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Subjects and Objects: Koki Tanaka, "A Vulnerable Narrator"

05/07/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Koki Tanaka: "A Vulnerable Narrator," Deutsche Bank "Artist of the Year" 2015 at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, installation view. © Koki Tanaka / Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Photo: Mathias Schormann.

A multi-colored umbrella slides open. A ladder, kicked, collapses to the ground. Two wire hangers, hooked by the crook, are stretched out of shape. A fluffy white pillow sitting atop a metal table is displaced by an identical fluffy white pillow. A rolled-up, bright green plastic mat is allowed to slowly unfurl. A white dinner plate is furtively flung into a bush. Six rolls of toilet paper are systematically stacked on a balcony railing. A blue doormat is matter-of-factly dropped over a sewer grate. In the video installation Everything is Everything (2006) by Koki Tanaka, seemingly random objects are subjected to seemingly random actions. In another video, Walking Through (2009), the same unremarkable objects reappear, but are this time dispersed throughout an empty back lot. In a continuous shot, we follow Tanaka, as he plods through the field, acting with mysterious motivations upon the objects in turn -- pouring shampoo into a blue plastic sieve, for instance, or sliding a stockpot off a wooden plank. Some of the actions are violent -- he smashes out the panes of a window with a wooden stool, breaks all the shelves in a cheap bookcase -- but undertaken with an ennui reserved for banal but frustrating workaday tasks.

Koki Tanaka, Everything is Everything, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

The character of the two videos could not be more different. If Everything is Everything was categorized linguistically, its sentences would be passive: the object is subject to an action (verb). The objects themselves are unremarkable, cheap, disposable items; the actions creative or idle "misuses" of the objects in question. What we might otherwise call the subject -- the person or thing doing the flinging, the stretching, the stacking, the kicking -- is suppressed, unknown or unimportant, indicated only by the hands, and sometimes feet, that manipulate the objects. Each action is a short, jaunty sentence, with playful, quick edits. Walking Through, on the other hand, is one epic, run-on sentence: a 55-minute-long durational performance, where a single subject finds himself beleaguered by a sea of objects, and performs a seemingly unending series of hollow actions. As Gabriel Ritter suggests in ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, "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."

Koki Tanaka: "A Vulnerable Narrator," Deutsche Bank "Artist of the Year" 2015 at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, installation view. © Koki Tanaka / Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Photo: Mathias Schormann.

A semiotic approach to Tanaka's work might not yield the most nuanced of interpretations, but examining these subject/object relations does offer some insight into the artist's line of inquiry. Tanaka's work shifts dramatically in the works to come, as he turns to focus on what might be oppositionally termed a "subject-based inquiry," crafting complex situations rather than simple actions. At Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin, Koki Tanaka's solo exhibition "Vulnerable Narrator," on view until May 25, is arranged as "a laboratory of sorts," where one might encounter Tanaka's work as a series of experiments. A series of wooden dividers, held in place by sandbags, break up the space, and large sheets of brown paper affixed to them offer the artist's hypotheses by the way of explanatory texts, with videos, photographs and drawings presented as overlapping layers of "evidence" or documentation.

Koki Tanaka, A Pottery Produced by 5 Potters at Once (Silent Attempt), 2013. Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou and Pavilion, Beijing.

A series of collaborative works Tanaka created between 2010 and 2013 function as the artist's further experiments in subject/object relations, where multiple subjects are invited to collaborate on one object and one action: nine hairdressers cutting one person's hair; five pianists playing one piano; five poets collaborating on one poem; five potters molding a single pot. Tanaka's role becomes that of instigator and observer: he provides the parameters of the situation, but lets events unfold according to the actions and feelings of the participants. By multiplying the subjects, these experiments yield a "microsociety": leaders emerge, tempers are tested, but negotiation and compromise contribute to the consensus essential to perform the task. "Let's give it a try," says one of the potters. "We need your hands as well," another encourages, as ten hands at once anxiously start towards the beginnings of a clay pot. As the task proceeds, conversation blooms, subtle rivalries flare and the pot grows little by little, each potter attempting to insert their own style. They discard the first attempt.

Koki Tanaka, Someone's Junk is Someone Else's Treasure, January 9, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, The Box, Los Angeles.

In these multiple-subject collaborative projects, the participants were chosen by the artist to work together. But another line of inquiry in Tanaka's work involves the wider public, questioning the art object's status beyond the constructs of the art institution. In 2011, Tanaka rented a space in a Los Angeles flea market, intent on offering "the most worthless thing possible" for sale. The objects in this instance -- palm fronds -- remain inert, simply displayed on some moving blankets on the ground, while the exchange occurs between the artist-subject and the active public. Insults, laughter, discussions and stories result between the artist and his encounter with the variables of the public realm.

Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks #7: Try to Keep Conscious about a Specific Social Issue, in This Case "Anti- Nuke," as Long as Possible while You are Wearing Yellow Color, August 30, 2013. Courtesy of the artist, Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo.

Tanaka's social experiments became more urgent following the events of March 2011, with the great earthquake, tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Entitled Precarious Tasks, these collective actions invested simple actions with political import, sometimes evoking post-disaster scenarios. One project asked participants to swing flashlights while walking in the dark, another prompted participants to drink a communal pot of tea assembled from various sources (post-2011 tea leaves carry the threat of radioactive contamination). As the artist explains, after disaster struck, "the background to our casual behaviors" took on a political dimension: the simple act of using the stairs, for instance, rather than an elevator or escalator becomes "a stand against relying on electricity -- that is, nuclear power."

"Koki Tanaka: A Vulnerable Narrator," Deutsche Bank "Artist of the Year" 2015 at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, installation view. © Koki Tanaka / Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Photo: Mathias Schormann.

The potential for everyday life actions to become acts of political protest adds a layer of significance to Tanaka's situational experiments. These works slough off their former playful randomness and arbitrariness, revealing our everyday interactions and actions to hold matters of much deeper import and consequence.

Koki Tanaka, 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, Hi-Red-Center, "Dropping Event,"1964, 2010. Private Collection, Japan. Courtesy of the artist.

Koki Tanaka is Deutsche Bank's 2015 "Artist of the Year," and his exhibition "Koki Tanaka: A Vulnerable Narrator" continues at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle until May 25, 2015. The exhibition will travel to MACRO - Museo d'arte contemporanea Roma, where it opens September 30, 2015.

--Natalie Hegert