BY Cassie Packard in Profiles | 04 DEC 23

Aki Sasamoto Wants to Flip Your Worldview

For her homecoming show at Queens Museum, the artist's absurdist experiments draw attention to the systems that shape behaviour

BY Cassie Packard in Profiles | 04 DEC 23

‘Get out, get out!’ Aki Sasamoto shouted from behind a wall with a green door. The nondescript façade – mere moments prior, an inert stage forming part of her installation-cum-performance Squirrel Ways (2022) – was suddenly revealed to be as mobile as the artist who, still yelling, rapidly wheeled it toward the seated audience. Viewers hesitated, uncertain, before they began to scatter. The wall ludicrously continued its surreal advance until everyone had been pushed out of the room. The performance was over.

Squirrel Ways, which had its stateside debut at the American Academy of Arts and Letters this spring, featured a fluid environment of reconfigurable partitions inspired by Japanese fusuma and shoji – sliding panels used to shape a home’s interior spaces and demarcate interior from exterior. Prior to ejecting viewers from the ‘house’ and performance, Sasamoto moved the partitions around, contorted herself to slip and squeeze between them and slashed open the shoji’s mulberry paper panels to extricate embedded fishing lures and rulers. As she flouted notions of architectural fixity, the artist ruminated aloud about our relationship to our belongings and to one another, highlighting the instability of more ontological borders. At what point do our objects become extensions of us, or do we become extensions of objects? To what extent is the boundary that separates self from other, or inside from outside, permeable? What about rearrangeable?

Aki Sasamoto portrait
Aki Sasamoto. Courtesy: the artist and Bortolami, New York; photography: Laurel Golio. 

Sasamoto, born in Yokohama, Japan and now based in New York, is driven by an incorrigible curiosity about systems, environments and the people who move through them. Interweaving performance, installation, sculpture and video, she crafts choreographies in which people and objects perform. Her absurdist logic, served deadpan, elicits flummoxed laughter as it upends expectations of how the world should operate (e.g., houses should stay put). Equally hybrid in content and form, her pieces draw on personal experiences – dating, drinking and aging among them – as well as disciplines like social psychology, meteorology and eco-behavioural science.

Sasamoto’s affinity with scientific fields of study seems to stem not from an interest in proof but from a zeal for experiments – including those that make guinea pigs of her audiences, as seen in Coffee/Tea (2015), which tasked Frieze London visitors with navigating an immersive, maze-like personality test with outlandish results. This playful propensity seems to extend to studio visitors: ‘I’m trying some things out on you’, Sasamoto informs me during my visit to her Brooklyn studio last month, where she is preparing for a solo exhibition at Queens Museum.

Aki Sasamoto, Squirrel Ways, 2023
Aki Sasamoto, Squirrel Ways, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Bortolami, New York; photograph: Charles Benton.

Her upcoming show, which will feature several installations and a performance series, is titled ‘Point Reflection’, in reference to the flipping of a shape across an axis to create a mirror image. Sasamoto, who has a background in mathematics, is interested in exploring such inversions formally within the exhibition. At the same time, she says, she wants to reflect on those moments in her life when she feels she has been flipped across an axis – for example, in entering middle age or becoming a mother. The artist’s tendency to work across disciplines is another form of reflection or transposition. ‘By transposing knowledge onto another field of study, I feel as if I can capture the outline of a certain idea’, she says. ‘Specific combinations vary, but what is common is the act of transposing.’

Like human hands and many biomolecules, snail shells are chiral.

Reflection can be complicated. Sasamoto walks me through her diagram of two snail shells on a whiteboard; one coiled clockwise, the other counterclockwise. Like human hands and many biomolecules, snail shells are chiral, meaning they cannot be superimposed onto their mirror image. Most land snail species are ‘right-handed’; a ‘left-handed’ anomaly may find it more difficult to secure a mate but will more easily evade predators who are unaccustomed to its form, she explains, gesturing to a two-headed snake drawn below the snails. She shows me another whiteboard, this time scribbled with thermodynamic diagrams and text that reads: ‘When do you decide to go the other way?’

Aki Sasamoto, Sink or Float
Aki Sasamoto, Sink or Float, 2022, exhibition view, 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artists, Take Ninagawa, Tokyo and Bortolami Gallery, NewYork; photograph: Wolfgang Trage

I’ve seen these whiteboards before, wall-mounted in Sink or Float (2022), Sasamoto’s memorable installation – part bustling commercial kitchen, part eccentric laboratory – at last year’s Venice Biennale. Using sheets of perforated Plexiglas and a climate control system, the artist transformed two rows of industrial sinks into air float tables akin to those used in factories to manoeuvre glass, for example. Snail shells, some of which were affixed with a feather, danced across the tables’ surfaces alongside small, nonprecious objects like bottle caps, sugar packets and Command hooks. Buoyed by the airflow, the items’ distinct forms and chance run-ins with one another choreographed their chaotic movements.

For Sasamoto, such collisions are a window into the life that inhabits these objects. ‘I tried out many different types of objects to see how they behave under flotation’, she says. ‘I can look at them in purely technical terms – speed, rotation, the patterns their movements make – or I can look at them as characters in a social interaction. Are they introverted or aggressive, grouping or smashing, reclusive and always stuck in a corner?’

Sasamoto licks the screen, drawing attention to its mediating effects.

Sasamoto was unable to realize a related performance series at the Biennale for funding reasons. At the Queens Museum, however, she will perform with two live musicians around a new version of the installation in which the air float table is shaped roughly like a figure eight. A new video, with an original composition by saxophonist Matt Bauder, will also be projected onto the installation at regular intervals. The video shows the air table itself – but from the opposite side of the sheet of Plexiglas, so that the viewer sees the underside of the dancing snail shells. At one point in the video Sasamoto licks the screen, drawing attention to its mediating effects.

Aki Sasamoto
Aki Sasamoto, Past in a future tense, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Bortolami, New York; photograph: John Berens

First exhibited at Bortolami Gallery in 2019, Past in a future tense is another kinetic installation – this time, part dive bar, part wet lab – anchoring the exhibition ‘Point Reflection’. The piece, which grew out of Sasamoto’s frustration at not being able to drink alcohol socially (first due to a kidney condition and then because she was pregnant), features oversized whiskey bottles hooked up to climate control systems. The bottles funnel air into hand-blown glass domes atop pub tables and a long bar. Animated by currents of air, ochreous tumblers within the cloches spin continuously, eliding past and future for a perpetual now. The work plays with notions of ‘atmosphere’, socially, in its recreation of a communal setting designed to facilitate alcohol consumption, and literally, in its exacting calibration of air currents – a kind of manmade, hyper-localized wind. Sasamoto built on these themes in Weather Bar (2021), also on view, which features the spinning glasses along with overhead videos combining the visual language of weather forecasts and bartending classes. The segments trace notable shifts in outer and inner ‘weather’, alluding to anthropogenic climate change and accompanying climate anxiety.

Sasamoto’s works might be understood as Rube Goldberg-style question machines, where each question leads to another. Her open-ended experimentation with patterns of movement and behaviour (including her own) – and the architectural, environmental and social systems that help to choreograph them – invites meditation on the potentially absurd logics and patterns to which we regularly subscribe. As Sink or Float asks: When do you decide to go the other way? ‘That question might be the crux of it’, she says.

Aki Sasamoto’s ‘Point Reflection is on view at Queens Museum from 6 December 2023 to 7 April 2024

Main image: Aki Sasamoto, Sink or Float, 2022, exhibition view, 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artists, Take Ninagawa, Tokyo and Bortolami Gallery, New York; photograph: Wolfgang Trage

Cassie Packard is a writer and assistant editor of frieze based in New York.