Watch artist Jon Sasaki build a plane, and crash it

Jon Sasaki recently moved to Scotland, where he built an airplane and made it fly. Sasaki, the winner of the 2015 Canadian Glenfiddich Artists in Residence Prize — the reason he was in Scotland — had no illusions about the difficulty of building a plane.

Winner of 2015 Canadian Glenfiddich Artists in Residence Prize likes to set himself difficult tasks

Canadian artist Jon Sasaki, attempting to fly the plane he built during an artist's residency in Scotland. (Alex Bowron)

Jon Sasaki recently moved to Scotland, where he built an airplane and made it fly. He had never piloted an aircraft before, let alone built one. He's neither an engineer nor even a hobbyist — he's an artist — so it's an understatement to say success was a long shot. But Sasaki's plane is consistent with the rest of his art practice: he often sets tasks for himself that are difficult if not impossible and, ultimately, tragicomic.

Sasaki, the winner of the 2015 Canadian Glenfiddich Artists in Residence Prize — the reason he was in Scotland — had no illusions about the difficulty of building a plane. "I wanted to take on a challenge," he said, "something time-consuming, fussy, frustrating and slightly absurd. I knew nothing about airplanes other than what I'd seen in movies, so I was expected to be at the bottom of a learning curve."

 "I wanted to take on a challenge. Something time-consuming, fussy, frustrating and slightly absurd."- Jon Sasaki

In I Promise It Will Always Be This Way, the performance he staged for Toronto's Nuit Blanche in 2008, Sasaki hired a litter of sports mascots to put on an energized performance at Lamport Stadium – for 12 hours. Over the course of the show, visitors watched Sasaki's mascots break down, smoke, drink, become despondent and crash on the field, to be carted away by other giant, lumbering animals. In Bouncy Highrise, inflatable castles were stacked into a dilapidated, if colourful, ultimately useless residence. In all of these, failure is possible, maybe even likely, but Sasaki is completely engaged in the performance, installation, or task. He projects sincerity and good humour, even as he and the viewer often learn once again that these ideas are a lot easier to conceive than to realize.

Sasaki's workroom in Scotland was also his residence. He spent the summer living in a space mostly taken up by plane parts.

"I loved pushing the limitations of the domestic space as far as I could. It was a sort of cottage industry that was very frustrating at times but surprisingly symbiotic at other times. Household things like ironing boards, dishes, patio furniture and the barbecue doubled as workshop equipment. …this was about adapting what was available and reconsidering its use. Conversely, the airplane wings made excellent drying racks for my laundry."

Building a plane is one thing. Lying in bed the night before its maiden flight is quite another.

"Safety, of course, was top of mind the whole time. I tried to think through all of the possible outcomes in order to limit my risk as much as possible, but to be honest, some of the worst-case scenarios I envisioned kept me awake at night. Doing dangerous things doesn't appeal to me whatsoever, but there was a way that the project needed to finalize, and I knew it couldn't be completed without me strapping into the flimsy plywood pilot seat."

Then came his first attempt. "We decided the most feasible way to get the plane off the ground would be to tow it like a kite behind a vehicle…. I really only wanted the wheels to lift a foot or two off the road, essentially less of a flight and more of a proof-of-concept."

The runway was a short dirt road up in the hills, private property with Scotland's pastoral landscape providing a stunning backdrop.

"I immediately discovered that the aircraft's steering was feeble at best, and I ended up in the ditch before getting airborne. Likewise for the next six attempts."

By his fifth try, Sasaki was becoming dejected; the plane kept veering off the runway. So, he stepped out. "I locked the elevator control into the proper position and took position behind the plane. I had the camcorder in my hand when that thing finally lifted skyward, 10 or 12 feet up." Only a second or two after takeoff, the flying contraption nosedived, meeting the ground with surprising grace, and folding over.

Did this constitute a failure? Not to Sasaki.

"I love that it all happened this way. After months of work bringing this object into the world, considering every detail and trying to control every outcome, it wasn't until I eventually let go of it that it was able to do what it was supposed to do."

 Jon Sasaki is presenting his Bouncy Highrise in Edmonton's Nuit Blanche on September 26th. 

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