Toward the end of Koki Tanaka’s video A Pottery Produced by Five Potters at Once (Silent Attempt) (2013), one of the participants in the exercise, a grizzled, middle-aged man, begins to despair at the hopelessness of the project. Five or six hours have passed since they started, and he is increasingly depressed with the results. Despite his peers’ entreaties for him to try making one last pot, he morosely puffs away on his cigarette, the screen fades to black and the video ends.
This is by far the most Beckettian of the Japanese artist’s series of projects in which he asks participants to collaborate on absurd creative tasks while being filmed. But it also reflects the underlying rigours of the whimsical, utopian set-up. Although there are occasional breaks in the action, the potter’s wheel around which the people and cameras circulate exerts a powerful centrifugal pull. This is relentless, close-quarters filmmaking; to the extent that Tanaka’s projects are about collaboration, they are also studies of conflict, dissent, hierarchy, agreement and withdrawal.
A Pottery ... was shot in China, so it’s tempting to read the participants’ concerns about stability and safety (ostensibly directed toward the pots they are making) as a reflection of the anxieties of living in an authoritarian state. But it’s not such a leap to see the work as an allegory for all manner of social or political situations requiring mutual cooperation and self-sacrifice, from the attenuated drama of the Greek bailout talks to the routine strains of familial or corporate relations.
To date, Tanaka – whose interest in observing collaborative processes was sparked by his experience at Palais de Tokyo’s residency programme in 2006, where the artists worked together on a project that was plagued with dysfunction – has made five such projects: two involving hairdressers; one with pianists; one with poets; and the one with the potters. Although the collaborators in each project share the same vocations, they come from different backgrounds (contemporary pottery, traditional pottery, amateur pottery) and they must negotiate their competing formal languages. Tanaka gives his participants a simple instruction and then leaves them to decide the method of execution, how far to push the work and when to stop. He stands on the sidelines while the cameramen, who more or less direct their own cinematography, document the proceedings. Tanaka then edits the footage into a video that might run between 30 and 75 minutes.
Yet the structural similarities among the projects belie the diversity of their results. A Haircut by Nine Hairdressers at Once (Second Attempt), shot in San Francisco in 2010, is outwardly more comedic in tone: there’s a gregarious, multi-ethnic mix of participants, there’s wine and pizza and, in the end, everyone wants to make the model look and feel good. But, in such a large group, certain people necessarily take on central roles, while others are marginalized, and the model – or her hair, really – becomes the proxy around which those tensions revolve.
Strangely, A Poem Written by Five Poets at Once (First Attempt) (2013), which was filmed at the Japan Foundation headquarters in Tokyo, reminds me of classic disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), in which a miscellaneous group of survivors overcome impossible odds through teamwork, ingenuity and, above all, good leadership. In Tanaka’s video, the Gene Hackman stand-in is a senior poet, with a shock of white hair, spectacles and goatee, who exudes a natural charisma and authority. He gently guides the group toward an admirable conclusion – they come up with genuinely creative poems – but his perhaps unintentional domination of the proceedings can also be viewed as a reflection of Japan’s ageist, patriarchal social structure.
Despite my cynical reading, these projects are utopian in intent. Turning collaborative creative activities into a metaphor for latter-day social sculpture, Tanaka truly seeks to understand the possibilities for the democratic organization of society. Like most of his other videos, these films are all posted online for anyone to watch, but are probably most familiar to international audiences from Tanaka’s project for the Japan Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, where he presented the videos in a chaotic installation that was built out of the remnantsof the previous year’s architecture exhibition. Entitled ‘Abstract Speaking – Sharing Uncertainty and Collective Acts’, Tanaka’s pavilion was a response to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident of 11 March 2011, which he observed from Los Angeles, where he has been based since 2009. In the pavilion, works like A Poem ... and A Pottery ... provided a means to both reflect upon and universalize issues in Japan’s post-disaster society – from the immediate experiences of the survivors to the political struggle over the continued use of nuclear energy. Alongside the videos, for example, Tanaka displayed documentation of collective activities he organized in Japan and elsewhere, beginning in 2012. Called ‘Precarious Tasks’, these events, sometimes comprising no more than a handful of participants, sometimes upwards of 40, approximate the odd mix of routine and contingency that can arise in emergency situations: ‘talking about your name while eating emergency food’ or ‘walk from a city centre to its suburbs’ or ‘going up to a city building taller than 16.7 m’. And, at a time when many people in Japan were questioning the efficacy of art in relation to the disaster, the remnants of the architecture exhibit, which included leftover wall texts and timber columns as well as plinths made from wood that was salt-damaged by the tsunami, hinted at possible continuities between the practical capacity of architecture and the more equivocal processes of art.
‘Abstract Speaking’ clarified the themes that have been present since the start of Tanaka’s career in the mid-2000s. In his early works, he combined deft humour with subtly deviant formal logic. He made looped videosof a basketball bouncing by itself, of a wig madly spinning in place in the air and of a can of Coca-Cola tipped on its side, spilling an endless stream of amber fluid over the edge of a table. Soon, disembodied human actors began to appear in the videos. Everything Is Everything (2006), a multi-channel installation with short clips spread across eight monitors, finds Tanaka and a group of collaborators doing unusual things to functional objects: tipping an air mattress down a flight of stairs, kicking over a step ladder, throwing large plastic ladles at a metal shutter, crumpling up a row of disposable cups; the original installation at the Taipei Biennial presented the objects alongside the monitors, as though inviting visitors to pick them up and try them out.
This body of work culminated in 2009’s Walking Through, shot in Guangzhou, in which the camera follows Tanaka as he paces an empty lot filled with construction supplies, household goods and other items, and spontaneously responds to the things that cross his path, evoking a more destructive version of Fischli/Weiss’s The Way Things Go (1987). Documented through moving images, these works are rooted in sculptural considerations, but they also propose new ways of seeing and interacting with the world. It is no coincidence that many of Tanaka’s titles read like instruction pieces, in evident homage to conceptual artworks by Yoko Ono or even Lawrence Weiner.
Although he consistently returns to video, Tanaka also employs photography, drawing and text, on the basis of their suitability for his chosen idea. Similarly, he often reconstitutes his works for individual exhibitions. ‘A Vulnerable Narrator’, for example, shown earlier this year at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin, was something of a mid-career survey in content but, in realization, more akin to a single, all-encompassing work. Using partitions, shelving and other obstructions, Tanaka sculpted the gallery space into a maze-like terrain in which his drawings were superimposed on billboard-sized photographs, videos were juxtaposed in dynamic combinations, and objects from pillows to palm fronds spilled over from the realm of images into the clutter of reality underfoot.
In the survey of Japanese contemporary art she curated for the Contemporary Art Gallery at Art Tower Mito in 2007, ‘The Door into Summer: The Age of Micropop’ (which included Tanaka’s work), the critic Midori Matsui identified a ‘micropolitics’ that she felt particular artists were using to resist totalitarian pressures, through the construction of individual worlds made of ‘minor materials’, like everyday objects and pieces of scrap paper. Matsui’s broader analysis still feels relevant, but Tanaka’s practice since the 11 March disaster suggests an alternate interpretation of her concept of ‘micropolitics’. It attempts to move beyond isolated resistance to dominant forces, using small groups or temporary communities. When the weekly protests in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and the mass rallies in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park cannot change government policy on nuclear energy or the re-assessment of the ‘peace clause’, small-scale events like Precarious Tasks #7: Try to Keep Conscious about a Specific Social Issue, in This Case ‘Anti-Nuke’, for as Long as Possible while You Are Wearing the Colour Yellow (2013), held over the course of a day at Aoyama | Meguro Gallery in Tokyo, would initially appear to be ineffectual as political actions. But, for a baseline figure of what a politically effective assembly can look like, we need only recall that when Burmese authorities wanted to pacify civil unrest during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, they started by banning gatherings of five or more people.
There is a history of political art in post-Meiji Restoration Japan, but the prevailing attitude throughout has generally been that artists should stick to making art. Even artists engaging in anarchic activities, like the Gutai Art Association, have tended to downplay their political intentions. But, as a space for contemplation or exercising consciousness, art is a necessarily alternate dimension. By transferring the focus of contemplation from objects to the people who voluntarily assemble in a gallery or elsewhere, Tanaka activates the political potential inherent in that space, in a way that responds, in part, to the Japanese context, where the definition of art itself is highly contested, caught between a statist cultural agenda, corporate promotion and public indifference.
In his most recent project, Provisional Studies: Workshop #1 ‘1946–52 Occupation Era, and 1970 Between Man and Matter’ (2014), Tanaka has moved from collaborative processes to collective discourse, filming a group of 17- and 18-year-old students as they participate in a series of workshops and activities – from discussing their feelings about Japan’s potential engagement in international conflict to learning how to shoot basketballs and re-enacting a floor-wrapping piece by Christo. The activities bridged current events and the history of the site where it was filmed, the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, which was once converted into an ad-hoc basketball court by American gis, and was later the site of Christo’s installation. The camerawork takes on a sensual, airy quality, panning across the folds of canvas on the floor and the gangly bodies of the teenagers. Tanaka chose the participants based on the Imperial Japanese Army’s minimum age of conscription, and their naïve confusion about the distinctions between wars of aggression, pre-emption and defence gives the work an unsettling poignancy.
Here I should disclose that Tanaka has invited me to participate in an upcoming project at Art Tower Mito. In a recent conversation, I questioned the artist about the framing of his latest videos, in which the participants could be said to be giving up control over their representations. As much as the things they produce, like pots or poems, aren’t they being turned into models and, in that sense, objectified as material for art? In contrast, Tanaka remains in the background, but edits the material as he sees fit. Even though the works seem open-ended, determined by the collaborators themselves, isn’t he the ultimate author? He didn’t have a clear response, other than to say he was aware of the problem and thinking about it. (Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community, 1991, and Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator, 2009, are among the texts he has been reading.)
I don’t have a clear response, either. When I am in the place of the participants whose behaviour I have just been critiquing, I wonder how I will appear. Will I be insensitive, uninformed, inarticulate, overbearing? Maybe the experience is not so different from what artists feel when people write about their work. After all the talk about individual agency and difference, I am reminded that the leap of faith in being a member of a small community or a democratic society is that having a voice may entail admitting vulnerability and being willing to see things from someone else’s perspective.
Koki Tanaka is a Japanese artist based in Los Angeles, USA. His solo exhibition 'Koki Tanaka. A Vulnerable Narrator, Deferred Rhythms' will travel to MACRO, Rome, Italy, on 1 October. In February 2016, he will premiere a new project at Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito, Japan, and in April he will have a solo exhibition at The Showroom, London, UK.