Saturday, June 1, 2013

project room: Koki Tanaka

The jury of the 55th Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious art event, has given special mention to Koki Tanaka, the first time an artist in the Japanese pavilion has won an award since the biennale's inauguration in 1895.

In his diverse art practice spanning video, photography, site-specific installation, and interventional projects Koki Tanaka focuses on the perplexities of everyday experience, which can be funny, mundane, pathetic, and, when attention is drawn to them, beautiful. His primary medium is ideas, and his projects test the limits of what is by imagining something slightly different and asking the viewer to do the same.

The work on view in Venice, Abstract Speaking: Sharing Uncertainty and Collective Acts, features four films, in which musicians, hairdressers, potters or poets are asked to reorient their typical methods of working. And so respectively the video focuses on five piano  players playing the same instrument simultaneously, several hairdressers who cut the hair of a single model, multiply potter forming a single piece of pottery and five poets writing the single poem.

The jury explained that they decided to give special mention to a Japanese artist for the poignant reflection on issues of collaboration and failure in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Given the impending focus on the artist, this seems like a fine time to review Tanaka's previous works.

Since 2001, the work of Koki Tanaka has taken shape primarily as videos and installations that explore the relationship between objects and actions. His videos record simple gestures performed with everyday items—a knife cutting vegetables, beer poured into a glass, the opening of an umbrella—in which seemingly “nothing happens.” Yet, through their repetitive composition and heightened attention to detail, Tanaka’s videos compel us to take notice of the mundane phenomena of daily existence. Latent patterns and geometric forms emerge out of actions, and otherwise ordinary objects are transformed, providing an epiphany of sorts from moments of everyday life.

Top: Fly me to the moon, 2001, video. Bottom: Everything is Everything, 2006, video 
The culmination of this investigation into simple actions with ordinary objects takes shape as the eight-channel video installation, Everything Is Everything (2006).

First exhibited at the 2006 Taipei Biennial, this work involves the artist and two assistants recording their interactions and interventions with readily available items, including hangers, cups, towels, an air mattress and toilet paper, all found around the city of Taipei.

Over the course of eight days, the physical properties of these objects are tested (a metal hanger is stretched to its breaking point) or their uses expanded (a level placed on two table legs becomes an impromptu hurdle). At times these actions verge on the absurd , while other moments are more serene and contemplative. Tanaka experimented with each item multiple times both indoors and outdoors, and their exploits were compiled into eight distinct video. Tanaka’s tightly cropped framing of each scene often features the performers from the neck down or removes them from the shot altogether, thus focusing the viewer’s attention on the objects and the simple, repetitive acts being performed. In Taipei, the videos were displayed on eight monitors placed on the floor, along with the household items used in their making. Both monitors and objects were purposely strewn around the room, creating an intentionally chaotic installation reminiscent of a Robert Morris scatter piece.  

The repetitive nature of the actions in Everything is Everything, combined with the use of inexpensive, mass-produced materials, highlights an affinity Tanaka’s videos share with the logic of Minimalist sculpture and process art of the 1960s. as well as to the legacies of Mono-ha and Arte Povera.

Top and BottomApproach to an Old House, 2008, video
Testing the physical properties of items and inventing new ways to rethink their intended functions also gave shape to Tanaka’s next project, Physical Test (2007–08), which consists of hundreds of colorful household items placed on tabletops or hung on the wall, which have been combined with one another in unlikely ways. Beginning with the videos Approach to an Old House (2008), on through Simple Gesture and Temporary Sculpture (2008), Walk Through, test nos. 1–2 (2009), and culminating with Walking Through (2009), Tanaka’s actions become increasingly aggressive and unpredictable.
Scenes in Approach to an Old House include the artist—who was given free rein to make installations in an abandoned house in Seoul—violently tearing down curtains and cutting a string that unleashes a series of suspended beer-bottle crates that come crashing down with a deafening noise. 

In 2009, Tanaka received a three-year grant from the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs (Bunkacho) to move to Los Angeles, where he currently resides.

Top: A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once (first attempt), 2012, HD video; Bottom: A Haircut by 9 Hairdressers at Once (second attempt), 2010, HD video
Since leaving Japan, Tanaka’s work has become increasingly collaborative, with a marked shift away from his material investigation of everyday objects. Instead of performing actions himself, these collaborative works focus on documenting multiple participants in their attempt to complete a given task. The artist relinquishes his role as an active participant and assumes the role of bystander to a situation of his own making.

The first collaborative work, A Haircut by 9 Hairdressers at Once (second attempt) (2010), takes place at a hair salon in San Francisco where a group of hairdressers attempt to give the model a haircut by committee and is one of the video works for the Venice Pavilion.

This approach represents an alternative but related track of the artist’s object-oriented work in which experimenting with ordinary objects in unlikely ways offers a possible escape from our everyday routine. In his collaborative works, the tables are turned, with Tanaka asking his participants to collectively navigate tasks that in and of themselves are out of the ordinary. Continue reading.

Interview with the artist.

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