Everything is Everything
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.
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 (shaving cream sprayed onto a welding mask), while other moments are more serene and contemplative (a hollow tube swung around to emit a whistle). Tanaka and his assistants experimented with each item multiple times both indoors and outdoors, and their exploits were compiled into eight distinct video loops ranging in length from 79 to 110 seconds. 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.
EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING (detail), 2006, video stills from eight‑channel DVDs: 1-2 mins each.
In her canonical text, Passages in Modern Sculpture (1981), art historian and critic Rosalind Krauss begins the book’s final chapter with a film by Richard Serra, Hand Catching Lead (1968), in which the artist’s disembodied hand tenaciously attempts to catch pieces of falling lead. Krauss reads Serra’s film as characteristic of Minimalist sculpture in the way that it “exploit[s] a kind of found object for its possibilities as an element in a repetitive structure.” 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. Similarly, Tanaka’s repetitive use of the objects in Everything is Everything alludes to Serra’sVerb List (1967–68), in which the artist listed 84 verbs such as “to roll . . . to crumple . . . to drop . . . to scatter” as a means to relate actions to “oneself, material, place, and process.” Tanaka’s object-oriented work is indebted to Minimalism as well as to the legacies of Mono-ha and Arte Povera, as evidenced by a shared interest in exploring the physicality and formal qualities of quotidian objects through processes of encounter and repetition.
While the structures of Tanaka’s looped videos shares a “one thing after another” methodology with Minimalist sculpture, the impetus behind his focus on everyday life and choice of inexpensive materials is closely tied to his experience of Japan’s prolonged economic recession. Born in 1975, Tanaka belongs to a generation of artists who grew up during the heyday of Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, only to be faced with the devastating economic crash of the early 1990s and the ongoing economic recession that has followed them as adults. This reversal of fortune, combined with limited opportunities, has been blamed for a pervasive sense of loss among this generation, resulting in what art critic Midori Matsui, writing in a 2005 article on Tokyo in Artforum, deemed “a culture of reduced expectations.” In this stymied atmosphere, artists have adopted a critical skepticism of popular culture and immersed themselves in the minutiae of everyday life. Artists such as Ryoko Aoki, Taro Izumi and Motohiro Tomii, all of whose work is characterized by the use of inexpensive materials and “do-it-yourself” production techniques, have been grouped
into this category.
For Tanaka, Japan’s prolonged recession has not only informed his selection of materials but to a large extent has dictated his color palette as well. Many of the objects he selects are sourced from 100-yen shops, which in Japan, as elsewhere in Asia, sell plastic items in a familiar spectrum of primary and pastel hues. These colors—bright red, blue, yellow, green and pink—immediately conjure up associations with the disposable nature of these items, as well as with their function as unitaskers. 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). First exhibited at the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008 and then again the following year at the gallery Aoyama | Meguro in Tokyo, Physical Test 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. Paperclips are hung on a mesh grate like a metallic dream catcher, plastic utensils dangle from clothespins to create a mobile, a chopstick is shoved through the holes in a small basket, a plastic hook is affixed to the center of a Frisbee—the list goes on. As Tanaka explains in a statement on his website, the premise is “a simple task. Just pick two or three objects and put [them] together, if there is a hole, push something into it, or tape it, break it, ball [it] up, glue it . . . [the work] is a ‘spontaneous reaction’ to the object, which was afforded by the form of [the] objects to me.”
The term “afford” used here in Tanaka’s explanation refers to the concept of “affordances” theorized by psychologist James J. Gibson. Affordances are essentially all the possible actions a substance or object will allow given its particular properties. For example, a cup of water can afford drinking, but it can also afford pouring, splashing or even smashing. Objects afford—meaning offer themselves up to, or invite—certain activities that we can readily perceive from their specific design. However, as Tanaka articulates in Physical Test, the gap between an object’s intended function and its other possible uses yields a rich space in which to explore perception and alternate possibilities. For the artist, these simple tasks demonstrate the ability to shift our perception from what is accepted as the norm in our daily lives to what could be. In a 2006 conversation with curator Akiko Miki, Tanaka remarked, “It is simply a matter of making people slightly conscious of what is noticed unconsciously in everyday life.” This type of proposed transformation of everyday life into a realm of revolutionary possibility was explored by Guy Debord and the Situationist International group, though by comparison, Tanaka’s aims are noticeably less radical. Whether this is owing to the apathetic atmosphere of Japan’s economic doldrums or the artist’s understated approach, it is only recently that his work has taken on what might be described as a political dimension, as he has begun to make tentative moves toward direct action as opposed to remaining solely in the realm of potentiality. In Tanaka’s latest works, the artist has gone out on a limb to not only illustrate what could be, but also put forth his own ideas of what should be.
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. This relocation came at an opportune time in the artist’s development, as there appears to be a growing impatience and latent frustration toward the domestic Japanese art scene in the works he made during 2008 and 2009. 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.
Simple Gesture and Temporary Sculpture consists of a series of short clips, primarily shot with a stop-motion effect, in which the artist, somewhat comically, appears hurried or rushed as he completes a number of tasks. These include domestic undertakings such as pulling off a mismatched pair of socks using only his feet or quickly unwinding a roll of toilet paper onto the floor. Other scenes take place outdoors in a parking lot, rice field and riverside—in the last location the artist carefully stacks several loaves of bread only to have the wind blow them away. By comparison, Walk Through, test no. 1 is an unedited single-take in which the artist makes his way through a series of curbside obstacles—a chair, tin buckets, packing tape, a cardboard box, a traffic cone and Styrofoam—on the way to his apartment. Whereas interactions with similar materials seemed effortless in earlier works, Tanaka’s responses now appear forced as he topples over the chair and snaps the Styrofoam over the traffic cone. Here, Tanaka’s hallmark playfulness is replaced with impatience as the artist appears almost inconvenienced by the exercise.
This growing sense of frustration comes to a head in the 55-minute-long Walking Through. Shot in one continuous take, this work is an improvised performance in which the artist spontaneously interacts with an empty lot full of household items. While the layout of the objects is prearranged, Tanaka paces back and forth across the yard reacting to his surroundings with little indication of prior choreography or forethought. The tone of the piece is set early on as the artist kicks a rug and smashes a gourd, followed by breaking, trampling and otherwise destroying the objects at hand. The level of restlessness in this work is uncharacteristic for Tanaka, and may represent a creative impasse the artist faced in Tokyo. As Tanaka admitted in 2011, “In Tokyo, I felt pressured to react to the local art scene. Tokyo is nice, but I felt trapped as an artist. Here [in Los Angeles], I am a completely free bird.” In Walking Through, Tanaka retreads old ground like a captive biding his time while he plans his escape. Actions that were previously whimsical and eye-opening now appear futile as we watch Tanaka play out this line of object-based inquiry to its conclusion in real time.
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. Tanaka is unconcerned with the participants’ success or failure in completing the task at hand and instead focuses attention on the process itself. Discussing his new approach in a 2012 interview with the Art iT website, Tanaka explained, “I put myself in the position of observing a kind of experiment. After creating the special situation, I left everything to the participants. Even the decisions over when to take a break, or even the possibility of stopping the filming midway, I left up to them. I was willing to accept whatever happened there.” These open-ended situations were a stark contrast to the self-contained works for which Tanaka had previously been known. It seems that in his new home in Los Angeles, far from the rigid constructs of Japan’s regimented society, the artist opened himself and his work up to chance by distancing himself from an active role in the creative process. It is only after the fact, in the process of editing the raw footage into a final video, that the work begins to take shape for the artist himself.
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. The stylists begin by consulting as a group with the model, who requests a style that “evokes the idea of a futuristic news anchor, who might be part android.” The stylists then confer for about ten minutes to devise a plan, breaking down the haircut into different sections that each stylist will tackle. What would normally be a one-on-one, intuitive creative process between a stylist and a client quickly becomes a roundtable negotiation. There are natural leaders who emerge within the group to vocalize their opinions while some are more timid, and others remain completely silent. Once the haircut begins, the stylists consult with each other in real time. Sometimes they take turns, at other times three or four work simultaneously. An air of tension and competition pervades the salon as each stylist tries to leave their mark, only to be outdone by the next. The work progresses as a study in behavioral psychology, with the “weaker” stylists often looking to others for reassurance of their work. At one point a younger female stylist confides to the model that she is “terrified,” revealing her lack of self-confidence at being thrust into this group dynamic.
As Tanaka points out in the Art iT interview: “In removing someone from their routine situation and putting them into an extreme environment, you can actually highlight the routine behavior.” 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.
A Haircut by 9 Hairdressers at Once (second attempt) was originally exhibited in Tanaka’s first American museum show, “Nothing Related, But Something Could Be Associated” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2010. The exhibition presented a diverse range of works—video, drawing, photography, sculpture and painting—the majority of which was created during his time in the United States. Works that explored methods of public display—such as A Painting to Public (2010), in which the artist consigned a small original painting to a local thrift store and exhibited the receipt documenting the exchange—was joined by the humorous video Showing Objects to a Dog (2010), in which the artist presents sculptural objects for the aesthetic contemplation of Shadey, his neighbor’s inquisitive dog. The diversity of these works was matched by Tanaka’s ambitious exhibition design, which consisted of a multifaceted plywood structure that filled the entire gallery. The architecture was reminiscent of a Japanese domestic interior with exposed wood beams overhead and raised platforms that wrapped around the room’s perimeter. Plywood panels installed at different heights doubled as partitions and hanging surfaces that concealed some sections while revealing others as viewers navigated through the space. This maze-like installation echoed Tanaka’s 2004 exhibition “Plastic Bags, Beer, Caviar to Pigeons, etc.” at the Museum of Modern Art in Gunma, Japan, in which the artist mined the museum’s storage room for unused pedestals, wall partitions and exhibition furniture to create a disorienting labyrinth with video monitors and projected works hidden behind every turn. While the installation served as a form of institutional critique, it also functioned as a way to isolate the experience of individual works within a larger, interrelated framework.
The interest in multiple viewpoints and the possibilities they afford, as demonstrated in the Yerba Buena installation, was further examined in a group of photorealistic pencil-on-paper drawings titled,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). For this work, Tanaka used famous photographs of artworks to sketch milestones in the development of Japanese postwar art, charting an idiosyncratic course from Gutai, through Anti-Art and Non-Art of the 1960s and 1970s, Mono-ha, and, lastly, late 1970s Japanese video and photography. This constellation of images recounts an avant-garde history that includes the likes of Saburo Murakami breaking through sheets of craft paper and Koji Enokura mimicking the contour of a wave with his body, and collectives such as Hi Red Center dropping objects from a roof and Video Earth having a picnic in a public train. Many of these artists challenged the status of the art object and the role of the museum, most noticeably by leaving behind the physical and conceptual confines of the museum/gallery space in exchange for direct interventions into the public sphere. Tanaka’s own practice is deeply indebted to this art-historical lineage in its attempt to blur the line between art and everyday life. As such, these drawings function as milestones in Tanaka’s own art-historical lineage, highlighting its cultural specificity while alluding to broader conceptual-art trends that were being explored concurrently in the US, Europe and Latin America.
The Japanese Anti-Art movement of the 1960s, in which, according to historian William Marotti in a 2013 article in Artforum, “all artistic conventions and practices, from object to performance, were subject to scrutiny, experiment, and revisions in the service of a critical investigation of daily life,” mirrored the turbulent sociopolitical climate of the day. With massive protests against the renewal of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty (known as ANPO in Japan) and the escalating war in Vietnam, artists took to the streets as a form of direct action. Groups including Hi Red Center—consisting of artists Jiro Takamatsu, Genpei Akasegawa and Natsuyuki Nakanishi—activated public spaces around Tokyo such as the Yamanote train line and the posh Ginza district with events that were intended to cause “agitation.” These included performing with sculptural objets while riding on the train and staging a cleaning event prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics while wearing white lab coats. Following this example in his response to the major events of his own day, Tanaka adopted a new set of tactics in his work following the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster that ensued. This new body of work featured heavily in the 2012 Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT) annual exhibition, “Making Situations, Editing Landscapes,” and continues as the main focus of the artist’s current projects for the Japan Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
The first of Tanaka’s “post-3/11” works, Painting to the Public (open-air) was performed on the streets of Tokyo on March 24, 2012, roughly one year after the earthquake. Tanaka invited participants to join him and other artists on a walk through the Meguro area of Tokyo as they presented their paintings directly to the public. The walk symbolically began at the Meguro Museum of Art, which a year earlier had canceled its exhibition “Genbaku wo miru 1945–1970” (“Visualizing the Atomic Bomb 1945–1970”) in the immediate aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake. Walking with their paintings in hand or mounted to wooden boards like picket signs, the group of about 30 participants resembled a political protest—a connection Tanaka made explicit in his statement for the project. Conflating ideas of plein-air painting with the 1964 Anti-Art actions of artists Hiroshi Nakamura and Koichi Tateishi (known together as the Research Center for Art Tourism), Tanaka reimagines the act of presenting painting directly to the public—without the aid of electricity or artificial light—as a form of protest against the Japanese government’s sponsorship and continued use of nuclear power. Following the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors, Japanese businesses were required to reduce electricity usage by 15 percent in order to relieve stress on the country’s crippled electrical infrastructure. For ecologically conscious individuals, small changes in their daily routine to conserve electricity quickly took on a political dimension—being “green” became synonymous with an antinuclear position. In a similar fashion, Tanaka’s performance transformed the public display of painting into a form of protest, exploring painting’s newly realized subversive potential in post-3/11 Japan. While Tanaka’s tactics are similar to those of Japanese artists of the 1960s, the stakes could not be more different. Unlike the immediate threat of ANPO’s renewal and the war in Vietnam, the effects of nuclear fallout from the Fukushima disaster are not likely to be known for decades to come.
Tanaka has labeled subsequent projects in this vein as Precarious Tasks, reflecting the ongoing uncertainty of the reconstruction efforts and the unfolding nuclear crisis. These projects, while organized under the banner of the 2012 MOT annual exhibition, have all taken place off-site at the blanClass alternative art space/classroom in Yokohama. These Precarious Tasks—among them,Swinging a flashlight while we walk at night; Talking about your name while eating emergency food; Sharing dreams with others and then make a collective story—all had in common oblique references to the post-disaster situation and involved collaborative activities. Participants were encouraged to come together as a group and share about themselves as part of these events. For Tanaka, this openness is representative of a shift in Japanese society following the disaster on March 11. In his statement for the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Tanaka observes how, in Japan today, “the most casual of actions have a completely different meaning depending on whether they occurred before or after that day.” In the uncertain state that Japan finds itself today, everyday decisions have taken on political significance—from drinking bottled versus tap water, or taking the stairs versus riding an elevator. One of the video works for the Venice Pavilion, A behavioral statement (or an unconscious protest) (2013)—a choreographed event featuring two groups of office workers, one ascending, the other descending an emergency staircase outside the Japan Foundation—points directly to this post-3/11 shift in perception.
What was once an emergency drill is now a daily routine; what was once a health-conscious choice to take the stairs is now understood as a political statement. A group of people walking the streets of Tokyo with paintings in hand is recast as an anti-nuclear power demonstration. Just as ordinary objects gave rise to moments of epiphany, as in Tanaka’s early works, so too can collaboration in the most mundane of situations give rise to direct action. Now more than ever, when maintaining the status quo results in dangerous misinformation and inaction, it is imperative that we explore alternative ways of activating and empowering daily life and of perceiving the world around us as never before. As Koki Tanaka reminds us, the possibilities are endless.