How to burn bright and fizzle out with the masses

You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

The secret of his success? “I will speak ill of no man,” he said, “. . and speak all the good I know of everybody."

Jon Sasaki’s installation at the Ottawa Art Gallery was an ode to George Thomson (1868-1965), a business school instructor by day and artist by night. Thompson likely would have been familiar with Dale Carnegie’s best seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). He likely would have known the ins and outs of shaking hands, class-jumping, or (not always) getting a leg up on the competition (or on his younger brother, Tom Thomson).

The exhibit drops us into a magical, high-society world, where “Tea was served,” and where you get your name in the paper for having the honour of serving it. As I was enjoying the exhibit, I was half expecting my Great Aunt Betty to come out from behind the black curtain to tell me her jelly salad didn’t set. Thank god Irene brought deviled eggs, she’d offer.

The exhibit features a slow and steady, low wattage light bulb that represents George’s career, and one that gets progressively brighter (and finishes in a brilliant flash) that represents his brother’s rise to the top (Wlusek, 2015). The exhibit offers a meditation on the who’s who of the art world or on who gets to pull up a seat in it.

For me, the exhibit called to mind the work and thinking of Jacques Derrida. It called to mind the tension between inviting people to make themselves at home, and making sure they keep their feet off the furniture. The exhibit seemed to say, Come on in, pull up a seat in the art world or in high society. Make yourself at home and stay for dinner, but please do not touch the furniture. Please remember I’m the master of the house. Only some of you can stay the weekend. Only some of you can build a career.

Jacques Derrida wrote about the impossibility of hospitality; the impossibility of a host ever forfeiting his power enough for a guest to truly make herself at home. Thinking with Derrida, Caputo (1997) writes, “When the hosts says to the guest, ‘Make yourself at home,’ this is a self-limiting invitation. ‘Make yourself at home’ means: please feel at home, act as if you were at home, but, remember, that is not true, this is not your home but mine, and you are expected to respect my property…” (p. 111).

As the art world wrestles with “how to graciously welcome the other while still retaining [their] sovereignty, [their] mastery of the house” (Caputo, 1997, p. 111), Sasaki’s exhibit reminds us that space doesn’t always open up for our ideas or work or personhood. Sasaki welcomes us to a world of nibbles, wine, cheese, tea and art speak, where it’s often hard to pull up a seat or to reach the serving cart on the ceiling.

Toronto-based artist Jon Sasaki’s Two Roads Diverged in a Wood was featured at the Ottawa Art Gallery in the spring of 2015. I wrote this after seeing it, but finally got around to sharing it now. Oops; I take Sasaki's point about lights fizzling out.