Suddenly Everything Is Different
Koki Tanaka at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

Nothing is more exciting than life. In his actions, Koki Tanaka investigates the possibilities and impossibilities of collective accomplishment. As the “Artist of the Year” 2015, he has turned the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle into a “social sculpture” that would surely delight Joseph Beuys.

In August 2011, London is devastated following a peaceful demonstration. Arson, plundering, and street fighting lead to a state of emergency in the metropolis. In Koki Tanaka’s video series Going home could not be daily routine, four residents of the English capital relate how they experienced these days, when people couldn’t be sure they would make it home from work or the pub. They talk about their fears and insecurity, but also about how helpful residents in their neighborhood were. Solidarity in the face of a threatening situation could also be felt in Japan in that same year, when public life in Tokyo came to a standstill after the reactor disaster of Fukushima. What happens between people when suddenly everything is different, when things that are a matter of course are called into question at their very core? With his actions, Tanaka explores how groups behave, how people negotiate with one another, how they fail and then come together again.

Hence his first comprehensive solo exhibition in Europe is not a classic exhibition. Instead, the “Artist of the Year” 2015 transformed the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle into a mixture of installation, laboratory, and storeroom, where images, sounds, and objects amalgamate into a total work of art. “The most important thing is the process,” says the artist, who lives in Los Angeles. In keeping, he conceived the show as a seemingly improvised work in progress. There are no rigid paths visitors have to take. Placed on plywood frames stabilized with sandbags installed at a slant in the space, photographs and personal texts document Tanaka’s actions. Drawings that allude to his artistic role models and sources of inspiration and video monitors are attached to wall-filling photographic works. So there are numerous cross-links between the exhibits – the exhibition as stream of consciousness.

Sofas repeatedly invite visitors to get comfortable and take the time to watch Tanaka’s videos. It’s worth it. With baited breath, we follow the group dynamic that emerges when the artist has five ceramicists make a vessel. Or Tanaka’s attempt to sell dried palm fronds at a flea market in Los Angeles. This not only absurdly funny. The situation repeatedly gives rise to surprising, almost philosophical conversations with passers-by – on the value we ascribe to things, on art, and on the memories people have in connection with palm fronds. The subversive potential of the action is apparent at the end of the video. Tanaka’s booth unsettles an attendant so much that she asks the artist to leave the flea market with all of his worthless wares. Similarly, he undermines conventions of the art market: many of his video works can be viewed free of charge on the Internet.

From the very beginning, Tanaka was interested in developing new perspectives on everyday life. This is documented by his early videos, which he made for the Taipeh Biennal in 2006. Together with his two assistants, he shows various things one can do with pails, clothes hangers, plastic cups, brooms, and umbrellas outside of their usual use. In a playful way, they probe the new, hitherto hidden potential in things. As a reaction to the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, Tanaka’s art has become more political. Rather than experimenting with everyday objects, today he experiments with social relationships. He calls these collective actions Precarious Tasks, in which people do something together. For example, they drink tea. Each guest brings his own teabag with him, and they are all put in one teapot. But was this tea harvested after Fukushima? Could it possibly be radioactive? And what about other foods? Such anxieties still characterize Japanese life, and even a simple tea ceremony can be the starting point for critical discussions about nuclear power.

Tanaka entitled his exhibition at the KunstHalle A Vulnerable Narrator. For the artist, this narrator is anyone who takes part in his actions. The possibility of failure is always there. Still, his work is marked by a quiet optimism. “In these collaborations it’s always about trial and error,” explains Tanaka. “But even if we fail a hundred times, we can still achieve something in the end. That’s the only way we can create a better world.” It is precisely this utopian moment that gives his art its relevance – in a world that seems to be increasingly coming apart at the seams.
Achim Drucks

Koki Tanaka – A Vulnerable Narrator
Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” 2015

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

Koki Tanaka: A Vulnerable Narrator, Deferred Rhythms
10/1/2015 – 11/15/2015
Rome, Italy
Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma