Koki Tanaka

The Japanese artist and Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year 2015, discusses the pressures of art history, working with communities, the ‘Fukushima effect’ and how to sell palm fronds, from the April 2015 issue

By Hou Hanru

On Kawara, I Got Up At…, 1974–5, from the series History Is Written from Someone Else’s Perspective, Someone You Don’t Know. Making Our Own History Requires Each of Us to Rewrite It from Our Own Point of View, 2010–. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo Someone’s Junk Is Someone Else’s Treasure, 2011. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo Chu Enoki, Went to Hungary with HANGARI, 1977, from the series History Is Written from Someone Else’s Perspective, Someone You Don’t Know. Making Our Own History Requires Each of Us to Rewrite It from Our Own Point of View, 2010–. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo A Behavioral Statement (or an Unconscious Protest), 2013. Photo: Takashi Fujikawa. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo A Pottery Produced by 5 Potters at Once (Silent Attempt), 2013. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo

Hou Hanru Can you describe your generation of Japanese artists? You were born during the mid-1970s and I guess you have a very different outlook to the generation born during the mid-1960s – I’m thinking of artists like Tsuyoshi Ozawa…

Koki Tanaka Midori Matsui, an art critic, questioned why our generation doesn’t touch on ‘bigger’ issues or themes – the older generation, for example, was still struggling with the question: what is ‘Japanese’ art in a global age? She thought that because we grew up during the recession period in Japan we didn’t experience the economic bubble of the 1990s: we never spent a lot of money to produce physically big works. It was quite similar to the art bubble in China of the last ten years: Japanese artists who were active during the 1980s and 90s were making large-format sculptures, paintings or installations. When I was in art school I felt like everything had been done already by great artists. The artworld was somehow already completed. So it’s not just that we grew up in an economic depression; even in art we felt there was nothing we could do.

I was a painting major: in Japan that was the only way to do contemporary art. But even the painting professors encouraged us to do something else. I tried many different things at art school. I guess the professors expected us eventually to go back to painting, but most of us didn’t. However we still wanted to do something, to make something. So I started looking at everyday objects, the kind that could easily be found in 99-cent stores.

HH It seems that those were mainly household or kitchen objects.

KT For me the everyday is related to the daily routine. That’s why I used things physically close to me.

HH Do you think this use of everyday objects is also a way for you to go beyond the reference of art history?

KT I think so. I was looking at everyday objects and playing with them to see how I could view and use them differently: this was the way I could escape the seriousness involved with the perspective of art history.

HH It seems also to be present in some recent works. Especially the political dimension of art history: in the case of Japan, the effects of the military occupation by America. Do you also think this is a change in your work?

KT Yes, it’s a quite recent thing. But I should first talk a bit about the drawing series History Is Written from Someone Else’s Perspective, Someone You Don’t Know. Making Our Own History Requires Each of Us to Rewrite It from Our own Point of View [2010–], in which I document various milestones in the history of twentieth-century Japanese art, from the 1950s to the 70s. This wasn’t so much something that came from me, but actually more something that related to my experiences of meeting foreign curators. Because postwar Japanese art is becoming quite popular right now, they often ask about the relationship between my work and the Gutai or Mono-ha groups of the 1950s and 60s. Although they probably only know these two groups, there were actually many other Japanese artists whose works are related to actions and performances. I wanted to show another aspect of Japanese postwar contemporary art. And to demonstrate that I wasn’t only influenced by Japanese postwar contemporary art. We are living in a global age, we are influenced by so many things: a Japanese person could be influenced by any other regional art history. I thought it would be nice to react to such expectations, not just by showing people what they wanted to see but also by showing another flow of history.

Koki Tanaka Chu Enoki, Went to Hungary with HANGARI, from April 2015 Feature

Chu Enoki, Went to Hungary with HANGARI, 1977, from the series History Is Written from Someone Else’s Perspective, Someone You Don’t Know. Making Our Own History Requires Each of Us to Rewrite It from Our Own Point of View, 2010–. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo

As for a project related to the US occupation force, it was by chance that I found out a museum history connected to it. I was invited to do a project for Parasophia: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture 2015. One of their venues is the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. When I visited the museum with the curators, they explained that after the Second World War, when the US occupation force came to Japan, they occupied the museum as their barracks. The biggest gallery space was used as their recreation room. They even installed a basketball hoop on the wall. Also I heard that in 1970, a legendary exhibition travelled from Tokyo to this museum: the show was called Between Man and Matter, curated by art critic Yusuke Nakahara. The selection of artists and the ideas were quite similar to Harald Szeemann’s Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form [1969] and to Anti-Illusion: Procedures/ Materials [1969]. Of course he saw both and mentioned that in his curator’s statement. He invited artists like Richard Serra and Hans Haacke, but also Mono-ha artists, Jiro Takamatsu and On Kawara. We could say this was an alternative art history of 1960/70. There were documentation photographs of the show, and the biggest gallery space, where the basketball court had been, was used for Christo’s installation, which involved covering the floor with fabric. I was interested in these totally different moments related to the same space. As part of my upcoming project I will do workshop-type events reflecting on those moments.

HH When it comes to moments in your own career, you’ve said before that 2009 marked a turning point. Why?

KT That’s when I moved to Los Angeles. After spending more than ten years in one place – Tokyo – I felt free and was able to think about something different from my previous practice. Previously, I was more focused on movement and our reaction to everyday objects. And in doing that, somehow my practice became detached from social or political issues: bigger things, let’s say. As I said earlier, I think Japanese artists of my generation all had a similar tendency. You rarely found political artists of my generation in Japan around that time. But when I moved to LA I felt freer to do anything, because, in a way, I became a nobody.

Koki Tanaka Someone’s Junk Is Someone Else’s Treasure, from April 2015 Feature

Someone’s Junk Is Someone Else’s Treasure, 2011. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo

A key project from around that time might be Someone’s Junk Is Someone Else’s Treasure [2011]. I set up a booth at a flea market to sell palm fronds. I tried to bring something very extreme into the flea-market context. I picked the palm fronds because they are the most useless things in California – they’re what we have to sweep away after a windy day. It was an experiment in registering people’s reaction to a fundamental question about the value of objects. And I was referencing two historical pieces: David Hammons’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale [1983], where he sold snowballs during winter in New York; and a Japanese manga called Munou no Hito [A Worthless Person, 1985], in which the protagonist sells stones by the riverside – stones being sold alongside stones. So both shared quite similar ideas.

HH Did anyone come to buy the palm fronds?

KT This project was created with the BOX Gallery [directed by Mara McCarthy], so Paul McCarthy came and bought one – I guess as an insider, in a way. So I would say that no one really wanted to buy them. I started at around seven in the morning, but around noon the head of the flea market came to kick me out. I think some of the vendors complained. They might have thought I was not serious.

HH ‘The everyday’ is a very popular subject matter for a number of artists today. What is your particular approach to it?

KT I don’t know if my approach is different to other people’s, but I am curious about our behaviour, actions and reactions in everyday life. Previously my interest hinged on objects; more recently it hinges on people. But perhaps I should talk about 3/11 – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that took place in 2011 in Japan – because this event pushed me to think further about the everyday.

Before, I thought the everyday was just the ordinary: merely things that we could access easily – the endless repetition of peaceful but boring time. That’s why people overlook it and lose the sensibility to look at life afresh. With my art I tried to bring a different point of view on the everyday in order to make us sensible of it. But when I faced postdisaster society in Japan I found out that this was just one aspect of thinking about the everyday. The meaning of ‘everyday’ had changed. In part this was because the Fukushima nuclear crisis meant that the postdisaster (originally an earthquake and tsunami) crisis has lasted a long time. It cannot be solved quickly. So unusual situations become ‘everyday’ in Japan. And I noticed that such a flipped ‘everyday’ could be everywhere – like in parts of the Middle East, where the threat of war might be a usual ‘everyday’ situation, while to us it is a remote or unusual one.

When I went back to Japan after the disaster, people’s thinking was strange to me, because even experiencing the disaster from a distance can make people fall apart. If you were in Tokyo, you were away from Fukushima, and far away from the area where the tsunami hit. So you felt like you were not fully involved in the event, and you started to compare the experiences you had at the time; you even compared how often you went to the area to help; or even maybe just how close you went, especially to Fukushima. The quantity and the location of the visits: those things became important to you. But from my perspective, because I was in LA, I felt like Japan as a whole was fully involved. The distance had a strange effect on people’s understanding of boundaries. And experiences divided us. I was thinking about how this type of perspective affects us. Looking back, this experience was the main reason why I started several projects, including the one for the Japanese Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

HH From what you are saying, it seems as if the disaster made things more urgent – almost like a political situation – and in this context people express their political and social concerns in a very straightforward way. But your work is not very straightforward; it seems to involve shifting the everyday – the codes of everyday life and meaning – by incorporating relationships with other people within it.

Activism relates to the hope of provoking direct change. But for my art practice there cannot be an immediate effect. Rather the effect is small but long-lasting – something that slowly affects society

KT My practice is ambiguous. I try to keep wondering, because such an attitude keeps me thinking. I was actually quite late to respond to the Japanese postdisaster situation. In 2012 I started a series of projects titled Precarious Tasks (one of the actions and situations was scripted as a response to the ongoing antinuclear protests on Fridays in Tokyo, and designed to test the idea that if we are conscious of doing something symbolic – like wearing yellow – in order to participate in the protests from afar, then the everyday itself can become a political action), but many Japanese artists responded much more quickly. The artist collective Chim Pom did a project involving neighbouring communities about a week after the disaster and made strong political statements [documented in videoworks such as 100 KIAI, 2011, in which the participants cheer everything from “Here we go!” and “We’re going to rebuild!” to “I want a girlfriend!” and “Long live nuclear disasters!”]. But even though I was late, this distance in time was important. I don’t think I’m doing activist-type projects. Activism relates to the hope of provoking direct change. But for my art practice there cannot be an immediate effect, rather the effect is small but long-lasting – something that slowly affects society.

HH Of course you can see the contrast with artists like Kenji Yanobe, for whom the dangers of nuclear power have long been a subject matter and who went to Chernobyl with his Atom Suit Project in 1997. His work is very evident and straightforward. Chim Pom did this very funny piece around Fukushima which is a little bit ambiguous. Also there are many artists and architects who have been working directly to propose solutions for reconstruction. It seems that you have a very different role in this case.

KT I think so. Toyo Ito did a project called Possible Here? Home-for-All, for the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. It’s a series of buildings, community housing for Rikuzentakata, where the tsunami washed away the entire city. He asked three architects to collaboratively build a house for the local community, directly linked to the site, the situation and people. They showed their process through a lot of architectural models, and I was impressed. But my conception of the Japanese Pavilion for the Venice Biennale the following year was abstract. The idea was conceptualised with Mika Kuraya, the curator of the pavilion. It addressed how we can share someone else’s experience as our own. This issue was raised after the disaster in Japan. I aimed to capture the utopian moment of the postdisaster situation that happened, even in Tokyo, after the earthquake. This was the moment we didn’t have compassion for others but simply shared uncertainty, and people started to help each other to get over that uncertainty. I focused on the collective and collaborative aspects of such a moment, and brought it into different situations, such as collaborative creations. In the show there was the video documenting how five poets could write a single poem together, or another showing how five potters could make a work of pottery together, and so on. It shows the beauty of people’s collaboration but at the same time the ugly side of human nature – the battle of ‘egos’ – and collaboration’s failure.

HH It’s interesting to see, in your work before and maybe especially after the earthquake, that there is a tendency to embrace the idea of a collective ritual. It’s almost like a tea ceremony (although the tea ceremony is definitely its own thing). Do you think your work has something to do with this traditional idea of coming together to do one thing, like a ceremony?

KT Yes, it could be a ritual action. In a contemporary society we can live without engaging with a community. We can live in isolation. And if a city is big, we just ignore other people. But if unusual things happen, we suddenly communicate with each other and try to find out about and even help each other – as with the postdisaster in Tokyo. Last week the area in which I live [in LA] had an accidental blackout in the evening: we went outside and started chatting with neighbours, trying to find out what was happening, and later someone brought beers and even started an open-air fire. I’m interested in those moments of temporary community. As I said, it’s related to recovering social bonds.

Koki Tanaka A Behavioral Statement , from April 2015 Feature

A Behavioral Statement (or an Unconscious Protest), 2013. Photo: Takashi Fujikawa. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo

HH Temporary communities happen in many different ways. Some are a really direct collaboration; some are debates, exchanges; but also some people in the end choose not to collaborate. Let’s take, for example, one of the works from your Venice pavilion – A Behavioral Statement (or an Unconscious Protest) [2013] – which involves a group of people on an external fire escape of an office building. I imagine you used this setting because it is directly related to the idea of disaster, but rather than practising an emergency drill, the people in it are talking and reading…

KT Most of them experienced the earthquake in Tokyo. I asked the participants to bring their favourite books. Some of them did bring their favourites; some of them brought books they made in relation to their profession; and some of them brought the book of the evacuation plan. But one of the reasons I asked them to bring books was because when you read the book in a public space it represents you. If you are reading philosophy, that shows you are a smart guy. There were two groups. I asked one to stay at the top of the building and the other at the bottom of the building for a little while. They started to read their books and some of them talked about their books with others. Later they started moving towards the staircase. Why two groups: one going up and one going down? It reflects the postdisaster situation in Japan – falling apart into two groups, one that says we still need nuclear power and the other that says we don’t. I tried, symbolically, to mix up two extreme groups.

HH Let’s talk about your upcoming show in Berlin and what you will do there. You’ve said that your work, your life and your exhibitions are ever-changing situations: like travelling – they recycle, so they change. So to show a retrospective is kind of tricky. How can you stop the flux or evolution of the work?

KT The show at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle is supposed to travel to other cities, and I’m interested in the travelling aspect of the show. We travel and we change. So this is one way I can keep changing and developing for the next couple of years. I am particularly hoping that the show travels to other cities in which I used to live or at least have visited several times, so that I can make different shows by reusing previous projects that I made in each city. 

Koki Tanaka A Pottery Produced by 5 Potters at Once, from April 2015 Feature

A Pottery Produced by 5 Potters at Once (Silent Attempt), 2013. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo

HH You are travelling a lot and you have this tendency to involve more and more people in your work. How do you convince people to take part, how do you choose those people?

KT I am not really convincing people to participate. It is rather an open call, as it was for Precarious Tasks – one time ten participants, another time 60. But even if I only have one participant, I think it’s fine. I don’t have any expectation of numbers. The process itself is also precarious.

Take a project like A Pottery Produced by 5 Potters at Once (Silent Attempt)[2013]. In this case, I needed to meet all of the participants beforehand to talk about what they were going to do, even if they couldn’t fully imagine it, because when they were working together, the filming situation was going to be quite intense for all of them. Once it starts, actually the process is quite open-ended. I withdraw from my position and leave the participants to decide everything. Because they have to do so, they need to talk to each other. In the process of sculpting clay they were slowly facing the differences in their profession. And that goes even deeper – based on what they have done previously in ‘pottery’, what they think about ‘pottery making’.In the end they start to realise who they really are… This in itself was a kind of a social experiment.

But Precarious tasks #10 Go to a bar located over 20 km from a museum to drink, discuss and watch a film about nuclear power problem [2014] did not go so well. It was probably too educational or too straightforward. I programmed a film screening about nuclear waste and a lecture on the situations in Europe and Japan given by an antinuclear activist during a dinner. I enjoyed it a lot and the participants seemed to do so too. The action of travelling 20km (the distance of the exclusion zone imposed around Fukushima) by bus from the VanAbbe museum was quite nice, because we were just going through the middle of nowhere in the Netherlands, arriving at a bar in Middelbeers that opened in 1973, the year the second nuclear reactor in the Netherlands entered service. The nuclear reactor is still in use today. Later, I thought it would have been enough to go there, have a drink and come back. I am still not sure, but it was all a bit too much.

HH Too clear?

KT Maybe I just wanted to go, drink and come back with the participants. This was already a learning experience about ‘distance’… 

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue. 

Koki Tanaka talks about his text based work, Impossible Project, which runs throughout the pages of the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia