Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you for joining us to speak tonight. I have been intrigued with Koki’s work since I first saw it at the Taipei Biennale Dirty Yoga in 2006. Then a few years later, Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou organized an exhibition for Koki, and at about the same time Koki worked on a project with the Arrow Factory in Beijing. Both spaces are tiny, but they are very lively, and in each project your work made a wonderful connection to the neighborhoods in which these spaces are located. So we are really delighted that you are here tonight to talk about your practice.
Koki Tanaka (KT): Thank you Jane and thank you all for coming to my talk. I am very glad to be here. I have only 20 minutes [laughter] so I will skip most of my previous work and just focus on my recent projects. But first I want to talk a bit about the background or idea behind much of my work, which is related to this photograph.
I took this photograph in my parents’ house. What you see is a pile of small soap bars on a plate. They are remnants. My parents use soap until it gets inconvenient, then they just keep it. So what you see here is an accumulation of inconvenient shapes. In the beginning, I really didn’t like this habit of theirs, so every time I returned to my parents’ house, I would always clean up their bathroom or kitchen or wherever, but one day, I realized that maybe I could see their behavior in a different way. I realized that what they were doing was using their hands to make sculpture. My dad and mom were using their four hands to change the material, making inconvenient shapes with their hands every day. So you could say it was kind of a collaborative work and a sculpture project. When I realized this, I thought maybe this was my way of thinking about art, because I am not really creating things, I am just finding things or let’s say coordinating things. I think of myself not as the creator, but more as a coordinator or organizer.
Now, I will skip to some of my recent works. Of course, you recognize the left image–David Hammons’ Bliz-aard Ball Sale from 1983. On the right is an image from a comic book called Nowhere Man (Munou no hito) by Yoshiharu Tsuge which was published in 1985. Of course neither artist knew each other. This is my pencil drawing of a historical photograph and a comic book in which people were using something they have found in the street. David Hammons made snowballs from snow in New York and the guy in the comic book found a stone from the riverside, which both tried to sell on the street. I found a similarity between those two historical works. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found that after big winds lots of palm fronds fall out of the trees and onto the street and people need to clean them up, like you need to clean up the snow after a snowfall. To me palm fronds in the street began to represent something between the snow (of Hammad) and the stones (of Tsuge). I also began to think of myself as in-between Tokyo and New York, because I am in Los Angeles, so I came up with this project to sell palm fronds that I found in the street after some very windy weather at a flea market at Pasadena City College.
In the video, you will see people asking me about why and what I was doing. They were quite curious about that. But eventually, there was a problem and I got kicked out [of the flea market]. While I told the supervisor that I was selling used items [which was allowed as palm fronds are used by trees so they are a used items] it was her first day of the job so she didn’t want any trouble. Also I did not have permission to film on campus.
I have been thinking about in-between spaces, like the space between Tokyo and New York; I am also interested in the in-between spaces in museums. In this slide you can see a in-between space between two galleries which I filled with furniture from the museum’s storage, which gave people a place to sit and rest.
This was in the Yokohama Triennial. The curator asked me to do a project in the space between the main gallery. In fact, I was given the biggest space in the museum but it is not a gallery space. All the walls were stone and it was carpeted, so it was kind of a strange space for an art piece. At one point the curator told me that they didn’t have enough space to store the [packing] crates from all the work that had been shipped from overseas. Here is an image of the Museum’s storage where they keep pedestals and other pieces of museum furniture. Because they don’t have a budget to destroy it, they just keep these things for 30 – 40 years.
Of course the curator wasn’t asking me to use these things, but I thought maybe it would be nice to help solve their problem through my installation. So I used this material from the museum storage to make an installation. As a result, enough space was created in their storage to store all the [packing] crates. I also installed my video piece in the space and put some tatamis, which were also from the museum storage, on the floor, so even my friends could organize talks there.
An important “post-exhibition” type collective in Japan called “CAMP” organizes public talks every month, so I asked them to come use my space for their talks. Whenever they needed to they could just come and use the space. While the number of speakers and audience for these talks was small, the museum’s regular audience could also listen if they wanted to. It was like having a private talk in a public space.
I have also recently been thinking about institutional critique. The next work was in a show entitled Making Situations, Editing Landscape (2012), an annual show organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) which is held for emerging artists. In this show, I set up few projects. One was at the entrance of the museum. Once you got a ticket, you could experience it because the receptionist [was instructed] to tell the visitor that “Koki Tanaka’s work was not in the museum; rather he was active outside.”
She then handed out a calendar of my activities from the beginning of the exhibition period until the end. On this calendar I listed all my activities that were related to the show like public talks and performative projects outside of the museum, but I also listed some activities that were not related to the show, like a workshop at an art school, and a research trip to Guangzhou and so on…. I even listed my birthday.
I want also to talk about one of my projects for this show which took place outside of the museum. This project is related to a historical performance by Hi Red Center which took place during the post-war period of Japanese contemporary art in the 1960s. For this project I organized a public talk as an unannounced guerilla event inside a train car belonging to the JR Yamanote line in Tokyo. I invited Atsushi Sugita, an art critic, Kenji Kajiya, an art historian, and Hu Fang, a curator and novelist, to talk not only about Hi Red Center’s event but also their feelings about the present.
This event was listed in the calendar which museum visitors could obtain at the MOT show, but it lacked clear information about where we would start or in which train compartment we would be. I tried to avoid this talk becoming a staged performance. Rather I wanted to keep it as a real happening for the passengers on the train.
The JR Yamanote line travels in a circle. We took the train from Shinagawa station where the original performance event was staged in 1962 by Hi Red Center [which you can see in Doryun Chong’s show at MOMA Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, November 18, 2012-February 25, 2013]. This particular performance was in fact pre- Hi Red Center because the Hi Red Center group was actually comprised of three artists — Genpei Akasegawa, Natsuyuki Nakanishi and Jiro Takamatsu, but Akasegawa did not take part in this event. There was only Nakanishi, Takamatsu and others. Actually in the original performance the participants didn’t finish going around the JR Yamanote line. They just took the train from Shinagawa to Ueno and then got off the train. They didn’t finish the circle but we did. In my event, we rotated the speakers every 20 minutes. The first one was with Kajia. We talked about the Hi Red Center’s original performance event that happened 50 years before and other outside-the-museum-site projects that took place in the 1960s and 1970s in Japan. With Hu Fang we talked more about the present feeling in the train, and with Sugita, we talked about the difference between rehearsal and real events. Our case was not really a performance project. It was more like a talk, but the other passengers on the train paid no attention; they just ignored us.
While I was involved in these activities outside the museum, in my allocated gallery space at the museum, there appeared only my name on the wall, nothing else. Instead of looking at artworks, the visitor could look through the window of the museum which was my suggestion. I invited people to look at the park outside of the museum.
I also did a project which was related to another historical work which took place in 1964 during the Tokyo Olympics. Two artists Hiroshi Nakamura and Koichi Tateishi, who were also in Doryun’s show, did a project called ‘Open Air Gallery.’ They brought their paintings to the Tokyo station during rush hour. This is my drawing from a historical photograph. For my event, I invited friends who were painters, critics, etc. to bring their paintings or their friends’ paintings or even just something they thought was a painting. We walked from Meguro Museum to the Aoyama Meguro gallery with which I work, and after that we talked about what we did. And then we went to a bar for a drink and continued to talk.
The curator from University Gallery at UC Irvine invited me to do a project there, but the curator told me that even though they didn’t have a lot of production budget, they had resources which meant I could work with students and also could use equipment at the university. That’s why I asked the music department and also the film and art departments to work on my project. So this work is all made by students.
I invited five student pianists to play a piano together. There were two classics majors, a jazz major, a composer and an improvisationist. They all had different backgrounds in composing music and playing the piano. As you can imagine, they really struggled about how to work together, how to play together. In the beginning, it was actually quite awkward. But they just kept playing and discussing. Sometimes some of them wanted to structure the piece while others wanted to destroy it, so they kind of talked through playing the piano. Eventually they made beautiful music. I should add one thing, there was no script or I didn’t give them any direction. I only gave them one theme to work with which was “a soundtrack for collective engagement”.
This is the last piece I want to talk about tonight. But before talking about it, I wanted to talk about the context of this project. The original idea came from a work. I made when I was in art school in 1998. I was a painting major and was trying to figure out my way of making art. At the time, I was talking with my friends, asking them which way I should go or what kinds of work I should make. Then one of my friends suggested that I film the process of people discussing what my next piece should be. So I invited a group of my friends to talk about what I should make next. I would say that this was my first art project, my beginning…when I was in art school.
Last year I re-staged this discussion with some of my current friends. They are all based in Asia: Meiya (Cheng), Pauline (Yao), both curators, Lee Kit and Jun Yang, both artists, and Chi-wen (Huang), the gallerist and Oliver Krischer a writer/editor from ArtAsiaPacific. They talked about what I should make for my next piece. At first they talked about how they appreciated what I have done before but in order to survive, they suggested I should focus a bit more on the market. While their discussion was circulating around me, it was not only about me; it was also about contemporary artists in general. I think I was just an example, a test case for them to explore questions about artistic practice today – about conceptual approaches, the art market, the pressure to produce new work, the relationship between curator and artist, and so on, all of which related to our situation.
JD: Reiko Tomii she is going to moderate the questions…
Reiko Tomii (RT): Okay. Thank you Koki. My first question is sort of a confession. I went to the MOT show [the one in which you showed just the artist statement] but I didn’t remember your work. So tonight when I came here, I confessed to Koki that I had missed his work at the show, but he said that’s okay because that was the point. He is a very kind artist I think. Also his works are numerous. People like me cannot keep track of them or maybe we might overlook them so I invite all of you to go to his website so you can be sure to see his work.
I am curious…you decided to live in California. As a New Yorker, may I ask why? [laughter]
KT: Okay. I received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council in 2004 and I participated in a residency program at Location One for six months, but I did not feel that New York was the place [for me] to live, because every time I come to New York, I feel like I am a loser in a way. When I go to galleries and museums here, I feel like there are so many artists making really great work. In this sense I felt I couldn’t add something new, so in a way I am like an outsider, but when I am Los Angeles, I feel like I am part of it. Another reason I decided to move to LA was that when I went there, I [never knew where I was]. My friend’s always drove me around.
RT: So you cannot drive?
KT: Now, I drive. So now I have a big picture of LA but I thought being confused as to where I am effected my mind. And I thought I needed such confusing to refresh my mind when I was in Tokyo. I just tired to be in Tokyo… Above all, two things came to my mind before moving to LA. I felt like the Tokyo art scene had changed too fast. I have been in Los Angeles for four years now. And during that time the Tokyo art scene has changed too much. In these four years since I have been away, there have been many artists in Tokyo who have become really famous and then have sort of disappeared within the same four years. It is too fast for me. California is much slower.
RT: And more comfortable…
KT: Yeah and more comfortable…I feel as if I can finally focus on my own practice.
RT: Another question. You said you kind of borrowed the Hi Red Center’s Yamanote line project and I know you are very interested in art history too. So what is art history to you? It’s a big question…you can answer me any way you like. On your website you have posted numerous conversations…
KT: though they are all in Japanese…
RT: Oh yes! I am sorry…but I noticed you talked with Kenji Kajiya about art history, so as an art historian I am just curious.
KT: Maybe first I will talk about my writing and conversational projects in Japan. As I said, I was in Tokyo for more than ten years and during that time it felt like there was a lack of art critics. It felt like I should act not as an artist but as an organizer of talks or just show my attitude and express my critical point of view on the Japanese art scene. I don’t know whether it had an effect or not, but I wanted to help change the Japanese art scene for the better. That is why I organized a podcast program called “Kotoba ni suru (Talks)” in which I invited my friends who were artists, art critics, and curators to speak. I have also for the past four years been writing for a column called “Sitsumon suru (Correspondences)” in the Japanese version of the web art magazine ART iT. Before I moved to Los Angeles, I can say I wasn’t really influenced by Japanese art history…I liked Japanese art history but I didn’t really see that it had any relationship to my own projects. But after researching post-war Japanese art, I found some links between my practice and historical projects. It is a bit tricky to say that because MOMA and Guggenheim just organized historical Japanese shows, but still it is nice to revisit Japanese art history.
Doryun’s show at MoMA was very interesting to me because it presented Japanese art history in an American context. It is good that people in NY are noticing these [historical Japanese] artists. Many artists of my generation, not only Japanese but also around the world, are now focusing quite a bit on art history as a source for our practice. So revealing historical Japanese artistic practice in a American context helps provide an understanding of one of our generational curiosities.
Audience member: I like what you said about L.A. very much because something I like about L.A. is that nothing about it is serious, but nothing is really very funny either. So I was wondering what you think of the place of humor in your work, whether you like that we laugh in the places that we do or whether you want us to…?
KT: Yeah…. Maybe it’s because I like to watch Japanese comedy and I like Andy Kaufman [laughter] but of course what I do is for an art [audience] so I want to be serious as well as keep my sense of humor. I met Roman Signer who is one of my favorite artists…I had an interview with him for a Japanese art magazine. As you know his practice is pretty much about humor, but he is also really deadpan; he never laughs or says anything about humor, but his work is really about humor. But I am not a very good actor, so I sometimes laugh. I sometimes talk about silly things…
Audience member: What is the relationship between the action and the filming of the action, and who the works are for?
KT: I think I am not so much interested in performing in front of the public, and I am not a performer. I am more like observer, in the same position as the audience, watching what the participants do in the project. If I do a performance or action in front of the public, I want to be as one of the participants. In this sense, I don’t really understand what happens at the [performance] site when it is being filmed. So for me, the editing process is a kind of learning experience; it helps me understand what was happening at a time. So my film itself tells the audience about how I understand what was happening on the day of film shoot, which was why I included film crew in the frame because that was the reality.
The experienc of an event is difficult to construct, even a small event like a cup falling on the floor [is difficult to construct]. Some might remember the sound of it; others might remember the reaction of other people. We experience this event in very different ways. Film captures a part of a whole event, which was limited by visual and sound. Film cannot capture smell or the sense touch or other things. But through this limitation by a media, complexity of experience of a whole event becomes simple. So then we could start to understand what we experienced at a time.
Audience member: You seem to reuse a lot of material in other works. Is that related to your interest in editing?
KT: Yes. I think so. I will also re-use materials and themes from the Japan Pavilion at the Architectural Biennial in Venice last year for my installation at the Japan Pavilion at Venice biennial this year.
Audience member: One last question. What does institution mean to you because you mentioned that you were interested in institutional critique. In my mind criticism is interesting but it is also easier than understanding the object of criticism, so I am curious what institution means to you.
KT: Ok. When I say institutional critique it doesn’t mean just criticizing the institution or criticizing the system. I think of the institution as an object I can use. For example, I can play with the exhibition period. The exhibition period of the show at MOT lasted a few months. One of my projects [for this exhibition] started before the show opened and continued after the show ended. So we can extend and play with the institution. I started by playing with daily objects as the material of my art practice, but now my practice has expanded to people and institutions and situations…
JD: Thank you Koki, and while we have many more questions, I am sorry to say we must stop here and go eat. Thank you again for coming tonight. We look forward to continuing the conversation downstairs.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Transcribed by Daisley Kramer, edited by Jane DeBevoise.
KOKI TANAKA (Born 1975 in Tochigi, Japan; lives and works in Los Angeles, US). In his diverse art practice spanning video, photography, site-specific installation, and interventional projects, Koki Tanaka visualizes and reveals the multiple contexts latent in the most simple of everyday acts. Tanaka’s work has been shown widely at venues such as Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), Palais de Tokyo (Paris), Taipei Biennial 2006 (Taipei), Gwangju Biennial 2008 (Gwangju), Asia Society (New York), Yokohama Triennale 2011(Yokohama), Witte de With (Rotterdam) and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco). He represented Japan in the 55th Venice Biennale, and will participate in “2013 California-Pacific Triennial” at the Orange County Museum of Art in June 2013.