Koki Tanaka, Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie), 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 78 minutes.

Koki Tanaka, Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie), 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 78 minutes.

Koki Tanaka

Trade disputes in 2019 between South Korea and its former colonial ruler accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of further intensifying the already anguished relations between the two nations. Following the Japanese government’s decision to limit the export to South Korea of chemicals necessary for the production of semiconductors, sales of Japanese products in South Korea and the number of commercial flights to Japan plummeted. Such heated responses are well-precedented—colonial history still looms large in the public consciousness, for instance with respect to the ongoing clashes on the subject of “comfort women.” These deeply emotional reactions, however, too often call on the dangerous rhetoric of xenophobia and racism. Koki Tanaka attempted to parse such themes in Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie), 2019. Exhibited in an eponymous show at the Art Sonje Center after its initial presentation at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich, the eight-channel video installation introduces the history of Zainichi Koreans—descendants of Koreans who relocated to Japan before and during the colonial period and afterward, in the postwar era—in hope of positing ways to live together despite the still-open wounds.

“Vulnerable Histories” consists of five single-channel video chapters, plus a single-channel epilogue and a two-channel appendix, some shown on monitors and some projected. Together, the chapters form a “road movie” with two characters—Woohi, a third-generation Zainichi Korean, and Christian, a Swiss American whose mother is a second-generation Japanese American—in the vein of Richard Linklater’s romantic drama Before Sunrise (1995). The film reiterates that the personal is indeed political. Although the minutiae of their family histories differ, Woohi and Christian are a haunting reminder that the legacies of colonization in East Asia and racial discrimination in the US have always been interwoven.

On entering, the spectator encountered not the first but rather the third chapter, in which the protagonists visit parks in the eastern part of Kawasaki, Japan, where many Zainichi Koreans live and where a series of anti-Korean protests unfolded in the recent past. Roaming through the parks, Woohi and Christian recite legislative orders and plans of action against racism developed by Japan and the United Nations, respectively, their soft voices echoing in sharp relief against the militant outcries in the footage of the protests. Next, after passing through wooden partitions bearing enlarged stills from the video, the viewer entered a semidark space housing a projection of the fifth chapter, “Night.” There, in a rare moment of tenderness, Woohi bursts into tears as she discloses the ways in which she was forced to negate herself. “I hated myself,” she enunciates calmly, revealing that shame and self-denial are all too familiar for Zainichi Koreans.

In Vulnerable Histories, Tanaka resists the urge to craft an essay film that seeks to inform. He uses the camera as an apparatus to record and convey the series of meetings and encounters, ranging from lectures on the history of Zainichi Koreans to conversations with a historian, that he organized for the production of the film. His focus, however, remains on the ways in which the past continues to shape the lives of Woohi and Christian. The exhibition at the Art Sonje Center, for instance, was supposed to feature a newly commissioned chapter that would have seen Woohi visiting historically charged sites in South Korea—a country whose history is shrouded in ideology, especially for someone like Woohi, who in Japan was educated in both South Korean and North Korean schools as her ancestral nation split apart years after the initial wave of immigrants moved to Japan. Although the Covid-19 pandemic prevented this piece from being made, the conceptual architecture of the unrealized work signals that for Tanaka, the task of living together lies beyond the confines of the white cube.