words by Miwako Tezuka
There have been a number of correspondences between artist Koki Tanaka and I since our first meeting in 2004 in New York. As he was previously based in Japan (now he resides in Los Angeles) and I in New York, much of our communication afterwards took place over email. As a leading conceptual artist from Japan, Tanaka’s practice has included works in a variety of media such as photography, video and installation art. Another key component of his artistic practice has been, for a long time, note-taking, a part of which often leads him to creation of language-based conceptual works in the form of instructions. Recently, he has also published a compilation of his email correspondences with a variety of people — artists, critics and curators — that is uniquely revelatory of the working of the mind of this artist. Rather than holding sacred the authorial position of an artist, Tanaka reveals that his approach is constantly participatory throughout the process of conceptualization to the realization of his work, and this guides us to understand abstract speaking–sharing uncertainty and collective acts (2013), the multimedia installation by Tanaka that is now on view in the Japan Pavilion at the 55th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale.
Tanaka’s approach of making public his correspondences as mentioned above are quite effective in creating an entrance into an often solipsistic vein of Conceptualism. This is most likely not what he is consciously aiming for, but it is interesting to see his work from a broader art historical context; in fact, many have already drawn a trans-generational line along the axis of Conceptualism between him and John Cage, Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono. Tanaka’s early video works, for example, often incorporate Cagean chance elements. I still remember from our first meeting in 2004 that he mentioned that Trunk, Blood and Light (2004) depended not only on the careful setup of props and of space, but also on how the trunk would fall from the top of the frame, then slip, twist and swim in a gush of bloody, red flood, simply by the force of nature. It is a beautiful visual narrative of cinematic planning followed by chaotic chance.
All the artists previously mentioned in relation to Tanaka’s work are from completely different backgrounds, but they do share one interest: to not see the realm of art and the everyday separately. Continuing this examination to locate him in the art historical context, I’m bringing in the issue of the everyday at this point because I thought it was interesting to find his mentioning, in conversation with Mika Kuraya, the curator of the Japan Pavilion, about how the way he understands art history — particularly Japanese art history — has begun to change recently from as a kind of heavy burden to a “tough private tutor,” meaning historical forerunners act as supporters rather than as competitors. It is a process of coming to terms with the past. I would imagine that Tanaka’s participation in the Venice Biennale as a representative artist of today’s Japan had much to do with his embarking on that significant process. As an artist who has spent much time abroad in various residency programs in places ranging from Vienna, New York, Paris and Bern, and now residing in Los Angeles, Japan is a distant memory under normal circumstances, by which I mean unless something urgent happens back home. So when I first heard the news about the selection of this “less typically Japanese artist,” as he describes himself, for Venice, my reaction was: “a gutsy choice but a brave commitment!”
Anyone who knows anything about contemporary Japanese art of the past two decades or so is most likely familiar with some of the works of Takashi Murakami and other works that incorporate aspects of Superflat, which has become the dominant characterization of contemporary Japanese art. However, since the mid-2000s a younger generation of Japanese artists has emerged who consciously rebel against Murakami’s doctrine. To me, Koki Tanaka is one of the most representative of a younger creative force that attempts to reinvent one’s relationship to everyday life and to find hidden irony as well as beauty in daily activities and ordinary materials. His photographic work Everyday Statement (Cheese Toast) (2010) is a good example of the fact that he believes that the act of making cheese toasts everyday can be as fantastical as the world of anime. To him, “making cheese toast as daily routine is an example of creation. Everyday we create consciously and unconsciously.” In fact, Tanaka has always upheld this idea that we are constantly surrounded by opportunities to discover the new and unfamiliar in what is seemingly a completely banal situation, like having the same breakfast again and again everyday.
Since the mid-2000s, Tanaka has certainly played the role of a proponent of what he and other artists like Yu¯ki Okumura call “Super-Everyday,” in opposition to Superflat. This term Super-Everyday now seems to carry even deeper meaning reaching beyond the context of art. And that is why I think Tanaka is the right person to be presenting work at this year’s Venice. Ever since the massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, our “everyday” feels different. It doesn’t necessarily look different, thanks to a Japanese penchant for order. But surely, Japan’s banal reality is now an unfamiliar reality specifically because of the invisible threat of nuclear pollution from the disastrous situation in Fukushima. The context in which we think about Super-Everyday has completely changed. We are no longer “under normal circumstances.” And this sense of urgency, I believe, is reaching the global audience today; the jury of the Venice Biennale must have shared this sensibility, resulting in their awarding this year’s “Special Mention” to the Japan Pavilion, a great honor which Tanaka attributes not to his own doing but to the accumulated history and legacy of the pavilion itself, including last year’s Golden Lion for Best National Participation conferred to its curator and architect Toyo Ito. Tanaka has, in fact, incorporated the material remnants of Ito’s exhibition, which focused on the possibilities of architecture after 2011, into his installation — a poetic and poignant reference to the recent past.
As Ms. Kuraya mentioned during her conversation with Tanaka, when we experience something life-changing and urgent, that’s a trigger for a paradigm shift, and that paradigm shift sometimes moves people to try finding a common ground so that together they can cope. Koki Tanaka’s Venice project abstract speaking — sharing uncertainty and collective acts clearly addresses this paradigm shift. The multimedia installation, which incorporates video documentations of activities collectively undertaken by groups of people, like a group of hairdressers cutting one person’s hair, or a group of ceramicists making one pot, made me realize how a familiar activity can suddenly turn into a challenge. I hope, as Tanaka does, that visitors to Venice will keep sharing that kind of revealing moment when immersed in his installation, despite the great distance they may have traveled in order to get there.