Sasaoka’s video installation, Planaria, courtesy of PHD Group

At the time of this writing, pictures and videos of the deadly stampede in South Korea are going viral. Who would have thought that more than a hundred people, in their playful costumes and makeup, were joining the party of no turning back? Who would have thought that it was Death who played the best dress-up of all?

I could not help relating this Halloween-festivities-turned-actual-horror with the work of Sasaoka Yuriko, whose solo exhibition titled Planaria I have just visited a few days ago. This tragically absurd or absurdly tragic incident could be a plot in the artist’s characteristic puppet video show of bizarre, dark humor, where the murk of human civilization is often embellished with kaleidoscopic symbolism, outlandish staging and catchy, nostalgic sing-along.

Struck by Train, 2022

Planaria, in particular, is an exhibition that looks into death as a universal experience in a sociocultural context. In the three-panel video installation, puppets with preserved fish heads are dressed in traditional costumes of countries with the highest suicide rates. However, these hybrid looking dolls do not kill themselves in the video; instead, three cartoonish creatures with googly eyes, buck teeth and black fur suits ritualistically perform various ways of dying on the dolls, and then place them on what looks like an altar. Humorous in appearance, they suggest an unfathomable force behind these different causes of death. In the end, the fish-head dolls turn into angels, traditional costumes being replaced by typical white dresses.

In its weird and playful language, the work draws attention to the way our conception of death, its causes and patterns are socially, politically and culturally conditioned. It questions where we draw the line between suicide and being killed in the modern society and how such understanding continues to shift over time. It rejects the convenient narrative of fate, which in fact is also a social construct. Instead of “who would have thought”, it asks why we are doing the things that we do to get us to this point, and who should take responsibility and how. The incident in South Korea, for example, should not be pared down to merely an unfortunate event; it is an issued interweaved with personal choices, cultural influences and social circumstances and values.

So why planaria? It is a species of flatworm that is really hard to kill due to its remarkable capability to regenerate. Sasaoka’s video is accompanied by a song of gleeful tune but grim lyrics about death and this almost immortal creature; each verse ends with the line, “no matter how many times I cut you off, you’re always coming back.” I thought for a long time what keeps coming back and renew itself every time our society is confronted by death. I recounted recent global events such as the covid-19 pandemic, the Russian Ukraine war, the death of Mahsa Amini that gave rise to the unprecedented protest in Iran etc.; these headliners occupied our newsfeed for a while, reminding us of the humanistic values we share, joining the world together before it is divided again, if not further, by personal interests, power politics and ideological differences. Like planaria, such tension between morals and desires wriggles interminably in our consciousness and multiplies every time we attempt to rid it with different versions of “who would have thought”, feeding to our variably intersubjective and equivocal hierarchy of values that is constantly redefined and reinterpreted.

Sasaoka’s theatre extends from the video into the gallery space, enveloping viewers with its ostentatious stage set, as if their mixed feeling of unease, menace, irony and hilarity is part of her performance. The artist probably knows so well that what’s shown on screen only stays with us for as long as it appears; hence she presents the death scenes once again in embroidered paintings (which exhibit a kind of haptic visuality suggesting an invisible hand at work behind these deaths), and also eerily hangs the fish-head puppets in the narrow and dimly lit hallway adjacent to the main gallery space. With over-the-top visual, uncanny music, heightened tactility, and clever use of space, Sasaoka’s multisensory approach overwhelms the show with an air of urgency.

Speaking of urgency, if there is one thing that demands attention globally, it is the future of the planet we call home. To kill or be killed, we are heading towards the same ending if we think we still have time to juggle with our priorities. Ultimately, we need to take responsibility for not only our lives but also our deaths, for what comes around goes around.

Or should I say, in the context of the show, what “crawls” around goes around.