewarded …"

One such task is Sasaki's video, Ladder Climb . Here, directly outside the Better Living Building at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds (a wonderfully wry setting for the work), Sasaki, dressed in a generic white shirt and grey pants, sets up a ladder and, though it is unsupported by any steadying wall, proceeds to try to climb it. The results are predictable but, like a self-appointed Sisyphus, he nevertheless tries again and again to climb this ladder to nowhere.

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Similarly, in his video Vacuum (a still from which is shown here), the Jon Sasaki Everyman goes about busily trying to vacuum a floor with a vacuum cleaner that is lustily spewing back out again all the confetti the artist is diligently trying to clear away.

Sasaki is interested, he tells me on the phone from his home in Toronto, in "the conflicted gesture." Such a "gesture" powers Vacuum , for example, as he "both tries to clean up after a party and, at the same time [by blowing out more and more confetti as he goes] tries to keep the party going." Here's the optimism of the show's title, coupled with the "unabashment" that comes with a certain never-ending dedication to a clearly hopeless task.

The touching futility of much of Sasaki's work is compellingly evocative of the bittersweet antics of the great physical film comedians: of Chaplin beleaguered by heavy industry in Modern Times , of Harold Lloyd dangling from the hands of a clock in Safety Last , of Buster Keaton fighting the U.S. Civil War single-handed in The General , of Jacques Tati trying to cope with modernist architecture in Mon Oncle and Playtime . "I am very interested in that fish-out-of-water quality they all possessed," Sasaki tells me. And he shares with them that affecting way they all had of simply trying to do their best against insurmountable odds.

In his video, The Destination and the Journey , for example, a very Tati-esque Sasaki is shown in a car, driving very fast with his road map constantly blown back onto his face so that he cannot see. The opposite of a "journey without maps," the Sasaki journey is so map-ridden (which sounds initially like a good thing) that it feels suicidal.

Like the work of those other great tragicomedians, each staged Sasaki situation is fragrant with metaphor. His road map is supposed to show the way but, in fact, blocks it. His ladder is supposed to speak to the aspirational, but stubbornly refuses to help (Sasaki's continued efforts to climb it speak touchingly to his tenacity and, seen in larger terms, to the vanity of human wishes in general). His vacuum cleaner is supposed to clean up, but ends by producing exactly the same mess as existed before.

I suppose it is Sasaki's constant cleaving to perpetual folly that lends his work so much of what we may call slapstick dignity. It is both depleting and, curiously, cathartic and ennobling to see human effort reduced so playfully, so lethally, to perpetual motion and, like his wicked model cloverleaf, to endless irresolution.

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The suite of 24 black and white, silk-screened images on Plexiglass making up Patrick Mahon's Baker Lake House project are all variations on one subject: that of an emblematic, archetypal, severely modernist house - apparently now abandoned - located, a bit capriciously, in Baker Lake, Nunavut.

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In the course of looking at all 24 prints, we see the house, centred at the middle of a network-like maelstrom of dense but carefully realized lines (reminiscent of the lines Mahon harvested for his earlier Book of Turbulence from river engravings by J. M.W. Turner), but always shifted slightly as if, like architects, we were viewing the house by revolving it on a computer screen with the aid of a 3D CAD imaging program.

The contrast between the out-of-place stolidity of the modernist building and the shifting, unstable sea of grasses all around it leads almost inescapably to some consideration of the slippage between the built environment and the natural world that, however awkwardly, receives it.

It leads back, for example, to ideas about the nature of northernness, to the Idea of North (to use Glenn Gould's famous phrase), and the possible place of utopian planning in a stubbornly resistant landscape.

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I've never been able to work up much enthusiasm for layered, collaged, overlaid, scratched, toned or otherwise abused photographic images, but I'll happily make an exception of this almost indecently handsome and endlessly absorbing suite of images made from 1995-1997 by Hong Kong-based photographer SO Hing-keung and part of Index G's Hong Kong: Tales of a City (Part II).

SO Hing-keung's images are city images, and they teem with the city's engulfing, unstoppable complexities.

The photographs appear to be sepia-toned enlargements of Polaroid photos, and the artist has worked the liquidity of the self-processing Polaroid chemicals to his advantage, using the sticky bubbling and smearing in a painterly way and enfolding within these chemical peripheries a visual cacophony of city sites and city sights.

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SO Hing-keung's office towers lean and occlude one another; stacks of barrels suddenly take on monumental dignity; a hand flails out towards the camera's lens; superhighways contend with scratches in the negative for graphic authority; three skyscrapers lean up together towards a sky that is now overcast with graffiti; a Buddha suddenly illuminated, not by satori, but by wayward shots of light generated by the photograph's bracingly eccentric and extravagant processing.

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