Koki Tanaka is Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year, an award that favors artists “who connect their aesthetic concerns to social issues,” a fitting description of Tanaka’s work. “A Vulnerable Narrator” includes numerous realized, failed, and unrealized projects from the past decade. Each project starts with writing, and the texts on craft paper pasted on the walls include conceptual proposals and research documents that look like carefully completed assignments. Video documentation of the projects constitutes the main body of the exhibition. Props used in the projects are piled around the videos, material residue of events that have already taken place using the most ordinary everyday objects.
Contemporary art over the past decade has tended towards activism. But unlike most politically active artists, Tanaka interprets “activism” literally and profoundly: to take action—to actualize. If the flea market is a place to buy junk, his answer is to sell junk and turn it into work. Tanaka takes these things barely worth mentioning and turns them into art. In Someone’s Junk is Someone Else’s Treasure, he sells fallen palm fronds, that most common detritus, at a flea market.
A Pottery Produced by Five Potters at Once and A Piano Played by Five Pianists at Once, both included in the exhibition, belong to the same series as A Poem Written by Five Poets at Once and A Haircut by Nine Hairdressers at Once. In these projects Tanaka explores collaboration through the study of temporarily established communities, reflecting on a tradition of collectivism that is easy to accommodate and then discard. Viewers see that the participants think about the distribution of labor and taking turns, and sometimes complain. Harmony and contradiction are two sides of the same coin, filling ordinary work and dialogue with tension.
Koki Tanaka treats national history and trivial subjects in the same way: he sees little in much, and much in little. He discovered that the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art was once a basketball court for the American army, as well as the venue for an important Gutai exhibition. He decided to recreate both events at the same time and place, allowing their histories to overlap. In a video titled Take some plastic cups and just fall it down many times until all the cups standing up, Tanaka takes advantage of the medium’s power to recreate accidents. Viewers see that every time a plastic cup is tossed, it “accidentally” stands up upside down. “When an incident occurs that we think can only happen once, we call it an accident. But if we suppose that no incident in this world is ever repeated, then all moments, all incidents, are accidents.” These two works, though unrelated, echo one another in their own way.
Much is shared between Tanaka’s art and life, making him an oddity among artists. The knowledge that catastrophes shake human civilizationmakes it beyond apparent that life itself is politics. This is why Tanaka has frequently come into view after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. What is art in the face of life? What is life in the face of catastrophe? What can an artist do? When a solid structure can vanish at any time, what remains? Tanaka’s exhibition title delivers an answer: stay subtle, stay sensitive, stay vulnerable.
Text by Zhang Hanlu
Translated by Yao Wu