Koki Tanaka

Aoyama | Meguro

Koki Tanaka is part of the generation of Japanese artists who emerged in the early 2000s. Responding to the economic recession and limited opportunities of the time, they turned to everyday life for moments of perceptual awakening. Using banal things in a playful way and documenting, by video, the isolated surfaces and movements of objects, Tanaka disrupts conventional relations between objects, treating them as “mere things” released from any utilitarian function or human intent and thereby evading prescribed ways of seeing the actual world. His early video works mainly feature the effects of human dealings with things—actions as simple as filling a plastic bag with helium and letting it fly into the sky—but present these movements as automatic, as if things moved with their own volition. The geometrical patterns created by the traces of the moving images reveal the hidden link between apparently far-fetched phenomena.

Tanaka’s recent solo show, “Simple Gesture and Temporary Sculpture,” demonstrated the results of his progress toward performance, which has become a clear direction in his work since 2006. The show consisted of a table filled with everyday materials such as ropes, clay, and chopsticks, humorously transformed through Tanaka’s actions, and a video installation, Walk Through, Test no. 1, 2008, compiling various performances made in such places as Yokohama, Seoul, and the Tochigi prefecture. Tanaka’s “temporary sculptures” are the outcome of simple actions resembling children’s games; the artist often combines materials that possess opposing attributes, stabbing soft clay with chopsticks, for instance. Detaching commodities from their practical use and creating new, useless objects reveals the beauty hidden in quotidian things—like a small round wire net, made of stainless steel and typically used for baking fish, here with paper clips hanging from the wire to emphasize the gracefulness of a full circle and the formal qualities of the color silver.

Tanaka’s performances are likewise sustained by the simple fulfillment of small tasks. The video series “Approach to an Old House,” 2008, which documents his spontaneous actions made on specific sites, includes such actions as climbing up a mountain of piled red plastic chairs to enter a house by the window of the second floor; pulling a vivid purple curtain down to the floor; and pulling a string to overturn yellow plastic cases of beer, scattering empty bottles on the floor. In Walk Through, Test no. 1, 2009, the artist progresses through an obstacle course of an orange safety cone, a shopping basket, plastic cups, and a cardboard box, each time producing an explosive sound that intensifies the impact of the disruptive encounter. Tanaka’s actions display a sharpness and formal precision that make his movements resemble a ritual or dance.

The artist’s use of simple tasks to induce spontaneous but concentrated movements has a structural affinity with Minimalist dance, evoking the early work of Trisha Brown. Massive fields of color created by repeating similar forms or scattering fragments on the ground increase the tactile impact of Tanaka’s visuals, turning the video image into something as solid as a sculpture. Like his precursors, the artists of Mono-ha and Arte Povera as well as Minimalism, Tanaka elicits effects of physical impact and formal beauty from random and quotidian materials, but he adds to this endeavor a lightness and humor characteristic of his own generation.

Midori Matsui