A Personal History
Koki Tanaka’s View of the Japanese Avant-Garde

In his exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Koki Tanaka presents a series of drawings that show important works of the post-war Japanese avant-garde. In tracing the footsteps of the “Artist of the Year,” Achim Drucks discovers historical positions whose joy in experimentation and radicalism is still as remarkable as ever.
July 20, 1969: The Space Race had just been won. All around the world, more than half a billion television viewers watched as the Eagle lunar module landed at its destination and the American Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon. That same day a far more modest vehicle was also set in motion when a raft made of white Styrofoam blocks began its journey up the Uji River from Kyoto to Osaka. Printed in red letters on the makeshift construction were the words “the PLAY,” the name of the artist’s group behind the action that sought to make a statement against worshipping technology, territorial expansion, and an individualized lifestyle. “the PLAY” preferred to realize their joint actions in outdoor space, and viewers were welcome to join in. Whatever remnants the performances left behind were destroyed afterwards; this was a form of “anti-art” that was opposed to commercial structures. “I don’t want to make an object as such any longer,” said Keiichi Ikemizu, one of the group’s most important members. “What concerns me now is the experience of the subject of an act and its viewer.”

It’s an approach that “the Play” shares with Koki Tanaka, whose participatory projects also call upon those involved to try out new forms of community and collaboration. Hence, it’s in keeping with this that Tanaka selected this action by “the PLAY” for his series of pencil drawings in which he depicts milestones in the Japanese avant-garde. “In the past I was often shown images of post-war Japanese contemporary art by foreign curators and asked how they relate to my practice,” Tanaka explains. Although he’d never before thought about the connection between his work and his Japanese identity, these questions became an opportunity to explore the recent art history of his native country more closely.

While drawing certain works and events in post-war Japanese art, Tanaka also found connections to his own work: “In essence, this was an act of reconstructing my own personal art history.” This also comes to expression in the title of his series: 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.

In his version of history, Tanaka chiefly focuses on positions that radically broadened art’s boundaries and frequently embodied socially critical approaches. For the exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, he expanded what was originally a 13-part series by another 11 drawings. The artists he honors in the series worked in an interdisciplinary manner, investigated the departure from the image, and unsettled their audiences with their actions and happenings, transforming passive viewers into active participants. Despite exhibitions such as Tokyo 1955–1970. A New Avant-Garde at the MoMA or Gutai: Splendid Playground at the New York Guggenheim, the wider Western public is still largely unaware of just how pioneering many of the Japanese artists of that time actually were.  

Thus, Tanaka borrowed his bicycle motif from the 1956 film Ginrin (Bicycle in Dream), whose pictorial language and color effects anticipated the psychedelic aesthetic of the 1960s. Responsible for the animation was none less than Tsuburaya Eiji—the man behind the special effects in Godzilla. Ginrin is a work by the first artists’ collective to form in Japan following World War II, and Jikken Kobo was exactly what its name means—an experimental workshop. Artists, composers, and stage designers worked here with filmmakers, choreographers, and actors. Beginning in 1951, they developed multimedia events that incorporated brand new technologies such as cassette recorders and slide projectors. The group cooperated with partners such as Sony and the Japanese bicycle industry, for which they produced Ginrin. Their repertoire included photographs, installations, concerts, performances, and ballets. Their approach is also interesting for present-day performance artists such as Ei Arakawa, who did an exhibition  project and an experimental workshop on Jikken Kobo in 2011 in the framework of Globe, the art program accompanying the reopening of the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt.

As in Germany, the Second World War left behind a desire for a fundamentally new beginning in culture in Japan. While it was the ZERO and Fluxus groups that stood for this in Europe, in Japan, along with Jikken Kobo, it was chiefly the artists’ group Gutai. “Do not ever imitate others! Do something that has never existed!” demanded its founder Jiro Yoshihara, an abstract painter and cooking oil manufacturer. The group was well ahead of its time and viewed painting as a performance. Thus, a number of paintings were made with the help of a remote-controlled toy car that spread the paint around the canvas. Alan Kaprow, the “father of the happening,” confirmed that the group staged the very first happening in Tokyo in 1955. During a Gutai action, Saburo Murakami poked holes in a series of picture frames stretched with brown wrapping paper. It was meant as an act of revolt that his two-year-old son allegedly inspired him to do. He’d sent the boy out of the room in punishment, and the boy, in his anger, destroyed a fusuma, one of the traditional paper walls in the artist’s apartment. Koki Tanaka has drawn the iconic photograph in which Saburo Murakami punches through the last sheet of paper.

The 1960s were also a time of rapid economic recovery in Japan. The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka were supposed to symbolize the country’s rebirth. But the decade began with widespread protests against the cooperation and security treaty between Japan and the US. At the climax of the demonstrations and street battles, radical students went so far as to storm the Parliament on May 20, 1960. As a result of these riots, social life became more and more strictly regulated by the state, while artists reacted with subversive happenings in public space.

In the time leading up to the Olympics, Tokyo wanted to present itself as a modern metropolis to the rest of the world. For this reason, its citizens were asked to stop spitting on the sidewalks. In response to this, the artists’ group Hi Red Center initiated its ironic Cleaning Action. Equipped with white lab coats, respirator masks, brooms, and toothbrushes, and under the astonished eyes of passers-by, they scrubbed a busy street in the shopping district of Ginza. Other actions performed by Hi Red Center took place in the subway or on the roof of an Ikebana school, from which they shook out the contents of a suitcase for their Dropping Event (1964). Koki Tanaka drew from the photographs of these actions, as well as from a newspaper image from the trial against a member of the Hi Red Center. The “One Thousand-Yen Note Trial” revolved around the absurd allegation that Genpei Akasegawa was a counterfeiter. The artist had, indeed, begun making photocopies of the 1,000-yen bill in 1963, but they were one-sided copies that he used for exhibition invitations. Yet this did not prevent the court from sentencing him to probation. He appealed twice, but the sentence was upheld by the Tokyo Supreme Court.

In his series, Koki Tanaka also depicts “quieter” conceptual works by Yoko Ono and On Kawara, or a photograph of Koji Enokura’s poetic action Symptom–Sea–Body (1972), for which the artist imitated the form of a wave on the beach with his own body. Enokura was one of the most important members of the Mono-ha group, which became known for its ephemeral installations using materials such as steel plates, light bulbs, leather, oil, and water. On the other hand, Tanaka took the motif of two lovers walking through the empty streets of Tokyo from an experimental film by Nagisa Oshima: Diary of a Shinjuku Thief reflects the confusion and frustration of the younger generation of late-1960s Japan.

One of the actions from the time even inspired Tanaka to make a work of his own. In 1964, Hiroshi Nakamura and Koichi Tateishi carried their large-format paintings through the crowded street in front of Tokyo’s main train station. In one of his first actions following the nuclear reactor catastrophe at Fukushima, Tanaka picked up on this idea of a “Walking Open Air Gallery.” In Painting to the Public (open-air), Tanaka invited people to walk with him through the streets of Tokyo and present their own paintings. The fact that the canvases resembled picket signs was part of the plan. Tanaka used this form of presenting art that has no need of electricity to protest against the continued dependence on nuclear energy.

Tanaka’s drawings, which can now be seen in his comprehensive exhibition in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, reflect on the relationship between his own work to the early Japanese avant-garde movements. He is mainly interested in making the spirit that comes to expression in these works useful to our situation today—the radicalness with which these artists liberated themselves from conventions, and the utopia of a concerted collaboration, both in art and in society. At the same time, they show moments in a chapter of art history in which there is still much to be discovered.

Koki Tanaka
Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” 2015

3/26 – 5/25/2015
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin