DETROIT — A limousine can be many things: transportation of choice for prom, a status marker, and a bit of a paradox. Look at me, limo clientele seem to be saying, but don’t look at me. Regardless, a limousine certainly serves as a handy metaphor for material excess and the trappings of ostentatious wealth. Perhaps that’s what made it so viscerally satisfying to watch artist Jon Sasaki — and a team of collaborators including a crew of students from Cranbrook Art Academy and two celebrity welders — cut one into pieces.
The time-based performance was titled “The All New 2015 Rightsized Limo” and took approximately six hours on Sunday. In that time, the middle stretch of the limo was cut away from the front and rear ends of the vehicle, which were then pushed together and welded to create a “rightsized” version of the vehicle, which was ostensibly proportionate to a luxury sedan, only with more toxic fumes and solder drippings. The event prompted an art-tailgate party in the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) parking lot, which hosted the performance as part of the Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead’s multi-year investigation of art as a social force. Tailgaters included Detroit art scene notables, curious and mystified passers-by, and a coterie of observers from CandianResidency.us, an artist-in-residency program for Canadian artists to work in the US. With each project it collaborates in, the residency generates “North American souvenirs,” in this case, 250 edition run of “Rightsized Limo Air Fresheners” that were available to visitors over the course of the performance.
The performance itself consisted of many feats of impressive tool usage and random acts of destruction. Welders Ben Wolf and ‘Zeph’ were ushered to and from the site in a limo of their own (inexplicably piloted and crewed by a group of two women and a man all dressed like little old ladies), setting the stage for the celebrity status they enjoyed over the course of the day’s activities. Ben Wolf was on lead, seemingly impervious to the sparks showering his bare arms as he used a giant circular saw to cut open the limo, with Zeph riding shotgun with a sawzall to attack problem areas. The Cranbrook contingent — Salman Afsari, Eric Broz, Alexander Russo, Wade Tullier, and Alida van Almelo — provided extra hands on deck, documenting the action, helping to move the limo sections, and occasionally grabbing the fire extinguisher to thwart catastrophe, as the limo’s interior caught fire from the showering sparks.
These minor dramas and setbacks are par for the course in Sasaki’s art-making, which is widely divergent in setting and medium, but largely united in the common ground of working through situations, trying to develop a collaborative process, or simply dismantling objects. In his 2014 “Performance to Double the MOCCA’s Visitor Figures,” Sasaki jogged in circles around the Museum of Contemporary Canadian, matching every visitor that walked through the door, thereby doubling the museum’s attendance for the duration of the performance by using himself to increase the head count. While there is a freewheeling “why not?” air to Sasaki’s projects, his artist talk at the MOCAD underscored the thought process behind his work, which grounds the Jackass-style antics in a strong conceptual foundation.
Trimming back the excess of a vehicle designed to be oversized has obvious relevance in the city of Detroit, infamous for its sprawling and now-unsupportable land mass. A city that, in its heyday, took on massive dimensions — simultaneously as big as San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan put together — now struggles under the weight of that excess. But, as one observer remarked, if the limousine project demonstrated the biggest flaw in the talk of downsizing Detroit — that in removing the so-called excess — you’re left with an object that no longer functions. Trying to “cut out” massively depopulated sections of the city is a task that, much like trying to cut a limousine in half, lacks a straightforward process — cities have always been designed to grow, not shrink.
“Detroit is often put forward as the textbook example of a North American shrinking city,” Sasaki says, “I was interested in the idea of grafting that contraction onto a large vehicle … streamlining the car itself at the expense of a large section that will no longer be along for the ride so to speak, and memorializing what was sacrificed. In executing the project though, I think my interest shifted away from that initial analogy, towards something a little broader — it became as much about the process itself. As with a lot of my recent work, this performance was pretty fraught with potential problems that would have to be addressed in the moment, collaboratively, resourcefully, creatively. I am interested in the make-do solutions that happen on the spot, especially when trying to overcome the sort of obstacles that accompany an absurd task.” As with Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1973 collaborative performance/process piece “Grafitti Truck,” the inclusive spirit and demonstrative action — in Matta-Clark’s case, inviting residents of a particularly fraught South Bronx neighborhood to spray paint a truck’s exterior, followed by the performative excision of parts into “paintings” during an exhibition Alternative to the Washington Square Art Fair — is much more a part of Sasaki’s art than the material outcome.
Perhaps the Detroit Lions tailgaters had more hot dogs, but I’ll give it to Jon Sasaki and the MOCAD tailgate party for better food for thought.
“The All New 2015 Rightsized Limo” took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) (4454 Woodward Ave, Detroit) on Sunday, November 15.