Koki Tanaka: Pt II


A Poem Written by 5 Poets at Once (First Attempt) (2012), created with the Japan Foundation for the Japan Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. All Images: Courtesy of Koki Tanaka, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo.

ART iT: We’ve talked mainly about your videos so far, but I’m interested in learning more about how you see yourself in relation to older Japanese artists. For example, Kishio Suga has said that objects have their own kind of consciousness, which relates in some way to your use of objects in your videos. Were you influenced at all by such ideas?

KT: In terms of the ideas of older Japanese artists, I would say that as a student at the end of the 1990s they were not such a big influence for me. At the time artists my age, and those slightly older, were profoundly influenced by Mono-ha – Koji Enokura in particular – and I was inclined to distance myself from that group. There were also young artists making works responding to the large abstract paintings of the 1980s, and this was also around the time when Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, as well as Makoto Aida, who is slightly younger than the other two, were emerging as focal points in the Tokyo scene. I was paying more attention to artists who pioneered the use of video art like Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, as well as artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Among Japanese artists who were closer to my generation, I was following the works and projects of people like Kodai Nakahara, Yutaka Sone and Shimabuku.
In terms of Japanese contemporary art, so-called “avant-garde” groups like Hi Red Center, Gutai and Mono-ha were for me simply too emotional, and I wanted to avoid that. But in the past five years I’ve been reconsidering my preconceptions. I have rediscovered in their ideas, their practices and their attitudes toward art something that is worth emulating, and which overlaps with my own. Even seeing the survey of Mono-ha artists held earlier this year at Blum & Poe Gallery in Los Angeles, I discovered an entirely new perspective on the group. For example, in the works by Lee U-fan or Susumu Koshimizu that you see in Japan, the materials and rocks that they use are all different: the works were made at different times, and you can read that history in them. But in Los Angeles, the works took on a kind of drier sense of materiality – both Lee and Koshimizu used the same rocks and materials, and Kishio Suga used American timber and metal, which increased the sense of mass in his works. With each artist using the same materials, or using materials other than what they normally would use, maybe the distance between object and artist was refreshed. In any case the ideas behind Mono-ha came to the forefront of the works, while the individual characteristics of each artist were toned down, and it became possible to see the ideas more clearly. It was an extremely bracing experience, and a bit uncanny, to “discover” Mono-ha in the US.

ART iT: Certainly when you are able to view yourself or your surroundings from the perspective of another, you see something new or different.

KT: This applies equally to the Tokyo art scene. Having been away from Japan for three or four years, I have established some distance from Japan, and have a broader perspective of Tokyo. Previously when I was in Japan I had the sense that I needed some kind of armor to protect myself, but now I have stepped out of that mindset, and feel that, without overly thinking it, I can relate to Japan’s art history, art scene and artists in a direct way.  

All: From 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- ).

ART iT: I’ve only seen images of your drawing project revisualizing key works from Japanese art history, 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- ), so it’s hard to tell whether you were approaching the project in an ironic or a serious way. Which is it?

KT: It’s serious. Ultimately Japanese art history, and particularly Japan’s contemporary art history, has yet to be consolidated. Whether it’s Shigeo Chiba’s Nihon gendai bijutsu itsudatsu-shi (A History of Deviations in Japanese Contemporary Art, 1986) or Noi Sawaragi’s Nihon/Gendai/Bijutsu (Japan/Contemporary/Art, 1998), history is always written in opposition to a perceived canon, yet we actually have no canon. For some reason the people who are best positioned to write a canonical history tend to adopt an outside position and write an alternative history. This contradictory and ironical situation only serves to obfuscate the history. As a result, apart from a few exceptions, the historical consciousness among young Japanese artists now is minimal and inevitably fragmentary, and without the inoculation of history, these artists become susceptible to unchecked influence from outside Japan.
The drawings for History is written from someone else’s perspective… are an admonition to myself as an artist to at least actively reconsider the art history of my own country. If Japan’s critics and art historians are not going to write it, then we artists might as well propose our own history. There is surely something to be learned from history. And to the extent that I myself am removed from Japan’s art history, I also want to appraise it in my own way. So for the history drawings, I wasn’t concerned with the works in themselves, but rather picked works based on the processes by which they were made and the practices they reflected. Even with something like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Theaters” series of photographs, I was more concerned with the way Sugimoto had to hold the shutter open through an entire movie from beginning to end in order to get his images, rather than the final image.  

ART iT: Do you think about history as yet another temporal axis and frame for your own works? For example, you mentioned that you referenced David Hammons in making Someone’s junk is someone else’s treasure (2011). This is one case where there is a clear reference, but in other works the references are not so explicit.
KT: There are works with direct references to other artists, and there are those with indirect references. Previously in Japan if the similarities between your works and those of an older generation were overly apparent, you ran the risk of being perceived as a derivative artist, and that may have affected me to an extent. But artworks for me are not about expressing something about myself, and are more about experimenting with how to realize different connections and ideas that I discover, so I’ve started to respect history as an essential reference point.
My talk event on the Yamanote line is clearly inspired by Hi Red Center, and the event I organized with artists carrying their paintings through the city [Painting to the Public (Open-Air), 2012] is based upon Hiroshi Nakamura’s Tourist Art Research Center. There are also times when I discover historical connections to a project after it is completed, and then use those connections to critically reevaluate the project and develop my next idea. For example, you could make a connection between works like a haircut by 9 hairdressers at once (second attempt) (2010) and A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (First Attempt) (2012) with the San Francisco artist Howard Fried’s video The Burghers of Fort Worth (1975), for which Fried asked five different instructors to teach him how to swing a golf club. When I saw this work I thought of Shimabuku’s golf-related work Doing things you didn’t plan to do (2009), and found a link between these two works and my own. These kind of fluid connections and relations can provide the key for the next idea, and they also characterize how I relate to art history.  

ART iT: Does this also expand the social impact of the works, and their ability to communicate on a broad scope? 

KT: When I first entered the art world, it was simply because I enjoyed looking at art. I am influenced by the things that interest me, and find in those things something that connects with me. It’s a strange way to put it, but it is exactly in those things that seem to be unrelated that you find yourself. I don’t think there is any need to hide that. Artists are able to look at history in a way that differs from art historians and critics. There are many artists who draw out connections from all kinds of sources across the world, and freely reformulate history through their works.  
You could think of it like a Twitter timeline. At each moment you update the people you choose to follow, and create your own timeline. This is one manifestation of the world. Through this timeline I can see a vision of the Japanese art scene that I want to see. But when I return to Japan, I realize that this vision is completely distorted from reality. I realize that the Tokyo that I want to see is not the Tokyo of reality, and the world that I want to see does not actually exist, and it’s a little shocking. But just as you continue to manage your Twitter timeline, it’s good to continue thinking about the Japanese art history that you want to see, and reformulating it. That then provides the basis for actually working with reality.

Top: Painting to the Public (open-air) (2012). Bottom: precarious task #1, Swinging a flash light while we walk at night (2012).

ART iT: Returning to your use of objects in videos like everything is everything, is it enough for you if the viewer simply enjoys the work, or do you want the work to elicit some kind of critical reflection?

KT: For me a work is not about, for example, finding a new way to use a pen. I’m not trying to say, Hey, isn’t this funny! Anybody else could come up with different ways to use the objects, and my actions fundamentally represent just one approach out of multiple possibilities. Maybe viewers might understand the works as a proposal for another possible way of seeing things. Maybe there are those who laugh and walk away. Depending on how the idea of possibility is activated, the viewers might experience a change in the circuitry of their own perspectives. From that switch in circuitry, maybe after looking at a pen differently, when they read the newspaper they might also discover a new way of seeing politics. Previously when I mentioned this I was told it’s just a fantasy, but I think there is a possibility for change that occurs, on an abstract level, across a great divide.
On NHK’s ETV channel, there’s a “One-minute Gallery” segment that runs on the late-night program “2355.” Several artists including myself have shown videos in this segment. The show starts at 11:55pm, right around the time when the average person has, say, gotten home from work and eating with friends, taken a bath and switched on the television before getting into bed. I reedited eight preexisting works into one-minute versions especially for this program. When I was first approached about contributing I accepted without really understanding what it was about, although maybe it’s true that a number of my works are suited for airing on TV, right at that time. If you leave the television running there are all kinds of programs that you encounter. TV still allows for an element of chance, as opposed to the Internet where you basically see only what you are searching for. I don’t really watch TV, and I feel that the last remaining possibility for TV is exactly this situation of switching it on to find something unexpected and then getting sucked into it. So I think that having videos that are not easy to understand running on television every day, especially at that time when people are relaxed, has the potential of flipping all kinds of switches.

ART iT: In that sense can you clarify how you see YouTube and Vimeo? Do you see them as actual spaces for art, or just resources?  

KT: Similar to what we discussed regarding the formal aspects of video, I’m not particularly interested in making the kind of art that emphasizes the formal aspects of the Internet or could only be presented through the Internet. I approach the Internet as a tool, and I think websites like YouTube and Vimeo are effective in multiplying the experience of the work. 
One of the things I’m planning for the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013 is to upload the videos I make for Venice before the exhibition opens. I want to create a situation whereby it’s possible to see the works before the actual exhibition. This is partly out of concern for the Japanese audiences who are unable to go to Venice, and also because I don’t want to limit my activities to the specific period of the exhibition.

ART iT: Actually, regarding the previous questions about criticality and social impact, in her curatorial statement for the Japan Pavilion at Venice, Mika Kuraya [of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo] writes that the pavilion will address the theme, “How is it possible to take on the experiences of others as one’s own?” and that your project will deal directly with the aftermath of last year’s March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. This explicit engagement with social issues seems to be a departure from the tone of your previous works.  

KT: At first glance it may seem different from my works to date. The Japan Pavilion is selected through a competition process, and Kuraya was first approached about joining the competition before she contacted me about working together. We actually partnered on a proposal for the previous Venice Biennale, but this time we wanted to come up with a new idea, and I felt given the timing that March 11 was the first thing to consider. I felt the Japan Pavilion would have to address the situation after March 11 in some way, no matter what. But because I live in Los Angeles, and did not have a direct experience of the disaster, I felt it was also necessary to establish a sense of distance in the project.
For example, irrespective of the fact that one was filmed in San Francisco before March 11, and the other was filmed in Los Angeles after March 11, I think both the haircut piece and the piano piece relate in some way to the situation in Japan since the disaster. As I said earlier, both these works are largely rooted in my experience at the residency at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and if you had to put the connection between them into a simple sentence, it would be, “Multiple people temporarily gather in one place, and resolve an extreme situation.” When you abstract it in this way, you see how it approaches the situation that occurred in eastern Japan and Tokyo when the disaster struck. People were put in situations for which they had no experience. In Tokyo many people had to walk several hours to get home, and then on the way were able to rest with other displaced people at emergency relief areas that had been set up, including places that were voluntarily opened. In the areas that were severely struck, people had to spend long periods of time together at relief centers and in temporary housing and in temporary communities, where they had to work together to resolve the extraordinary issues that arose in such conditions.
Through abstraction it is possible to connect events that seem to be far away with personal experience, which is why I feel it is possible to establish a correspondence between events related to the disaster and my own works. Maybe what I can achieve is a reconstruction, through those methods, of those events. In any case, that is the point of departure for the Japan Pavilion. The core of the exhibition will be videos documenting people working together on collaborative projects, such as a video of five poets working together to write a poem, as well as new videos that I will produce in Tokyo. At first the videos might not seem to have any connection with the disaster, but on a deeper level there is a connection to the issues raised by the disaster. While living far away, that is how I have been affected by the situation in Japan since the disaster.

Top: precarious task #0, Communal Tea Drinking (2012). Bottom: precarious task #2, Talking about your name while eating emergency food (2012).

ART iT: I was struck by this passage from your artist statement for the Japan Pavilion project: “Things like sympathy and empathy only strengthen the boundary between those who are experiencing pain and those who are not. The vector of sympathy always travels from those who are not experiencing pain towards those who are. It cannot travel in the opposite direction.” In that sense is this project also about shifting the frames of perception and identification?

KT: When I wrote the statement, I was thinking about what artists can do following March 11. Many artists raised the question of whether it’s possible for art to respond to the disaster. I think it’s partly related to the fact that for quite a while now art in Japan has been removed from dealing with socio-political or even systemic issues. After the disaster there were many art-related charity drives, which I think were positive in the short term, but it’s difficult to expect artists to indefinitely continue contributing works for charity. If you look at the long term, including issues related to nuclear energy, then it’s not enough to respond with sympathy. A year ago, with the planned blackouts and energy rationing, the neon signs and convenience store lights were shut down and Tokyo looked something like a shadowy European city, while now on the surface everything appears to have returned to normal. But to say that the problem has been normalized does not mean that anything has fundamentally changed. Especially in the disaster area, the plans for reconstruction have only just begun.
Since I happen to be overseas, I want to think of some way to establish a relationship to this situation that is only possible for an outsider. Disasters occur all over the world. It’s no certainty that people who come to Venice will be familiar with the situation in Japan. Of course it might be necessary to make an exhibition to inform the world about the situation here, and maybe some other Japanese curator might do that at some point. In making works that at first seem to have no connection to the disaster, and in abstracting the events, I would say that I am actually sharing the situation with viewers in a direct way, even without a shared context.  

ART iT: Of course more than other exhibitions the Venice Biennale presents a complex framework which, with its national representation system, is essentially predicated on ideas of value. Have you thought about addressing this aspect of the exhibition at all?  

KT: The Biennale is a spectacular, festival-like site. For that very reason I have never once been to see it. I also thought that since the competition for the Japan Pavilion is affected by domestic politics, it had nothing to do with an artist like myself who is not so committed to the Japanese situation. And now I am stepping into a situation that I thought had nothing to do with me. From my position somewhere between insider and outsider, I think I can use this chance to make a Japan Pavilion that’s never been made before: from presenting the works (which includes uploading them to the Internet prior to the exhibition); to the production method (which includes involving as much of the Japan Foundation staff and building as possible); to exhibition preparations (I plan to start working on site far in advance of the exhibition opening); to the catalogue production (at the very least securing international distribution, which strangely has never been done before); to the poster design (which I am determined to use as a work itself); to the use of the space itself (I hope to incorporate in some way the remnants of the Japan Pavilion from this year’s Architecture Biennale); I am also collaborating with the Yokohama-based alternative art organization blanClass to produce a series of small, low-intensity projects with volunteer participants. I want to uncover those gaps that enter into the existing framework, and propose a new kind of exhibition. I think it’s something that’s lacking in art in Japan, and I’m not even sure how effective it will be, but even if it fails, at worst it’s just a minor embarrassment.  
In that sense, I hope the Japan Pavilion will have multiple layers – from the videos on collaborative projects to the documentation of small events and the remnants of the architecture pavilion to the issues of the exhibition framework – in particular as a way to approach the domestic space of the Japan Pavilion. Maybe something so complicated will be difficult for viewers to focus on in Venice, or rather in the Biennale. But I hope that the exhibition can establish a distance from the cycle of consumption that characterizes the Biennale, with art and architecture constantly replacing each other every year.

Pt I

Koki Tanaka: The Center Cannot Hold

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